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So Many Paths

Self-Designed Interdisciplinary Majors Cross Traditional Departmental Lines

By Lynn Conlee and Caroline Ponseti ′15

Sarah Bacot ’13,
Dr. Tim Huebner,
& Dr. Judith Haas

The poet Robert Frost writes of taking a road less travelled and concludes by speculating that, in his golden years, that road will have made all the difference in life. Perhaps that is how students who pursue self-designed interdisciplinary courses of study will feel when they look back on their years at Rhodes.

To date, the college offers 12 interdisciplinary majors. Each of these combines courses from two—or often more—departments to create an academic path for students that matches their intellectual interests. In addition to these existing interdisciplinary majors, students can self-design a curriculum tailored to their individual goals—but such an effort requires much due diligence and hard work on the student′s part.

"Self-designed interdisciplinary majors are for students who cannot find within our existing majors and minors a course of study that satisfies their intellectual and career interests, ," explains Steve Wirls, associate professor with the Department of Political Science and chair of the Education Program Committee (EPC), which approves self-designed majors. "Rhodes has a wide array of disciplinary majors and a large and growing number of interdisciplinary majors. Self-designed majors are, in a sense, a student′s last resort."

The steps to seeking a self-designed interdisciplinary major ensure that students devote plenty of discussion and planning to their proposal. "It′s a high bar to clear because the student must design a coherent course of study from scratch," says Wirls. "The EPC′s threshold question¬† is, ‘Why can′t you accomplish your academic objectives through some combination of existing majors and minors?′ If a student can provide a persuasive answer, then he or she is a candidate for a self-designed majors."

Wirls recommends that students interested in a self-designed interdisciplinary major begin by talking in depth with their advisors. Dy′nelle Todman ′15 is doing just that as she prepares to finalize her academic major. Her decision-making process reflects the difficulty inherent in going outside the existing majors structure to generate a truly original interdisciplinary course of study.

Dy’nelle Todman ’15
& Dr. Pam Church

A member of Rhodes′ women′s basketball team, Todman, from Athens, GA, found herself benched in high school due to an ankle injury. "I didn′t know what I was going to do with all of my free time," she explains. "So I started hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club." Her interactions as a basketball coach for the underprivileged youth there cultivated an interest in the nonprofit sector, largely from a business point of view.

She entered Rhodes with a loose plan to major in business, but a course in urban studies inspired her to broaden her academic focus. "I took the class and thought, ‘This is something I want to do,′ " she says. The urban tie-in with her business studies drew on separate components of her Boys and Girls Club experience.

Todman′s options, in consultation with her main advisor, Dr. Pam Church, were to merge the business and urban components of her interests into a self-designed major; to double major in Commerce and Business and Urban Studies; or to continue with her current interdisciplinary major and add an Urban Studies minor. She settled for now on continuing with the established Economics/Commerce and Business interdisciplinary major, taking urban studies courses along the way.

"I don′t think she will do a self-designed major," says Church, associate professor with the Commerce and Business Department and director of Rhodes′ graduate program in accounting. "The Economics/Commerce and Business is a demanding interdisciplinary major that requires students to take the senior seminar in both areas."

Still, the lure of adding an urban studies component to her major has Todman seeking input from Dr. Elizabeth Thomas, director of the Urban Studies Program. "Because I′m a sophomore, I haven′t decided what I′m going to do with other classes yet," says Todman. "When I see something I like, I think, ‘Hey, does this fit in?′ Then I go to talk to my advisors, Dr. Thomas and Professor Church, and we try to make it work."

Todman′s ideal career involves a position that would allow her to work on the administrative side of a nonprofit while still having ample interactions with children. "I want to work with kids in general, not just underprivileged kids," Todman explains. As she continues with her Economics/Commerce and Business major, she plans to focus on business management, including a course called Management of Organizations in the fall.

Forging a Unique Discipline

The option for self-designed interdisciplinary majors first appeared in the college catalogue for the 2007-2008 academic year. To date, nearly 70 students have graduated with self-designed majors. One student contributing to that total this spring was Bethany Larkin ′13, from Atlanta.

Dr. Laura Luque de Johnson, Dr. Tom McGowan & Bethany Larkin ’13

Larkin′s expansive academic focus immersed her in two traditionally divergent research settings: the lab and the community. Her interest in global health disparity gaps inspired her to integrate the fields of sociology and biology to create her own major, which focused on sociocultural impacts on a person′s health.

As a part of a sociology project, Larkin interviewed cardiac patients at Methodist North Hospital to analyze the social determinants of patients who have contracted cardiac conditions. This field research with Dr. Tom McGowan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology & Sociology, was the driving force behind her decision to pursue a self-designed interdisciplinary major that would allow her to further explore global health problems.

