Workshop helps prepare first-years for January ISP

“The road to hell is paved with incompletes,” Dean of Students Wendy Bashant said. This statement was made during the Oct. 25 Independent Study Project (ISP) workshop, an event designed to help first-year students obtain knowledge concerning their upcoming January ISPs.   Bashant’s statement was part of a discussion about the importance of completing the project by its due date, Feb. 3.

Provost and Professor of Music Stephen Miles preceded this comment by talking about the level of difficulty students can run into while trying to complete their ISPs after spring semester has already started. He said it’s easy to get absorbed in spring classes, thus creating an unnecessary challenge to revisit the project at a later date. “I think you should consider that [to be] one of the major goals: to finish the ISP on time,” Miles said.

An important step in making sure the ISP gets completed on time is for students to visit their project sponsors consistently through the month of January in order to make sure they’re making good progress. Having easy access to one’s project sponsor is one of the reasons all first-years are required to conduct their first ISP while on campus.

So what exactly is an ISP?

“It’s really a month-long academic endeavor,” Miles said.  “It’s roughly the equivalent of a 14-week tutorial.”

According to the flowchart Miles referred to during the start of the workshop, the first step is to simply get an idea and research it. After that, a student must present that idea to a contract sponsor and potential ISP sponsor, both of whom must sign off on the student’s project form by Dec. 1. Even if a student doesn’t think his or her idea is very good, it’s still important to bring that idea to the table because a sponsor could help with the development of that idea.

Although January is the month a student will be conducting his or her ISP, the project literally starts right now with the process of brainstorming. “It starts with the planning, it starts with the conversations,” Miles said.

Miles also suggested that the clearer the plan, the more successful the ISP. “There is a very strong correlation between the success of the ISP and the planning that went into it,” Miles said.

New College alum Jono Miller (’74) was a speaker at the workshop and had some memorable words to share with the crowd of curious students. Miller suggested that not only are ISPs “independent and immersive,” they are also “obsessive.”

“This may be the first time in your life when you can wake up in the morning and work on something you’re deeply interested in until you go to bed,” Miller said. “And then wake up the next morning and do it again.”

Despite the word “independent” being part of the name, ISPs can in fact be group endeavors. Bashant spoke about the project she’s leading, the “First Year Book” ISP, a project in which approximately 20 students will get together to read four or five books suggested by the community. After reading and reviewing these books, the entire group will decide which book they’d like to send to incoming New College students during the summer.

Bashant said the group will be great for aspiring journalists, as review-writing will be a major part of the project.

Thesis student Ashlyn King is also leading a group ISP, “Theater of Social Activism”, as part of the completion of her thesis project. Together the group will explore different ideas of theater in the social activism world, meeting Monday through Friday for two to three hours in the middle of the day. King stressed that there will be no acting ability necessary, though there is a performance in the first two weeks of February.

King had some advice of her own for the audience, which was to try and keep ISPs in the realm of what the student thinks his or her thesis may ultimately be about. “Use your ISP to supplement your time here,” King said. “I already have ten pages of my thesis written because I wrote a lot about these things in ISP.”

Miles said that these group projects (as well as ones like “Intensive Training in Theater of the Oppressed” and “Iron Age to Iron Chef”) are already organized and perhaps more structured; therefore they would more closely resemble a course taken during the school year.

Assistant Provost Raymonda “Ray” Burgman (’91) told the story of her first ISP and how it helped change her Area of Concentration (AOC). Originally a math major, Burgman embarked on an ISP that, in the end, left her with an Economics (“math with a purpose!”) AOC instead.

Burgman agreed with King’s earlier statement about the importance of thinking ahead. “Indulge your passion but really think about what’s the plan,” Burgman advised. “[Think about] how the ISP might contribute to your future here.”

Second-year student Kade Needham also related back to his own experience with ISPs. He remembered asking a faculty member to sponsor him and being turned down, something that is not entirely uncommon. Needham didn’t give up, but rather moved on to a new faculty member who said yes. To this, Bashant chimed in by saying that if a student is told no, they should ask why and then figure out a way to make it work.

Needham concluded his talk with the audience by saying, “Don’t make yourself do something you don’t want to do. Find something you’re interested in and do that.”

Once the speakers were done, the floor was opened up for students to ask questions, such as how to get funding for architectural reasons (contact the Council for Academic Affairs) and how long does a paper have to be (depends on the project sponsor.)

“It’s a process of consultation,” Miles said.

For more information on ISPs, students can access the 2012 ISP handbook at Also, if students are interested in King’s group ISP and would like more information, contact her at

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