A mind of one's own
The Independent Interdisciplinary Major program allows students to design their own course of study across diciplines, and teaches them to defend their academic choices
Michelle Wexler ‘16 (left) created the major of Social Justice Social Change, and she plans to pursue further study in social work after graduation.
Schools such as Brown University or Bennington College champion the right of the student to design an individualized course of study within a strong advising network of faculty and student advisors. The Independent Interdisciplinary Major program at Brandeis aims to create an academic space for a similar type of individual creativity; however, this is a space which also must exist within the structure of a more academically traditional university.
The name—Independent Interdisciplinary Major—combines the two major components of the program. “Independent, being that the major is something you are initiating on your own. And interdisciplinary, as it needs to involve at least two degree departments, and most students combine many more than that,” says Julia Moffitt, the program coordinator for IIM.
Prior to Brandeis, Moffitt worked at Bennington College, a school at which majors do not exist and all students develop their own plan of study. The academic theory behind the IIM, according to Moffitt, is similar to a school like Bennington College.
However, the “interdisciplinary” aspect of the IIM implies that the creativity of the student must occur within structures of fields that already exist and are widely recognized.
“Students need to be creative with asking themselves—can I do this with a traditional major, or a combination of traditional majors? It really needs to be something that has an added value to the combination,” Moffitt said.
In fact, the process of declaring an IIM involves both justifying the interdisciplinary nature of the major, as well as referencing pre-existing programs at other institutions. The application requires the student to answer questions about why it is neccesary for them to create their own major, and what could not be achieved by simply majoring in multiple subjects. The applicant is required to research other colleges and find comparable graduate or undergraduate programs. Then, the applicant presents in front of a panel of professors and the Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences for Undergraduate Education, Susan Birren.
An example of a common IIM is communications. “Students have found a way to draw from a lot of different departments, including business, sociology and computer science,” Moffitt said.
By nature of the IIM, each communications major is unique and the student forges their own path within the widely recognized field. Moffit cites both a media communications IIM student as well as an international communications IIM student as examples of the range of options.
Michelle Wexler ’15, an IIM Undergraduate Department Representative, created her own major of Social Justice Social Change. “My passion has always really been helping to create a more just world, and to create a more just community,” Wexler said.
Wexler finished the pre-existing minor of Social Justice Social Policy, and continued taking classes following her interest in creating a more just world.
“I realized I wanted something to show the work I had done, because that was the education I was going to leave Brandeis with. That was the work I was proud of,” Wexler explained.
Wexler did not call her major Social Justice Social Policy because she wanted to recognize that there are other means of achieving social justice besides policy change. She explores both philanthropy and theater as modes of change.
Due to the highly varied nature of the IIM major, there is limited opportunity for IIM students to network with each other or feel the academic camaraderie that exists within other majors.
“Since we are all doing our own thing, there isn’t a space within academic life for us to come together,” Wexler said. “We are all so driven by our own academic passion.”
The classmate and alumni networking that are integral to the success of other departments does not exist for IIM majors. However, Wexler—along with the other UDRs—is working toward increased networking opportunities for the IIM majors.
“We are all doing incredibly different things but incredibly interesting things, and if there was any space for collaboration, that would be tremendous,” Wexler said. “As the program grows, and more people become aware of it, there’s more room for us to come together as a group.”
Moffitt is also working toward increased networking opportunities for IIMs. “One thing I am aiming to do more of is tracking alums. I am hoping to work with the UDRs to create an alumni survey,” Moffitt said.
The nature of the major makes the job of UDR unique for Wexler and her colleagues. Working within an advising capacity becomes difficult when your area of advising is not focused within a specific field of academic study.
“It’s very, very, very different from being a UDR for any other major. Rather than answering questions about classes, we are helping people create their own majors,” Wexler said.
“I’m answering questions about science classes and I’ve never taken any science classes,” Wexler said. The job of the UDR becomes, according to Wexler, more about the process of forging your own academic path.
“I answer questions about the best way to approach a professor or an interesting way to find a class that’s out of a student’s comfort zone but still fits within their topic,” Wexler said.
“Even if UDRs don’t have expertise in certain areas, or even if I don’t have expertise in certain areas, the UDRs can look at the initial draft of a proposal… the faculty advisors can advise more heavily about courses,” Moffit said.
While the “independent” aspect of being an “Independent Interdisciplinary Major” may imply academic isolation, it also implies the development of a unique academic perspective.
“It gave me my own voice in the process of my education. I really forged my own path at Brandeis,” Wexler said.
Students within the IIM major, Wexler argues, benefit not only from a high degree of specialization as an undergraduate but also from the ability to defend and explain the academic choices that come along with the process of creating an independent major.
“I feel fiercely independent when I’m studying, or explaining my studies to other people,” Wexler said.
“I am studying what I want to be studying, I have not taken one class that I did not want to take. Every class that I have taken has applied to where I want to be when I graduate Brandeis, and every class had taught me something that I wanted to learn.”
Moffitt agrees with Wexler’s assertion about the benefit of being an IIM: “They can’t be afraid to reach and communicate with a ton of faculty during this process. They have to forge relationships, and that’s a lot to ask. They have to learn to say, ‘here are my ideas, what do you think of them?’”
“There are a number of faculty members who will advise a student in an IIM because they themselves feel very strongly about an area of study,” Moffit said. Moffit cites the example of Prof. Don Katz [NEUR], who created his own major of Cognitive Science as an undergraduate at Brown University, and now serves as the advisor to a student who created the IIM of Cognitive Science.
Wexler, who is currently working on applications to graduate programs in social work, feels that having to defend her academic choices throughout her undergraduate career is very helpful for presenting herself as a candidate for graduate study.
“All of these questions they’re asking me, I feel like yes—this is what I’ve been studying as an undergraduate,” Wexler said.
“Because IIMs are targeting exactly what they want to be doing, that really helps them in the job search. One of the seniors, who created the major of Cognitive Science, has said that being an IIM has really helped her in talking about her major,” Moffit said.
When asked to describe the typical IIM student, Wexler said, “Fiercely passionate. These are people who are seriously passionate about subjects that aren’t offered… They are passionate, and they are unique.”
Moffit agrees, saying, “there is a strong element of creativity… they are driven by their ideas. It’s exciting that they are willing to do what it takes to make it happen.”
“Brandeis is a liberal arts school that sees the value of an interdisciplinary education,” Moffit said. “[the IIM program] enables students to explore an area that they are very interested in, and that adds to the Brandeis experience.”