Students turn to interdisciplinary majors

As some of Yale’s most popular majors including history and English experience declining enrollments, majors that transcend disciplinary boundaries are on the rise.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said interdisciplinary majors — who draw from departments across the University to focus on a particular topic, like American studies or environmental studies — have become increasingly popular over the past decade. Students and faculty involved in the majors said they think interdisciplinary programs allow students to explore the Yale curriculum with more flexibility, but other professors said they believe students benefit from a more traditional disciplinary approach to education.

“Majors that tend to be more problem-based than disciplinary-based have long been attractive, and I think, now, we are finding more ways to do this with subjects that are both topical and of keen interest to the millennial generation,” Miller said. “Such majors tend to focus on topic, not discipline, and look from many different lenses in order to gain expertise and multidisciplinary training for interdisciplinary exploration.”

Though some interdisciplinary programs have their own faculty positions, most draw from other related departments and course listings. The American studies faculty includes professors from departments such as History, African American Studies and Anthropology.

Senior lecturer Amity Doolittle said environmental studies has grown dramatically over the past decade, a trend she attributed both to the relevance of the subject matter and the intellectual freedom of the program. Last year, 28 students earned undergraduate degrees in environmental studies, compared to nine in 2003-’04.

“Who doesn’t like to break boundaries?” Doolittle said. “Studying within traditional disciplines means adopting labels such as, ‘I am a historian,’ or ‘I am botanist,’ or ‘I am an artist.’ But with an interdisciplinary EVST focus you can draw together your multiple interests.”

Like many interdisciplinary majors, environmental studies requires that students complete courses in different disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences and sciences.

Ned Blackhawk, director of undergraduate studies for American studies, called his field “inherently interdisciplinary,” adding that he thinks the growth of interdisciplinary majors reflects creative collaboration among professors across disciplines on campus.

Norma Thompson, director of undergraduate studies for the humanities major, said she thinks the major allows students to bring together courses that interest them without feeling constrained by requirements. Humanities incorporates courses from programs such as literature, film studies and political science.

“I don’t think you should be wasting time at Yale taking courses you don’t want to take,” Thompson said.

Still, Thompson said it can be difficult to balance academic freedom with cohesiveness in the major. Without dedicated faculty, she said interdisciplinary majors cannot guarantee that course offerings will remain consistent each year, as the major depends on cross-listed courses in other departments.

Professor Beverly Gage, director of undergraduate studies for the history major, said single-discipline majors help students build “methodological tools of knowledge, such as writing and analyzing well,” skills that may be lost in a purely topic-based approach.

Several students interviewed said they enrolled in an interdisciplinary major because it allowed them to draw upon their interests in different departments to form their own academic track.

“When I was looking through the blue book, I noticed that many of my interests aligned with [women, gender and sexuality studies],” Lily Vanderbloemen ’16 said. “A lot of the courses that I most enjoyed happened to be cross listed.”

Ethan Karetsky ’14 said he has taken courses in art, teater and history that fulfill requirements within his personally-designed track in the American studies major.

Yale undergradautes can choose from 75 different majors.

Comments