Meshing majors: students craft plans for future

March 23, 2018

When Rachel Geller ’18 entered Brandeis, she had plans to major in physics and math. Now graduating with a degree in Conflict and Reconciliation Studies, Geller decided to take the path less traveled—she forged her own.

For students seeking an area of study not encompassed by Brandeis’ 43 existing majors, the Independent Interdisciplinary Major (IIM) provides an opportunity for them to design their own program of study based around a theme, topic or set of questions of their choosing. Through working with three advisors from at least two departments, one primary and two secondary, students create a proposal explaining what their major is, the courses they plan to take and an explanation of why they need to pursue an independent major opposed to a combination of existing majors and minors.

“That’s the important part, because it’s a misconception that the IIM is a way for you to squeeze in all your favorite classes,” said Geller, an Undergraduate Departmental Representative (URD) for the IIM program. “It’s actually the opposite. It’s a way for you to focus in very precisely and narrowly on an interest.”

Geller came into Brandeis hoping to major in physics and math, but had a change of heart after taking a course with Prof. Gordie Fellman (SOC) titled “Deconstructing War and Building Peace,” which inspired her to build her major around the peace and conflict resolution.

On March 17, 12 students proposed their plans for IIM’s to be approved by a sub-committee compiled of professors from a variety of academic disciplines, as well as Katy McLaughlin, the coordinator for the IIM program. Geller recommends that students interested in piecing together an IIM should start exploring ideas by talking to professors who have taught classes the student finds interesting, looking at the university bulletin for classes offered in the future and the past and looking at comparable programs at other schools to see what disciplines are typically incorporated into a similar major.

Caroline Kriesen ’20, a History major with an IIM in Film and Performing Arts, wanted to explore the ways that different methods of storytelling connected with the medium of film.

“If you want to create pieces that are important and relevant, you need to learn about the humanities and the sciences and have a liberal arts education,” Kriesen said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to push a bunch of classes together and create a major, but it was also that some element of being able to push the classes that I needed together allowed me to get the liberal arts education I came here for.”

Although they did not know the acceptance rate for the program, both Carter and Geller estimated that a majority of proposals are approved by the sub-committee because of the work they do with their advisors before proposing. The sub-committee may ask students proposing IIM’s to adjust the courses they are taking, but rarely is their proposal completely denied after the presentation.

“They’re not supposed to be an obstacle to get by, they’re supposed to be a resource,” said McLaughlin at the IIM Department’s event “Build a Sundae, Build a Major” on Monday, March 19.

“Once you get to the point where you are submitting your proposal you’ve worked really closely with professors and they have smoothed out any kinks with you, so one would imagine that you’ve worked it through enough where it’s appropriate,” Geller said.

Common interdisciplinary majors include Communications, Religious Studies and Italian Studies. However, students do not have to limit themselves to majors that have been pursued in the past.

Jordin Carter ’18, the other UDR for the IIM program, knew she wanted to pursue an IIM when she decided to come to Brandeis. Her major, titled Health and Human Performance Studies, combines courses from Biology, HSSP, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology and Neuropsychology and takes a social and scientific approach to medicine.

When Carter took a course with Prof. Peter Conrad (SOC), she was given an assignment to interview someone with a disease or disorder. Carter interviewed a woman with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who had felt dehumanized in her experience with doctors.

“She was saying that [the doctors] made her feel like a guinea pig,” Carter said. “They just kept giving her drugs, but they weren’t taking into account her personal life, the fact that she’s a mother and a sister and an aunt and a grandma.”

Interested in finding a way to find empathy in science, Carter wanted to design a path that would allow her to fulfill the pre-med requirements while letting her take classes within the social sciences and humanities as well.

“Science is so emotionless that it’s so instilled in the teaching of biomedicine,” Carter said. “They just teach you to think of what’s underneath the skin, but you can’t heal that way.”

It took Carter the course of a year to plan her major, though she explained the duration does not apply to everyone. After finding a way to distinguish the program she wanted to pursue from a biology degree, Carter said that she had a new appreciation for her classes.

“It allowed me to think on my own. When you just come to school and you pick a major, you have these classes you have to do that everyone else is doing in this major and then you move on with life. You don’t really think about it and you don’t really know why these classes are part of the major, and then you move on. But with the IIM, you have to really think critically about why you want these classes together and how you would apply that to life after Brandeis,” Carter said.

Geller said that the while there are minimal drawbacks, such as not being able to fit the name of your major in the yearbook, she views the common concern of employers not understanding the IIM as an opportunity for a conversation.

“A lot of people might not understand what it is, but I think it’s a positive thing,” Geller said. “It’s a nice opportunity to explain this whole undertaking that you went through and that you can think outside the box.”

On April 18, Hiatt Career Center and the IIM program will host a forum to help students learn how to present their independent majors to employers.

The IIM requires students to create a research capstone project in their senior year. Although this often takes the form of a semester or year long thesis, it can also incorporate more creative elements, like a portfolio or artistic compilation.

As she graduates Brandeis at the end of this semester, Carter said that she is glad that she did not give up on pursuing the major she wanted.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so passionate about something,” Carter said.

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