Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 16, 2021

Hopkins should promote interdisciplinary major program

By NICHOLAS DEPAUL | October 4, 2012

The Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) offers an interdisciplinary major that allows students to design a course of study that fits their interests and goals. To date, I am the only student currently declared in the major.

Elite universities across the nation offer students this option, and Hopkins should be applauded for including it. However, many of those universities take pride in the offering and use it as a selling point and proof of their dedication to undergraduate needs. In my experience, Hopkins not only does not advertise the program, but actively discourages interested students by making the process overly difficult and limiting knowledge of its existence.

My interdisciplinary major is called Sustainable Globalization. It combines courses in Political Science, Environmental Science, Sustainable Development, Sociology and History. Including a yearlong thesis project, the major comes to 53 credits, well above the program minimum of 45.

As a freshman, I was interested in the idea of creating my own program of study, especially after it became clear that I was not interested in the International Studies major that I had initially declared. I broached the topic during my first advisory meeting, and was quickly informed that the process was too difficult and that I should not pursue it. As a naive freshman, I took the advice of someone who, I assumed, knew what they were talking about, and did not look any deeper into the possibility.

When sophomore year began, my roommate told me he was looking into the program, which inspired me to take a fresh look. The form available did not seem difficult at all and I quickly got in touch with the advisory dean, who ostensibly heads the program. The process was underway.

I first had to find a major advisor. I immediately floated the names of some professors I had good relationships with and who I believed would support me. These names were shot down, as the professors in question were in fact adjunct or assistant professors. Here was the first moment of confusion: one of the professors I named was a major advisor in the Political Science department, the other in Anthropology. If they could advise students in those majors, why couldn’t they advise me? I ended up cold calling two professors who my advisor believed would be interested. Thankfully they were, and have served as excellent mentors since.

During this process, I was instructed to meet with various people to get feedback on my major proposal. One of them was a dean at the public health school, who did not understand why I wanted to meet with him, as he had nothing to do with any of my interests. At this point I began to feel that the advising was trying to discourage me by sending me on a wild goose chase.

I dug in my heels and continued pushing. Eventually, my proposal and course selections were complete and I submitted my major to the curriculum committee. Before it was considered, I had to meet with the head of that committee, who seemed to be very against the whole idea. Some of the comments I received include, “You won’t have a discipline name on your transcript or diploma,” “You won’t be a part of a major community” and “Why can’t you just double major.” The list goes on.

It was clear that the school was actively trying to stop me from achieving approval, so I of course smiled, nodded and continued my effort. When the curriculum committee finally sat in judgment, I was brought in for questioning. From the questions I was asked, it was clear that many of the committee members had not read my proposal. I gave them no grounds to deny it, and finally my ordeal was over.

Interdisciplinary majors in the past have been denied on the grounds that the student was trying to get out of taking difficult classes or finishing a major that would require them to take an extra semester. Mine obviously did not fall under those categories, and yet I was not taken very seriously through the whole process.

Why doesn’t Hopkins want students to know this option exists, and why is the process so difficult? I would think that the school would want to encourage creativity and agency. I hope my story will inspire other students to take advantage of the program. I have never been in a class I didn’t like, because I got to choose all of my classes. And my major has always been a positive in job interviews.

I exhort the KSAS advisory office and academic leadership to promote this excellent program, and my peers to at least look it over. The fight was hard, but the payoff well worth it.

Nicholas DePaul is a senior Sustainable Globalization major from Los Angeles, Calif. 

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