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Multimedia by Simran Parwani

How Flexible is Your Major?

Using data sampling and visualizations, this piece compares the number of cross listed courses among majors to demonstrate the flexibility and interdisciplinarity of NYUAD’s academic programs.

Nov 28, 2020

At the Black Friday sales back home in the U.S., throngs of people, armed with tents and sleeping bags, would perch themselves in front of a store and wait for the doors to open, mentally calculating how to optimize the store deals and item limits. To me, course selection each semester felt every bit as chaotic as these sales. My course shopping cart would amass dozens of potential options, every course seeming so shiny and interesting. How could I possibly pick only four? Why couldn’t I just graduate with a bunch of minors?
This process of course selection became complicated by the uncertainty of what I would major in. When I would lie in bed the summer before my first year, I often worried about how NYU Abu Dhabi only offered 22 majors at the time. That summer, as I read the Academic Bulletin, I felt dismayed about not resonating with any particular major. I chose to pursue Computer Science because it seemed the most flexible, particularly amongst the STEM majors: it seemed to have cross-listed courses, space for exploration given its interdisciplinary minor and general electives and an applicability of skills to almost any field.
Now, as a senior reflecting on my academic experience and approaching my final undergraduate course selection, I wonder: did I have the experience NYUAD promised, that of an interdisciplinary, liberal-arts approach to learning?
Given the role that major flexibility played in my academic pathway, I decided to revisit course cross-listings as a metric of major flexibility and interdisciplinarity by scraping the undergraduate course data from the Student Portal. The courses in my sample include all undergraduate courses associated with a specific NYUAD major that have been offered more than once since Spring 2018 and not exclusively as a January Term course.
What proportion of a major’s courses have at least one cross listing?
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Though other major programs have courses cross-listing biology, there are no BIOL-UH courses in this sample that cross-list other programs. Additionally, ENGR-UH courses have a high proportion of cross-listings across the six different Engineering majors. When you only consider cross-listings with non-Engineering majors or minors and Core courses, the proportion of courses with at least one cross-listing shifts from 92 percent to 21.5 percent.
Though this generality appears to give Engineering students the flexibility to explore the Engineering majors they are interested in, the sheer number of requirements and hierarchical structure reveals this may not actually be the case.
“The engineering common courses are supposed to provide an introduction to different disciplines… but[,] in reality, when you step out of [Foundations of Science], you need to be decided on a major because you need to take these common courses in a specific order,” explained Sophia Chavele-Dastamani, Class of 2022 and General Engineering major.
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How many cross-listings do the courses in a given major have?
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In this visualization, you can see the distribution of the number of cross listings for a particular major. Arab Crossroads Studies stands out for having a high number of courses with a high number of cross listings. Given the Social Research and Public Policy program’s reputation for being flexible, its distribution of cross listings were slightly lower than expected.
Which major courses have the most cross-listings?
This visualization reveals the major courses with the most cross-listings. Naturally, Calculus and Multivariable Calculus with Applications to Science and Engineering fall into this definition of flexibility given that they are requirements for several majors. Outside of these courses, Arab Music Cultures offers much flexibility given that it counts towards Arab Crossroad Studies, Music, four additional minors and the Islamic Studies requirement.
Katharina Klaunig, Class of 2021, the Social Science Academic Representative and a member of the Core Curriculum Committee, explained the process of approving cross listings. “For a history course that would like to be cross-listed with the core, the syllabus, after approval from the history program, makes its way to the Core Curriculum Committee where it's reviewed to see if it meets the criteria of a core course.” In NYUAD’s academic policy of double counting, the registrar describes NYUAD’s cross-listings as “extensive” and reflective of a “commitment to work across disciplines.”
How do NYUAD students define major flexibility?
This data does not show the nuances of perspectives surrounding major flexibility. Some students define major flexibility in terms of the study away opportunities, the freedom in pursuing capstone research, the elective requirements within the major and more, while others define major flexibility as the potential for skills to be transferred to other fields.
“As a philosophy major, we have often heard, don’t worry about being unemployed after graduation because the skills you will gain are going to be applicable in whatever career direction you go into,” reflected Zou Xinyi, Class of 2021 and Philosophy major. “Since I’m entering the job market now, I can’t speak to whether that is true, but I can say that my ability to cope with new fields has significantly improved.”
NYUAD students also value flexibility in shaping their academic experience. “I think of major flexibility in that a major doesn’t fully define what you study,” suggested Gabrielle Branche, Class of 2021 and Interactive Media major. “IM is the embodiment of major flexibility because it is so broad. We can pull from different minors and majors to contribute to what we do.”
However, not all majors offer this space to explore. “The number of [Engineering] requirements is so overwhelming that it prohibits you from exploring professional interests,” commented Chavele-Dastamani, reflecting on her developing interest in pursuing Finance post graduation and having only four general electives to explore the field.
How does major flexibility affect NYUAD students?
The perceived flexibility of a major can impact students’ decisions in academic planning. Jiwon Kim, Class of 2021, explained how at the time of her candidate weekend, she wanted to be an Engineer, but was deterred by the lack of general electives and chose Computer Science instead.
“Flexibility is basically the reason I majored in History,” stated Ian Hoyt, Class of 2021 and the Student Government Academic Representative for History. “I saw the history program had only two required courses — the rest were electives that were often cross-listed with other programs, could be taken in any order and ended up to a lower number of credits than basically any other program I could find.”
“Deciding to major or minor in something should be an intentional act rather than happenstance,” Klaunig added. “Although how you come to discover that program could be through taking an interesting course that you may have never originally intended to major in.”
Though we should not purely take courses for their flexibility, I cannot deny that examining a course’s cross listings has helped me pick from several intriguing courses. I took Communications Lab in my first year because it was cross listed with Interactive Media and Design, two minors that I was interested in. That course completely changed my academic trajectory, leading me to eventually be an Interactive Media capstone major and a more reflective computer scientist.
Though this exploration revealed that NYUAD appears to offer a great breadth of cross listings, many of those cross listings are within the same division, especially for the Science and Engineering divisions. For NYUAD to truly fulfill its promise of a new model of higher education, we must seek more opportunities to embrace interdisciplinarity across divisions.
Simran Parwani is a columnist. Email her at
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