With the help of McGowan and her biology advisor, Dr. Laura Luque de Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Larkin developed her own curriculum that encompassed both the study of biological diseases and courses in sociology that explore the prejudice in the human condition that contributes to global health disparities. Her courses ranged from Microbiology and Molecular Immunology in the Biology Department to Social Theory and Demography of Health in the Anthropology & Sociology Department.

In true interdisciplinary spirit, Larkin was able to incorporate courses from other academic arenas to broaden her understanding of world beliefs toward health care. Last fall, she took the class Music and Healing to satisfy her artistic foundation requirement. "I was tying in these aspects of history of music and healers who incorporated sounds and vibrations into their medicinal processes," she says. "That was really cool."

The true culmination of all interdisciplinary majors occurs in a student′s senior capstone project. For hers, Larkin tied in experiences from study abroad, bacteriology research, and internships to create a comprehensive project that looked at how recent discoveries in bacteriology are informing the need for a more holistic and preventive model of health care.

"Within that framework, I′m looking at the implementation of community health workers as a realistic solution for addressing some of the changing needs in health care," she explains. "One of the problems that I see with our current system is that we have this business side of health care that looks at technology and pharmaceuticals and how to develop an economy out of the health-care model. At the same time, you have these idealistic sides of health care, with nonprofit organizations that look at human rights and how to close health disparity gaps. I′m interested in coming up with ways to have both of those sectors work together."¬†

The linchpin of Larkin′s success has been her close ties with both McGowan and Luque de Johnson as she has worked through her four years at Rhodes. "A month never went by," she says, "where I wasn′t sitting in Professor Luque de Johnson′s office for over an hour just bouncing ideas off her and talking about global health problems. I also sat down with Professor McGowan one on one every week to discuss how to improve my senior seminar."

She has been able to translate Rhodes′ learning environment into the way she looks at public health. "Rhodes is very much about integrative education," says Larkin. "That′s what I want to do. I want to start integrating ideas and beliefs to improve health care outcomes."

Accordingly, she is taking the next steps toward developing her career in global health. "Three years down the road, I want to get my master′s degree in public health and business and pursue a final degree in global health," she says.

An Education in Perseverance

When speaking of the EPC′s role in approving self-designed interdisciplinary majors, Wirls is not reluctant to say that many first-time applications are returned for extensive revisions. "It′s not quibbling," he says. "We do the same when seasoned faculty propose a new major.¬† Designing a coherent major is a very serious and complicated task. It′s good for the students, because it requires them to be more deliberate and precise about what they are doing."

David Bergen ’13

That was the experience of David Bergen ′13, also from Atlanta. "I was a math major freshman and sophomore year, and I decided I didn′t want to do that," he says. "I was always interested in creating films. I knew Rhodes didn′t have a program for that. So I talked to some people who were in film studies classes and were thinking of similar things. I met with the head of the film studies program between sophomore and junior year and started making a proposal for my major. I submitted the proposal to the committee. They had some changes that they wanted to make. I had to meet with several different people. Ultimately, the EPC accepted it."

Bergen′s career aim is to teach film on the high school level, so he also tacked an education minor onto his self-designed film studies major. Proposals such as the one Bergen presented to the EPC help keep faculty abreast of student academic interests and can often lead to the creation of new interdisciplinary majors. The development of a curriculum for a film studies major is currently under way, due to the number of students applying for self-designed majors in that discipline.

Classes in art, English, philosophy, and film studies, in addition to directed inquiries with his advisors, formed the heart of Bergen′s academic curriculum. In tandem, Bergen wrote a senior seminar paper for Dr. Rashna Richards, director of Film Studies, one of Rhodes′ interdisciplinary programs, and began making his capstone film through a directed inquiry film production course in the art department with Professor Liz Daggett.

"I made a 20-minute horror film," he says. "I wrote it, directed it, starred in it, scored it. It premiered on campus at a special screening of advanced film projects. I′m going to submit it to the Indie Memphis film festival. It′s like the grand project of my major, all coming together."

Early Interest Charts a Course

While it took Bergen a couple of years to shift his academic program to film, Sarah Bacot ′13 took a class as a first-year student on gender in 19th-century America and quickly saw how an interdisciplinary program combining Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS)—already interdisciplinary in itself—and History could shape her academic future. The idea for her major came from Dr. Judith Haas, former director of the GSS program.

