Interdepartmental Studies: for dastardly rogues only

by Maria Ranier

As an undergraduate scholar, I conducted an extensive research project on writing in the undergrad Music department – a perfectly tame, even boring topic, I thought. But during my research experience, I was told that I had an agenda. My work was studiously ignored by Music and English professors alike, secretly informed by the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) director, and hated by nearly all Music students and professors. All of this unforeseen scandal and trauma came about because of my simple interest in the topic of writing in undergraduate Music programs. But why?

No Department is an Island

Try telling that to any university department, and you’ll be met with superficial agreement – but underneath, departments are competitive and exclusive, fighting for the best students and trying to create isolated cultures. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, but several professors I know admitted it, if grudgingly – all I had to do was ask. Once I realized that departments aren’t actually willing to do what’s best for the students – engaging in helpful give-and-take – I concluded that my troubles were arising from the fact that I was inadvertently pitting my school’s Music department against its English department.

This couldn’t have been clearer when, at the end of my research, I presented my findings to the head of the Music department. His response was that I “seemed to have an agenda” – yes, I wanted to destroy the Music department and erect a second English department in its place. The divisiveness between departments had grown so strong that he couldn’t see how illogical his apprehensions were. All he knew was that I was trying to introduce another department’s focus into his Music program, making me some kind of agent in Her Literacy’s Secret Service. Despite my attempts to show him that writing is an interdisciplinary tool, he wasn’t buying it – he took a copy of my music-related writing assignments, but it probably went straight into the shredder. Or an evidence file for his case against the English department.

What’s the Big Deal?

This interdepartmental squabbling is an important issue for several reasons: first, students often change their majors and drift among departmental cultures, so exclusivity makes it more difficult for them to change their academic trajectories as they learn more about their own interests. This is deliberate and is meant to keep students in their original programs, but it’s not always in the students’ best interests. Second, the first-year core always includes courses from multiple departments, demonstrating that a well-rounded scholar isn’t limited to studying within a single department’s “jurisdiction.” And finally, painting a picture of segmented academia discourages students from joining the community as professors. One would think that professors would want to continue the tradition of higher education by inspiring their students to go to graduate school and start their own teaching careers. But the short-sighted focus on departmental success can mean that professors aren’t thinking about the big picture at all, or even about individual student’s academic experiences.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this problem concerns the absolute necessity of interdepartmental studies and the determination of professors to stop them in their tracks. Because Music faculty refused to communicate with English faculty, I eventually encouraged the Music professors to contact the WAC director. He was viewed as a relatively impartial third party who wouldn’t be trying to “steal” Music students and change them into English majors. In my naïveté, I had assumed that the Music department faculty might recognize their students’ stunted writing abilities and open their minds to teaching strategies used in the English department. But I underestimated the department’s desire to isolate its students, keeping them from learning about any potential value that another department might have to offer. I’m under the impression that students get the best academic experience when they have the freedom to learn from multiple departments – and that can’t happen when interdepartmental dynamics remain as they are.

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, where recently she’s been researching different types of mechanical engineering degree programs and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Categories: Education

3 replies »

  1. “Her Literacy’s Secret Service” — hahaha!

    I see this all the time, of course, working at a university. Not everyone here even bothers to pretend to play nice (although most do). There’s a huge tug of war for resources between perceived haves and have-nots, between the professional schools and the arts and sciences, between “draw” programs and “service programs,” between tenured and nontenured faculty, between full-time faculty and adjuncts, between faculty and staff, and between anyone who sees his/her job at risk and everyone else. It’s ALL politics. And you’re absolutely right: what’s best for the students is frequently the LAST thing on anyone’s mind. It’s really quite pitiful, to be honest.

  2. Well done, Maria. Short version: Increases in numbers of departmental majors = increases in resources.

    Please write for us again.