Greg Alexander

Combining interests, passions

Baltimore Sun, September 14, 2008

Choosing a major can be tough for many students, not to mention meeting all the requirements of that degree curriculum. But what if you can’t find your exact program tract or you discover your senior year that you don’t want to be an accounting major anymore? In these cases, for some it meant either transferring schools or switching majors and losing lots of credits, meaning that your four-year college plan was out the window, and you were looking at a six- or seven-year plan. Luckily, many schools offer a solution – interdisciplinary studies, a program where student can in essence create their own major or simply combine two disciplines – say business and psychology – to create a hybrid degree, one that not only allows them to explore two academic passions but also create a degree that utilizes prior courses taken to stay on path to graduation.

Expanding options

Unlike large schools were 200-plus majors are offered, small, liberal arts schools like Stevenson University (formerly Villa Julie College), offer a couple dozen or so majors. This is one reason that interdisciplinary studies is beneficial at Stevenson University, says Esther Horrocks, program coordinator for interdisciplinary studies at the school. “Let’s say that a student wants to study anthropology, philosophy or sociology, for example. While we may not offer a degree in these fields, we have many courses they can take; however, if they are not being applied to a degree, students would not take them. This is where interdisciplinary studies comes in – we can help design a major that works for them. We are a small, career-oriented school, so there can be a lot of pressure for students to declare a major, especially if their interests do not fall neatly into an established degree,” says Horrocks, who notes that interdisciplinary studies can lead to either a bachelor of arts or science degree.

Horrocks says that interdisciplinary studies also comes into play when a student realizes mid-way through a degree track that his or her interests are going into another direction. “We don’t want the credits to go to waste or for the student to transfer to another school, so interdisciplinary studies helps the school, too. Instead, we can look at what classes they have taken and explore what their interests are and see if we can combine these two disciplines.” Horrocks recalls a student who loved photographing orchids and wanted to publish a book on them, so the school was able to combine the science classes needed to understand orchids fully with the artistic classes needed to write and publish a book.

For John Nagle, who graduated in May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stevenson, the program was perfect for him after discovering a change of heart mid-way through school. “There is no journalism major at Stevenson, so I planned on majoring in Business Communications; however, when I learned that I had to take accounting, I knew I was in trouble because there was no way I could pass that course. After trying our a combination of journalism and video, I finally settled on an interdisciplinary studies combination of journalism and history. History is a lot like English in my opinion, as both are very fact-based, so it was a perfect fit for me,” says Nagle, who aspires to be a music writer.

“Interdisciplinary studies also gives students a leg up during job interviews. It’s a great conversation starter and a unique degree can really pique the interest of the employer,” Horrocks adds.

“A major as unique as you are”

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) is known for its innovative programs, especially in the fields of science, technical fields and computers, but for those students who are “too mobile to be in one discipline, interdisciplinary studies is a perfect alternative,” says Patricia LaNoue, director of interdisciplinary studies at UMBC. LaNoue notes that the interdisciplinary studies program started at UMBC in 1969, just three years after the school was founded. “It was one of the first interdisciplinary studies programs in the country and was originally called Option II. Luckily, we changed the name,” she laughs. Students in interdisciplinary studies can earn either a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree, and LaNoue notes that all degrees carry the name “interdisciplinary studies” followed by the student’s concentration.

All prospective students submit a proposal that is developed with faculty guidance that outlines the student’s educational and career goals that must be approved by the Interdisciplinary Studies Committee, which, LaNoue says, is very active in the process. LaNoue says that there are two different types of interdisciplinary studies proposals – one that is thematic and involves unlimited areas of study and another where the student draws from two to three areas of study that are combined, such as music and engineering. “Students can really tailor make their own degree program, and some utilize seven or eight different disciplines, but they all fit together. It’s an exciting opportunity for students, and I tell them that you can have a major as unique as you are that no one else has.”

LaNoue says that interdisciplinary studies can also be a solution for students when their academic path changes. “I recently had a student come to my office in tears, as she had failed cellular biology and could not take the course again. So, I asked what her career goals were, and she expressed an interest in working with the police department. She got an internship with the Baltimore City Police Department, and she was able to use her biology coursework to develop a degree program in forensic science where she could then study hairs found at a crime scene to assist in a case.”

LaNoue says that interdisciplinary studies is also beneficial for those looking to go to medical school. “Whenever they study medical school admissions and the background of the applicants accepted, interdisciplinary studies is always in the top three.”

Different perspectives

New this fall at McDaniel College is the “Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies” program, a collection of courses where one topic or issue is approached from different perspectives. The courses are not mandatory, but strongly encouraged, says Debora Johnson-Ross, co-coordinator of the program. Although McDaniel already allows student-designed majors, Johnson-Ross says these courses were developed to encourage students to interact with faculty and students from different disciplines, and also allows faulty members to teach a course outside of their typical course of study.

“For example, in the course, ‘September 11th and Its Aftermath,’ faculty from several different areas come together to explore 9-11 from different angles. There are three sections that meet at the same time, but they meet together only once a week, and at other times guest speakers are brought in,” says Johnson-Ross. Instructors from English, sociology, political science are joined by consulting instructors from foreign languages and art in this course. “In the ‘Propaganda’ course, the English and communications instructors will teach the class together,” says Johnson-Ross, who, as an associate professor of political science and international studies, is one of the consulting instructor for this course.

Other fall offerings include “Katrinaville: A Tale of Two Cities,” while next spring’s classes include “Music, Mind and the Brain” and “Science Fact and Science Fiction.”

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