"The interdisciplinary nature of a GSS major and history major really appealed to me. It meant that I would be able to take a number of different courses with a common thread, in that all related to each other," she explains. "What I really wanted was to find what the overlap would be in all of my other classes: GSS and philosophy, religious studies—all of it."

True to Wirls′ description of how self-designed interdisciplinary curriculums must carefully integrate the best selection of classes appropriate to the major, Bacot′s advisors pored over course offerings. "It wasn′t about ‘you need courses from this and courses from this.′ It was about what courses went best with the overall theme and goal of my major."

For Bacot, a native of Diamondhead, MS, that meant history courses such as Islamic History and Civilization; Jews, Christians, Muslims in Medieval Spain; and Black and White Women in the South, along with GSS classes, including Feminist and Queer Theory and Feminist Philosophy. Stirred into the mix were Philosophy of Race and Psychology of Gender and Language "so that I could again have ways to ground and explore gender and sexuality as a field in a number of disciplines and relate that back to the history papers I was writing and be able to incorporate historical context into a number of disciplines," she says.

Not only did her major introduce her to many disciplines, it also presented numerous opportunities outside the classroom, as well. "I was an intern at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Last summer, I worked with Pam Detrie, associate director of the Rhodes Counseling Center, to design a fellowship on campus and worked as an LGBT fellow. That relates directly to what I was doing in terms of Gender and Sexuality Studies," says Bacot. As part of her summer LGBT fellowship, she organized and set up the Queer Resources Room in Briggs. The room offers books and films and a gathering place for LGBT students and their allies.

"I am really appreciative of Rhodes for my community experiences," Bacot says, "because Rhodes′ location and Rhodes′ emphasis on giving students what they want or need academically really made it possible for me to do this in the first place."

Urban Setting Yields Dream Job

In his college search, Robbie Cook ′13 fell in love with the liberal arts approach—but his affinity for urban design added another necessary criterion. "When it came down to it, I realized I really needed to go to a school in a city," says Cook. "I needed to be surrounded by people, by ideas, by energy—not a cornfield."

For Cook, from Fort Worth, Rhodes′ location in the heart of Memphis made it the perfect fit. "Driving around Memphis, I could see myself getting involved with the organizations that make Memphis unique and significant, and I′ve had the ability to do that through my curriculum."

Dr. Stephen Ceccoli,
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas
& Robbie Cook ’13

Cook′s studies allowed him to view Memphis from an angle unique to Rhodes. His dual love for international and local politics and their interactions led to a self-designed interdisciplinary major in Urban Studies and International Studies. "I loved studying the way large countries interact with each other, like the way the United States interacts with nation-states like France," Cook explains. "At the same time, I didn′t want to lose community and grass roots aspects."

His challenge was to combine these fields to create a comprehensive curriculum. Cook dubs his study abroad experience the linchpin that made his major work. During Semester at Sea, he sailed to nine countries around the Mediterranean and studied architecture, art, and religion. "It bridged the gap between theoretical international studies from Memphis with real-world, practical applications of what I was learning in urban studies," Cook explains. "I decided it would be more interesting to take the large-scale analytical aspects of international relations and combine them with the local and federal level of urban studies to create this comprehensive lens to look at urban social problems to design space and see how people interact in that space."

From International Politics Since 1945 to Green Urban Design in the Mediterranean, a course he took when he was abroad, Cook experienced a truly interdisciplinary major. Though courses from the Department of International Studies and the Urban Studies Program formed the core of his curriculum, his major incorporated nine departments, including Political Science, Economics, and History.

With the guidance of Urban Studies′ Dr. Thomas and Dr. Stephen Ceccoli of the Department of International Studies, Cook created a solid foundation for his pursuit of a career in international real estate development and city planning. "I don′t have a specific concentration. But to be able to attack it from nine different ways—it was a lot of fun."

"Cook has taken advantage of opportunities—and in some cases, created new opportunities—to extend his learning beyond the classroom," says Dr. Thomas. Cook participated in the evaluation of HOPE VI, a federal public housing program, as a member of Professor Heather Jamerson′s research team. The team assessed the redevelopment of the Cleaborn Homes public housing area in Memphis. In addition to conducting data collection and analysis, Cook worked with a variety of stakeholders, including professional planners, city officials, and public housing residents. As a result of his contributions to the evaluation project, Cook was offered an internship position in the planning department of the Memphis-based architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss.

All of his hard work at Rhodes has paid off: "I got my dream job. May 15th, two days after graduation, I went to work for a real estate developer in Fort Worth. I am a project manager for a build that′s practically in my backyard. Since high school, I′ve wanted to get in on this project. Now I get the chance to run the whole thing. I′m the happiest person in the world."