High salaries after graduation, famous professors, and well-trodden paths to being a mover and shaker: the ingredients for a popular college concentration are pretty obvious. As of December 2020, 483 students are concentrating in economics, 400 in computer science (including joint concentrators), and 245 in applied mathematics. At the other end of the spectrum, some students pursue much more specialized studies. At Harvard, a place that lives and breathes community and networking, perhaps the most countercultural thing to do is join one of the smaller concentrations.
“Applied mathematics, governance, computer science and even sociology were still not offered, not only because I was not interested, but because they are so important and very impersonal”, says CJ Passarella ‘ 23. “I think size matters, and I think I wanted community.” The two concentrations in Passarella’s joint study, Comparative Study of Religion and South Asian Studies, are quite small: including joint concentrators, Religion had fifteen students as of December 2020 and South Asian Studies, the smallest concentration at Harvard, n only had three. Although he concedes that “maybe [size] should have mattered less, because you can find that same community elsewhere,” he happily confirms that he has indeed found a strong community in South Asian Studies.
The community should not be limited to just undergraduate students. Rosalind DeLaura ’22 Praises Germanic Languages and Literatures Concentration for Being “Small Enough for People to Know Who I Was” [so that] I didn’t feel that overwhelming anonymity that one can feel elsewhere. She attributes the sense of community of her focus to those higher up the academic ladder: “I was able to take classes from the same professors throughout my time at Harvard and was able to maintain good relationships with them…they know what I’m studying, they know what interests me, they’ll send me things.Peter Horowitz ’24, another concentrator from Germany, agrees: “Teachers are incredibly involved in academic development throughout the class, in the work you do; I have never been disappointed in the feedback, or I have never been concerned that the professor was more interested in his own research or by writing a book than by helping us perform well. He and Rosalind also mention having graduate students in their classes. For those looking to meet people, small concentrations may be the way to go. .
There are obvious downsides. Horowitz mentions “the breadth of funding the department can get” and compares the German department’s third-floor portion of the Barker Center to the much larger Economics Department building. There may also be a lack of course diversity. Passarella describes South Asian Studies as “primarily a language department.” The department’s non-language courses are often listed in other departments, so, according to Passarella, the only real benefit of the concentration is the tutoring system.
Accessing these tutorials can be difficult for those unwilling or unable to fully commit to concentration. Large departments have what Horowitz describes as “the power to say no” without jeopardizing their student base. Economics does not participate in the joint mergers, despite efforts by Horowitz and others “to see if they can convince at least someone in the department to change the policy.” Small concentrations may require a large commitment without providing the best resources—or allay Horowitz’s “existential fear” of “inability to get hired after college knowing only German literature.”
However, Passarella points out that small concentrations may not be as niche as they seem. “South Asian studies, East Asian studies, Romance languages, Germanic languages… if you add up the number of people who do these things or are interested in area studies, it probably equates to another major in social sciences or humanities: not a ton of people, but in the 40s or 50s, maybe even in the 70s or 80s.” As of December 2020, the sum total of hubs in subject-focused subjects outside of the United States was 62.
Horowitz notes that his passion is not specifically for area studies, but for German. He attributes this interest to a foreign exchange as a freshman in high school in Germany and a trip to New York with the German Club during his freshman year at Harvard. DeLaura points out that “if you hadn’t had the opportunity to learn German or Russian before you got to Harvard, there is technically a way to concentrate, but it would be a bit difficult…you wouldn’t be didn’t come up thinking you were going to concentrate if you had never learned the language before. Horowitz acknowledges that his field of study is “very, very specific” and not the obvious choice for those with multiple interests: “If you are interested in Romance languages and literatures and Germanic languages and literatures, you could make a joint in both, [but] it might be better to study some sort of comparative literature course, which has a lot more concentrators. Comparative literature counts, in December 2020, 20 concentrators.
Area studies, then, could be conceptualized not as a group of concentrations, but as a larger concentration that attracts the expected interest in a humanities department and allows undergraduates to fall into clearly defined majors. Seen from this angle, declaring one of these concentrations is a real counter-cultural act. In a college filled with GroupMes, social networks and events designed to help students with similar academic interests coalesce into large groups, area studies hubs go the other way, making their interests more in addition niches to the point of three-person departments. For those who want close relationships with professors and the ability to focus on their exact area of enthusiasm, a small focus size is not a bug but a feature.
Michael Kielstra ’22 (firstname.lastname@example.org), being a math concentrator, is known to study the area.