On the Wednesday afternoon of spring break, I sat in the Coop Fountain staring at my laptop screen. My real spring break had started thirty seconds beforehand, when I clicked “send” on an email to my advisor containing the first draft of my independent study paper. The moment felt surprisingly anticlimactic. I shut my laptop, walked outside into the sunny spring weather that had been staring me down through the windows for the past few days, and cheerily dialed my family to chat and catch up.
Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly. I had been working intensively on the paper since Saturday morning, but also had taken a day trip on Sunday to Long Beach (which is about an hour away). The next couple days also included occasional sanity breaks for card games (my suite has recently developed a weakness for Sentinels of the Multiverse), food, and much-needed sleep. Nonetheless, I spent most of my waking hours in the first half of the week typing, making diagrams, or tapping my fingertips impatiently on my keyboard while waiting for coherent thoughts to form. It sounds pretty awful, save for the fact that this will be — no, really — the most important paper I’ve written in college so far.
Brochures and tour guides love to talk about Pomona’s low student-faculty ratio, and don’t get me wrong, that’s real! It’s especially noticeable in my wonderful home department, which graduates an average of less than 5 majors per year (quality over quantity! Looking at you, Econ, Math, and Neuro… Just kidding). To me, though, the only thing better than a small class is a self-designed class, or independent study, and what do you know! We have those too.
As I said in one of my past blog posts, my primary academic passion is music theory, and my dream is to eventually pursue graduate education and a career in academia. As a Pomona student, whether you share a similar dream or have your own, pursuing an independent study can be very important (and exciting!) for gaining skills, knowledge, and experience, not to mention building up a bare-bones undergraduate résumé.
Maybe you took a course on a specific topic last semester, and it’s done, but you’re not — you have to know more! Maybe you’re really interested in something and there isn’t a course offered on it (doubtful). Maybe you really need to take a certain course and can’t do it during the times it’s offered. There are myriad reasons why someone might want to pursue an independent study, but how does it work?
At Pomona, there are three kinds of independent study courses: directed reading, research assistantships, and independent projects. Directed readings work like a normal classroom course — exams, papers, meeting with a professor — and can be introductory-level courses, whereas independent projects are usually more student-led, requiring prerequisite coursework and some sort of cumulative creative work or research. Research assistantships consist of working with a professor, perhaps in their lab, and helping them with their research. The latter two categories also have summer research analogs through Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). You start by talking to a professor, and you fill out a proposal for your course to be submitted to the registrar. Your course (with your title and everything!!!) appears on your student portal, you arrange your regular meeting times, and you’re set!
As for my project, my advisor and faculty supervisor — Joti Rockwell — was also my professor for Music Theory III, the main class that sparked my interest in theory. In that class, I wrote a final analysis paper on tension in Chopin’s D flat nocturne that would become the seed for this semester’s larger, more in-depth project. My independent study, “Tension in 19th-century Piano Music,” incorporates more analysis, more original theory work, and a great deal more background literature. It started in December with a fusillade of article requests through Honnold-Mudd Library and will end in May with a completed final draft. For now, I brace myself for the heavy revisions to come to my fragile 45-page fledgling and reassure myself with the fact that this project will be my first contribution to my field, my venture into the deep end sans floatie-ring. And isn’t that why I’m at Pomona?