While Vassar now offers a diverse curriculum with over 1,000 courses among 30 departments, it cannot cover every conceivable topic that students may want to explore. For this reason, the college also offers an independent study program that covers reading courses, independent work, and senior independent work.
Independent study, according to the Course Catalog, is meant to give students freedom to investigate subjects of special interest to them.
Sarah Mincer ’15 is taking an anthropology course that is no longer offered at Vassar.
“Specifically, I’m studying Structure, Function and Evolution of the Human Skeleton which is a course that has been taught previously at Vassar,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
“I’m really interested in skeletons and forensic anthropology, but this course is no longer being taught. I talked to the professor who normally teaches it and she said I could take the course as if I was in her class, and to just follow along with the readings and quizzes in the syllabus.”
There are not many requirements for a BA, leaving a lot of room for students to find and take all of the courses that they are truly passionate about.
As the Vassar Course Catalog states, “It encourages students to pursue the degree through the development of a coherent program of study that recognizes, as much as possible, individual needs.”
The only prerequisite for independent study is that students must have at least one semester of appropriate intermediate work in the field of study proposed.”
Only a limited number of departments offer Independent Work as a 298 level course or Senior Independent Work as a 399 level course. Of those departments where it is offered, currently, the Anthropology Department has six students participating in Independent Study, the Biology Department has 29 students and the English Department has 35 students.
The departments ranging from Music and Women’s Studies and Religion and Political Science also offer Independent Work .
Mincer explained that, in her case, she is teaching herself the anthropology course, although she has access to as many resources as she needs.
“The Moodle site was reopened for me so I could take the online quizzes. Basically, I do a ton of reading and memorizing, and have a lot of email correspondence and in-person discussions with the professor if I have any questions,” she wrote.
Independent work can sometimes include real tests and exams. “I had a midterm before break, and I also have a final at the end of the semester, which are almost exactly like she had for the course when she taught it. They are both hands on, lab practicals where I have to name all the various parts and important markers on bones.”
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology Glenn Proudfoot works with students doing independent work in the Biology Department.
He described two projects he is overseeing this semester.
“Currently I have two students assessing the prevalence of blood parasites in Northern saw-whet owls,” he said in an emailed statement. “I introduce students to the compound microscope, walk them through cell identification, and help them identify the parasites to family.”
The research that Proudfoot has his students do in the fall carries over to the work students do during independent study in the spring. He said, “During fall semester, students are introduced to mist netting and various methods used in banding and processing birds for scientific study, e.g., determining age, assigning sex, collecting data on wing length, body mass, etc.”
“We may also work on DNA analysis this semester, determining presence/absence and identifying blood parasite with molecular methods. The work we conduct during spring semester is generated from data/samples collected during fall semester, when I usually have 6-10 students assisting with banding NSWOs [Northern Saw-whet Owls] during fall migration.”
For his independent work, Nicholas Pauley ’14 is working on a fictional piece, as well as a complementary critical essay.
Pauley wrote in an emailed statement, “I’m working on an independent project with Matt Schultz, the director of the Writing Center here at Vassar. Our course has been focused on a (once-short, now fairly long) piece of fiction that I’ve been working on since last September.”
Pauley said that, in addition to working on his own work, he and Schultz critique other contemporary authors and pieces that share relevance to it.
He hopes that the fruit of his independent work could be useful for submissions after Vassar.
“[Schultz] and I are hoping that [the critical essay] might possibly serve as a graduate school application essay if I choose to pursue graduate work in writing,” he said.
Pauley chose to do independent study instead of a senior thesis. He said, “I felt compelled to take on this project as a senior, as one of the exceptionally cool features of life at Vassar is the close access students are afforded with their instructors.”