The Perks of Being a Student of the Open Curriculum

Published: October 24, 2016

Brown University is a leading Ivy League institution and the only major research university in the nation where undergraduates are the architects of their own course of study

Reads the first line on Brown University’s homepage, and it seems as if some variation of this catchy yet oddly vague statement adorns every single course syllabus and is repeated in every single official speech during convocation and graduation ceremonies. But what does this mean? What makes Brown so different (or not so different?) from other Universities all over the globe?

Unlike many University systems, especially in Europe, you do not apply to a specific course of study in the United States, instead you apply to the school itself. Most US colleges encourage their students to study a wide spread of subjects through “Distribution” or “General Education” requirements, meaning you have to take one semester of math, one semester of history, three semesters of a language etc. After this period, students will specialise in a chosen field in the form of a “major” or “concentration” and this is later what you receive your degree in (your Bachelor of Arts or Science). However Brown loves to be different, and through their famous “Open curriculum” they encourage students to explore the widest possible range of interests, and for this reason Brown has done away with distribution requirements. In addition to this any class can be taken “Satisfactory/No credit” (colloquially referred to as “Pass/Fail” or “S/Nc”), you can drop a course at any time without it showing up on your external transcript NOR will failed classes show up (our GPA’s are also self-calculated which makes it very easy to be in denial of our current standing). Now it may sound like Brown is just a playground (which may not be entirely unjustified) but the system works due to the very ambitious and high achieving nature of the student body the academic standard is kept exceptionally high, and few students exploit the perks of the Open Curriculum. Every semester starts off with a 10 day “Shopping Period” in which you try out various classes (or in my case, professors) and eventually settle on four you want to cry over in the library basement over devote the next three months of your life to.

Seeing as I am (literally) interested in everything from Chemistry, to Economics, to the Arts, the Open Curriculum is both a curse and a blessing. Every semester I shop on average 12-15 courses, have a nervous breakdown when I have to narrow it down and then I usually end up changing my concentration a few weeks in because I enjoy (or despise) a certain class so much. I’m a veteran “concentration hopper” and I have gone through roughly eight different concentrations considerations, including chemistry, psychology, English Writing to name a few, but as of this semester I have finally settled on Cognitive Neuroscience (I have a feeling this one’s a keeper). If you don’t know what that is, worry not because the field itself does not really know what it is either and in course you take in the department, the professor usually spends 2-3 lectures trying to explain what it is and justify it as a “real science!”. When I try to explain it to sceptic friends or relatives I usually just end up saying “It’s basically Neuroscience without all the difficult stuff, and a little bit of psychology.” However, the interdisciplinary nature of the field suites me very well and as it’s a relatively new field there is lots of unexplored territory and fascinating discoveries are made every year.

In the next few months I will be ranting on everything from midterms, to the mediocre social scene, to the application procedure to give you the best idea of what life is like as an international student at a US college and Brown. So be sure to keep an eye out if you want to know more about this very odd by special place that I now call home!

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