You Have a Right to Be Interested: How to Create Your Individual Studies Course

We all want our education to feel worth it–and moreover, we all want our education to feel personally relevant. We all wish that our four (five? six?) years of post-secondary could be perfectly tailored to our interests and passions, that our studies could more accurately reflect who we are as people. But unfortunately, even with a course selection as wide as Glendon and York’s (with approximately 5,000 courses offered in total!), your courses never quite achieve that coveted level of customization.

What if I told you there was a way to study exactly what you want, no compromises or concessions necessary? What if I told you there was a way to choose your topic of study and the materials you read for the course and the sort of homework you hand in? What if I told you there was a way to actually have 100% full control over your education?

Well, there is, and it’s called Individual Studies.

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As previously mentioned, one of my classes last semester was an Individual Studies course under the supervision of Philippe Bourdin, head of the Linguistics Department, and the much-loved Maya Chacaby. I’m heading into the office this afternoon to discuss the course with Prof. Bourdin, and seeing as a) a LOT of people have asked me about how you organize an Individual Studies course and b) it’s on my mind (and on my schedule) today, I decided to write a handy-dandy guide to Glendon’s Individual Studies courses and how you can set up one of your own!

What Is an Individual Studies Course?

Essentially, it’s a build-your-own-course option. Students who choose to take an Individual Studies course work closely with a supervisor and the head of whichever department your course falls under (usually your major) to complete a research project. That research project can be based on any topic you can think of, as long as you can find a way to route it back to the academic discipline at hand. I have friends who are in graduate studies and it seems to me like Individual Studies is like a miniature graduate course–you have the same need to be specific, original, and largely self-directed.

There are a few different types/levels of Individualized Studies courses you can choose from, depending on a) how much work you want to do and b) what kind of work you want to do:

  • Individual Studies/ Directed Reading (3.00 or 6.00 credits; 3000 or 4000 course level) – You might see either ‘Individual Studies’ or ‘Directed Reading’ as the title, depending on your department, but Academic Advising assures me it’s the same course. It involves creating a syllabus for yourself including things like a reading list, coursework (projects, essays, etc.), due dates, suggested grade weights for homework, and so on. You can choose whether you want a 3- or 6-credit course, and you can also choose your year level–both of these choices serve to help you customize the amount of work you’re expected to do. If you want something that’s a little more exploratory and a little more broad in scope, I’d go with this class. (And if you plan smart, you can line it up so that the work you accomplish in your Directed Reading becomes the foundation for your Honours Thesis, thereby saving you a lot of work in the long run.)
  • Honours Thesis (6.00 credits; 4000 course level) – The more graduate-like of the Individual Studies options, the 4000-level Honours Thesis course is meant to produce one massive paper at the end of a year’s worth of researching and studying. The length of the theses varies from case to case, but I’d pin 80-100 pages as an expected average. Some majors require students to do an Honours Thesis in final year; for others it’s just an option (among the ones I know that offer the option are Linguistics, Psychology, and English). If you’re really passionate about one specific topic, and you have a lot to say about it, I’d recommend this option, as it provides you the most space to expound on your trains of thought.

Examples of Individual Studies courses:

  • A friend of mine down in the States did an Honours Thesis about the history of LGB communities in higher education in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, which brought together her loves of queer theory, local history, and education;
  • eAmbassador Juan is currently doing a Directed Readings course where half the mark comes from a research paper on public relations, leadership, and higher education (three of his major interests), and where the other half comes from helping to teach course he took (and LOVED) two years ago;
  • My own course, which involved studying a collection of Ojibwe traditional stories and making them more accessible to both Native and non-Native folks and which mingled my passions for storytelling/mythology and alternative worldviews, with a healthy dash of language revitalization thrown in there.

I wish I had more examples for you, but as far as I know, this option is sorely underused by students.

Why Do You Want One?

I’m with Juan on this one–I believe higher education is one of the hotspots of personal and social development in the world. But unfortunately, with the way Ontario’s (and indeed, Canada’s) school system is currently set up, a high percentage of students come into college/university already bored out of their gourd, bitter about the restriction of their curiosity, and resentful of learning as a concept. It’s heartbreaking, especially because it is in a human being’s nature to be intensely curious and empirical, just the sort of traits that university needs.

But an Individual Study is a chance to exercise your intellectual freedom, to take back your educational agency and to study exactly the thing that you are passionate about. (And, as we know, passion is important in study of any sort.) An Individual Study course is a way to legitimize your personal interests to yourself–to prove to yourself that what you care about has a valid place in academic society.

