Discouragement and Decisions

During GEDI the other night, interdisciplinarity came up during our talk with Gardner Campbell (mostly because I brought it up…), and I really got to thinking about how I ended up in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program.  I actually entered undergrad as a biochem/philosophy double major.  I planned to study biomedical ethics and to work in hospitals.  That changed the day I signed up for my required Western Civilization class.  The professor in that course inspired me so much (and still does), and I switched my major to political science (the department he was a professor in).  I had always been interested in religion, so my new plan was to double major.

As I had already been in contact with the chair of philosophy (who was also the chair of religion), I went to her to sign my “Declaration of Major” form.  Now, politically speaking, it is probably important to know that the chairs of the departments of Religion/Philosophy and of Politics/History were notorious for not getting along.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that at the time.

The beginning of second semester of my first year of college, I went skipping down to Religion Department, form in hand, completely excited to declare both of my majors.  I was very interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, so I thought a double major in religion and politics made a great deal of sense.  To this day , I still get angry by her response.

“I’m going to sign this form, but you should know these are two very demanding majors.  I fully expect you to drop one of them back to a minor at some point.”

A couple things to note.  First, while they were demanding majors, they were each 30-33 hour majors–totally doable in 4 years.  Second, I was actually a good student.

To be honest, her comment destroyed me.  At the time, I really thought it was just an issue of her thinking I wasn’t smart enough to double major.  I second guessed the hell out of myself for weeks (though I still did add the double major to my schedule to spite her).  While I was a good student, I’ve always been incredibly hard on myself academically.

Ultimately, this entire situation boiled down to the fact that this chair wanted me as the property of the religion department only.  A squabble between two tenured department chairs left me emotionally scarred for years.

In the end, I ended up not double majoring.  Funding for my fourth year of college became an issue, and I dropped my religion major back to a minor so I could graduate a year early.  But I know for a fact I could have handled it if I had had that extra year.

This experience made me fearful of doing interdisciplinary studies for a long time.  I took away from this fight between chairs that all departments fought battles through their students, and I wanted no part of that.

During my masters (interestingly, in religion), I got a little bored with coursework and declared a minor field in classics.  There I discovered how fulfilling working between departments can be.  My masters thesis reflects this indisciplinarity–hell, the entire project would have been impossible had it not been for a professor (and now dear friend) in the department of classics who helped me shore up my project.

I catalyzed my feelings of disappointment with my undergraduate religion chair into anger, which fueled my wish to succeed in spite of her naysaying.  But many students are not able to channel those emotions effectively (I won’t say healthily, as motivation-through-anger isn’t necessarily a good thing) and would make the decision to quit one of their majors, giving up their hopes and dreams.  All due to stupid departmental politics.

So I guess the question I have at the end of this stream-of-conscious rant is this:  how often do problems between faculty members play out in the lives (and sanity) of their students?  What kind of academic community does that set up, where faculty members can’t put aside their differences to treat each other, and their students, with respect?  Academic life is far harder than those outside of academia ever realize, without the added pressures of interdepartmental politics destroying our already fragile egos.

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