At the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, students take ownership of their courses and theses

Julie Dobrow, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies as well as the Communications and Media Studies program, poses for a portrait outside her office on May 12, 2015. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

The Interdisciplinary Studies (IS) major is a relatively hidden opportunity that can be a blessing for students who cannot fulfill their academic appetite with Tufts’ pre-designed majors. The Center for Interdisciplinary Studies’ (CIS) website describes the major as an option for students whose academic interests span multiple disciplines and who want to tailor their own course load at Tufts. The website also emphasizes that students who pursue the major must be extremely motivated and self-disciplined.

The Class of 2017 will graduate 12 IS majors — the largest number in one class in Tufts’ history since the major was founded in 1968, according to CIS Director Julie Dobrow. But perhaps due to the traditionally small size of the program, senior IS majors Elyssa Harris and Danielle Mulligan said that finding support from faculty members for their unique fields of study has been challenging.

According to Harris and Mulligan, some professors are affiliated with the IS program, but the program does not have professors or advisors dedicated solely to CIS, as is the case for other programs at Tufts. Additionally, they said that in their experiences, the idea of an interdisciplinary major has not always been received with immediate support by professors, with some even discouraging them from pursuing the major.

“I think that the university structure is really set up for delving deep into one thing and becoming an expert in that,” Mulligan said. “I had pushback from professors who were like, ‘Why don’t you just be this major? Why do you have to do this?’”

Harris said that even finding people who know that the CIS exists has been a challenge for her.

“Very few people at this school I found actually know what an IS major is,” she said. “The general consensus amongst most of the professors I approached was, ‘Yeah, I don’t really believe in [interdisciplinary major programs].’”

However, Harris and Mulligan both hold a positive view of their IS advisors and found that some professors were usually willing to help them with their majors after a bit of convincing. They also expressed great appreciation for Dobrow.

Dobrow, who also serves as the Film and Media Studies department co-director, a Tisch College senior fellow for Media and Civic Engagement and a lecturer at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, said that the process of applying to be an IS major takes more time, steps and planning than declaring other majors. 

According to the IS major website, interested students must seek out a principal advisor and two other advisors for each area of study from which they are drawing for their major to serve on their faculty committee during the application process. Then, the student must write a proposal explaining how their plan of study is truly interdisciplinary, Dobrow said.

The student must also make a blueprint outline of the courses they plan to incorporate into the major. The IS major typically includes a combination of courses from three different departments, according to Dobrow. All of these components make up the student’s application.

Once submitted, the IS committee, which is usually composed of the selected advisors and Dobrow, decides if the proposal seems feasible and invites the student back for an in-person interview to discuss their proposal, Dubrow explained. This year, applications from current sophomores are due by March 7.

The purpose of the IS committee review and interview is to get a sense of how legitimate and well-outlined the student’s plan is, as well as to ensure that the student is committed to the major, according to Dobrow. Often, if a student’s proposal is not approved by the committee, they will be given the opportunity to revise it and resubmit their proposal.

“We just want to make sure we have people who are motivated and who are self starters,” Dobrow said. “It’s a self-selected sample of students.”

Dobrow also emphasized that the program is not a way to avoid taking major requirements, despite some misconceptions she has encountered. According to Mulligan, the IS major allowed her to take more classes of interest to her than a traditional Tufts major would have permitted.

“I’ve taken so much more ownership of my education, my class choice and what I’m doing at Tufts,” she said. “I think a lot of kids are passionate about what their major is because of the topic but not actually the classes.”

Mulligan’s major’s working title is “Community Sustainability Studies,” a mixture of courses from the graduate program in urban and environmental policy, the sociology department and the education department.

“I’m trying to understand what builds community resilience [and] community sustainability,” Mulligan said. “Sustainability is usually framed as environmental. I view it as a community’s ability to sustain itself over the long term.”

All IS majors are required to complete a senior thesis, Dobrow said. Mulligan has decided to pursue a comparative study of two local schools for her thesis: one located in Charlestown, MA, consisting mostly of students who commute great distances to attend and another school with similar demographics but a more local student population. Her research will explore how the schools’ locations and where their students come from affect the surrounding communities.

Dobrow, Harris and Mulligan mentioned that future employers might not immediately understand what an IS major entails when they see it listed on a resume. Harris said that writing a senior thesis could help resolve this issue.

“You learn how to say, ‘Look, even if you don’t understand [my major], I have this physical, tangible thing that I’ve created,'” Harris said. “And that helps lend some validity to it.”

Harris, a pre-med student, titled her major, which combines biology, anthropology and child development, “The Human Experience of Biology.” She plans to write her IS thesis on “social networks and self-efficacy,” studying how the people that individuals spend time with affect their views of themselves.

According to Harris, the senior thesis is an important culmination of all the courses a student takes as part of their IS major.

“It’s kind of the principle of, ‘We’ve let you learn whatever you want, [now] prove you’ve learned something,’ which is fair, because you have your own major, [and] no one really knows what it is but you,” she said.

While the name “Interdisciplinary Studies” might necessitate further explanation for employers, family and friends, Mulligan sees the major’s personalized nature as a strength.

“Even though it’s broad in the sense that it’s not leading to a specific career, for me, it’s a lot more specific than any other major I would’ve chosen where the classes wouldn’t have been that relevant,” she said.