Does that sound like a good deal or what?

yupitsathing

The Nitty Gritty: A Guide on Crafting Individual Studies Courses

  1. The Idea. First, you need to have a topic in mind. It doesn’t need to be too specific yet–meetings with your supervisor and the head of department will help to narrow down your focus until you’ve arrived at something manageable. Stuck for ideas? I would recommend looking at past courses and finding the one or two topics in those courses that interested you the most (I had the opportunity to be exposed to indigenous food, dance, song, language, medicine, and more, but it was the mythology that I fell in love with the most, so that’s what I chose to deepen my understanding of with this course!) I would also recommend looking at your interests in life outside of school–is there some way you can take a hobby or a ‘non-academic’ passion and cross-pollinate it with an academic one to create a project?
  2. The Mentors. Next, you need to find a professor who is willing to supervise the course. Again, I’d highly recommend asking profs who you look up to/respect, seeing as this is your chance to work with them one-on-one. Don’t waste the opportunity for some prime mentorship! They should also obviously be involved in the area of study you’re thinking of–don’t ask a Drama Studies professor to supervise your Honours Thesis on Old Slavic phonology. Once you’ve found a prof willing to supervise, you should take your plans to the head of whichever department you want this course to fall under/count for. (Bonus points if your supervisor IS the head of department!)
  3. The Syllabus. The head of department will then ask you for a proposal outlining the course. Think of it like a miniature syllabus, but with extra focus on why it’s an important topic to study. As my supervisor put it, it’s now necessary to “articulate clearly the topic(s) you are going to address and what you are planning to accomplish.” My proposal was two pages long, and it included:
    a) precisely which type of course I wanted to build (3.00 credit Individual Study course for the 2015-2016 year);
    b) the course rationale, outlining the topics and their significance to the discipline in question (in this case, to Linguistics);
    c) goals and assignments, including descriptions of coursework (projects, essays, etc), tentative due dates, and suggested grade weight
    d) a Required Reading list (don’t worry too much about this–two or three things is totally sufficient. It’s more of a starting place than anything!)
  4. The Red Tape. Once your proposal is written, send it to your supervisor and the head of department for comments and suggestions. The drafting process is important, and you’ll learn some interesting lessons about, well, lesson planning! Once it’s tweaked to everyone’s satisfaction, it’s time to head to Academic Advising to get a Course Permission Form. Fill it out and bring it to your supervisor and the head of department to sign off on, and then bring it back to the folks at Academic Advising; they’ll process the form and inform you of the Catalogue Number they’ll create specifically for the course. Then you input that Catalogue Number into the Add/Drop Course service online, the same way you do for enrolling in any old course, and voilà, you’re enrolled.
  5. The Work. From here on out, it’s simple: you do you. Study and research to your heart’s content. Enjoy the sense of empowerment that comes from pursuing your interests and getting credit for it. Just remember to stay disciplined–enrolling in an Individual Studies course can be a lot like being self-employed, in that you create your own schedule. It’s a blessing and a curse if you don’t have the best time management skills. Keep sight of your responsibilities and follow through on them–I doubt it’ll be much of a struggle, considering you designed the responsibilities in the first place!

Reclaiming Our Right to Be Interested

In my four years at Glendon, I’ve heard at least fifty students proclaim how bored and disinterested they are in one class or another. No joke. Even in classes that interest us, there’s almost always one or two lectures that cover topics you just don’t have any love for. With rare exception, there are just no classes that are truly 101% fascinating to us–and this is because the material is chosen for us by a professor (who is trying to hit the sweet spot of the combined interests of 10-200 students), rather than our being allowed to cherry-pick what interests us personally.

But Glendon’s Individual Studies courses give students the opportunity to craft their own classes from the ground up. That level of agency is really exciting–and, frustratingly, a little scary after so long being in a heavily-prescribed educational system. (It’s a real wakeup call, though, when you’re given the opportunity to study whatever you want, however you want, and you realize you’ve forgotten how to be curious without someone forcing you to be. Pro tip: it can be relearned!) More than anything, it helps students to reclaim their sense of being interested in studying/learning–and, when they see that the university respects whatever topic they want to pursue as a valid topic, it fosters trust between the student and the institution, which is essential for higher education as a concept to succeed.

belle

Overall, I couldn’t have had a better time with my Individual Studies course. I learned about as much as I would have in a traditional course, but with the added benefits of a) never having a boring moment, b) feeling empowered in regards to my own time/energy/resources, and c) working closely with two professors I respect very much. I think every Glendon student (and every student in general!) should try this in their academic career, if only to remind themselves that pursuing their personal interests pays off. Recommendation? 10/10!

Got any stories of your own Individual Studies courses, or anything like them? Let me know in comments!

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