Flexing Our Liberal-Arts Muscles: Independent Studies

Iolanthe Brooks ’15

It’s rare to hear someone from BHSEC, completely earnestly, assert that they are a real college student. Our collective mistrust of the validity of our ‘college’ experience is fair; BHSEC is very different from ‘sleep-away college’ (as some teachers call it). It is, basically, still a high school, and it’s hard to not think this as a BHSEC student. On a recent college visit, however, I was talking to two other high school seniors about our second-semester workload and casually mentioned my independent study, on French Cinema 1900 to present day, as the class I spend the most time on (hello 3-hour-long movies) and enjoy the most. They looked at me like I’d just said I was spending my semester in outer space — “what’s an independent study?” one asked, incredulously. I explained that every week I meet up one-on-one (for others independent studies can be in small groups) with a professor and follow a self-made syllabus to learn about whatever it is I want. I kid you not, the reply I got, from both people, was, “you’re not in high school, you do not go to a high school.”

Their disbelief that a high-school would allow its students to self-design and, often, self-instruct a course highlighted, to me, that BHSEC’s independent study option for Y1s and Y2s is one of the truly unique and truly collegiate opportunities we have here. Even though few people voice how thankful they are to be able to do independent studies, this option’s popularity shows how much people love it. Curious about what we’ve been up to in our unlisted classes, ones that take place in empty classrooms, in offices, sometimes in cafes, I surveyed a bunch of Y2’s about their independent studies. The results are pretty amazing, with people studying things as varied as postmodern poetry to multi-variable calculus.

There are independent studies going on right now in every field—English and humanities, language, art, math, and science—with a remarkable amount of hard-core STEM, like “Thermodynamics, Vibrations and Waves with Applications to Quantum Mechanics,” Calculus extensions (classes that go beyond the levels of calculus offered at BHSEC), including “Differential Equations” and “Multi-Variable Calculus”, and “Biodiversity and DNA Barcoding.” Alberta Devor (Y2) explains that doing an independent study focused on biological research has been “a great experience. I’ve been able to get insight into how real scientific research is conducted.” As Anna Messer (Y2) explained, many of these independent studies offer higher-level classes than available. This was attractive for her because she “wanted to take higher level calculus in college and have a slight familiarity with the subject, so I decided to take a one-credit, relaxed introduction to the theories of multi-variable calculus.”

In addition to taking science independent studies, there are multiple science TA positions (oriented as Independent Studies), both for the “Physics with Calculus” class and for “Molecular Biology.” A lot of students, as well, take language independent studies that go beyond the levels offered at BHSEC. In Spanish, one group of students is taking “Latin American Literature,” entirely in Spanish. Similarly, in Chinese, two students are taking “Topics in Modern China” which they self-describe as “basically Y3 Chinese.” Interestingly, however, a lot of people also use independent studies as a way to take new languages; my independent study has a focus on French, others are taking “Ancient Greek” and “Intro to Japanese.”

There are also a lot of art-related independent studies, ranging from the hands-on, for example, “Portrait Photography,” “Music Recording and Production,” and “Introduction to Stage Management,” to the more academic, like my film studies course and the very cool “Political Dissent in Art: 1960s to the Present”.

Of course, there are also more traditional BHSEC independent studies, like “Postmodernism and Poetry,” “The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt,” “The Stylistic Elements of Writing Poetry,” and “Collections: Writing and Reading” (where two students read collections of short stories by one author at a time). Many of these courses build off material from non-independent studies classes at BHSEC. Liana Van Nostrand (Y1) explains that she “first read [Arendt’s] work in [the class] ‘Reason and Politics’ and was interested in reading more,” so she partnered up with another student and Ms. Walk for an independent study specifically on Arendt. Unlike normal classes and due to their size and specificity, independent studies offer “more [of] a conversation—a very intense one—and [less of] a class, which I love,” notes Liana.

Finally, after hearing about so many different independent studies, with topics ranging from the inspiring— “Introduction to Autism”—to the epitome of a liberal arts college— “Middle Earth: A Whole New World”, where two students and their professor are reading 100 pages a week of Tolkien together—I understand those two seniors’ shock. Even more, seeing the creativity people bring to their independent studies, I understand that just how BHSEC isn’t a “normal high school,” us BHSEC students definitely aren’t average.


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