Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2


Amateur Hour

>Inspired Intersections

The More Things Change...

A Decade of Discussion

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Inspired Intersections

For Rachel Poor, Andrew Brandel, and Iris Chan, tackling two areas of study has meant double the intellectual satisfaction.

Consider the rigor of just one undergraduate major at Johns Hopkins. Now multiply thatby two. Though the path to pursuing a double major in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences is relatively obstacle-free—thanks to an absence of general-education requirements and the fact that cross-listed courses are double-counted—the resulting course load is challenging, to say the least. "We let students have considerable independence and latitude in creating their own curriculum, [but] doing a double major here is not easy," admits Paula Burger, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. "We have a lot of students, though, who are engaged in their work and have multiple interests, so why choose just one major when you don't have to?"

Last year's graduating classes in Arts and Sciences and Engineering included 144 seniors who had opted to take the double-major route—14 percent of the total. These double majors touched 36 disciplines, includingeconomics (with the most at 13 double majors) and psychology and Spanish (which tied for second at eight each). "Generally our students who choose double majors are highly talentedand motivated," says Burger.

John Bader, associate dean for academic programs and advising, elaborates: "These students develop different parts of their personalities and brains, and they [often] see the world in a far more sophisticated way."

For the three students profiled here, thepay-off for an extra taxing workload lies in thejoy of pursuing both of their scholarly passions equally—and in finding academic intersections that inspire them to think in new ways.

"The more you know about something, the more you can contribute," says Burger. "Intellectually engaged students add value, always."

And a River Runs Through It

Rachel PoorFor Rachel Poor '08, it was love at first syllable. Learning to speak Arabic wasn't something she had planned to do—her first course was undertaken as a whim during a high school summer study program at the University of Chicago—but "during that first class, I thought it was a beautiful language," she says. It isn't just syntax and vocabulary for Poor. "Whenever you study another language, you're studying religion and culture," she says.

She started out at Hopkins as an international studies major, feeding her passion for the Middle East with classes in Arabic and Near Eastern studies. Then, after taking Origins of Diplomacy and Dead Sea Scrolls her sophomore year, she decided to formalize her interest by adding a Near Eastern studies major, with a concentration in Old Testament studies.

“At first, I didn't realize how useful Near Eastern studies would be for figuring out more sustainable ways for people to live and feed themselves.”

—Rachel Poor,
double major in international studies and Near Eastern studies

It wasn't until she picked up a magazine, though, that her double major—and an idea of how to meld a career from both disciplines—began to coalesce. "I read an article in Smithsonian about the Dead Sea," she explains. "It's shrinking rapidly because there is so much water being drawn from the Jordan River for farming. The Arabic people are growing non-indigenous, water-heavy crops like melons for export and importing a lot of different foods to feed themselves." Investigating further, she learned of a growing sustainability movement among the Arabic people. The burgeoning field seemed to suit her interests perfectly, tapping into her language skills as well as her knowledge of the region and its culture.

Poor has since taken classes in sustainability and environmental science to expand her understanding of water sustainability. A junior-year semester abroad at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies spent studying the Hittites (an empire during the Bronze Age in what is now Turkey) deepened her knowledge of Middle Eastern history. And don't overlook her personal history. Though she's not from a farming family—her dad's a radiologist—Poor has more than a passing knowledge of what a thriving agricultural region looks like. She grew up in the rich farmland of Bettendorf, Iowa, along the banks of the Mississippi River.

"At first, I didn't realize how useful Near Eastern studies would be for figuring out more sustainable ways for people to live and feed themselves," she says. But then last year she began an independent research project to examine historical migration patterns of the Arabic people, comparing crops and livestock raised then to those grown and raised today.

She'll build on that work this summer when she travels to the Middle East for the first time. Poor has recently received $4,000 in the form of a William F. Clinger Award (for undergraduate research with an international focus), whichshe will use to study in Amman, Jordan. She'll spend her mornings in Arabic classes at the University of Jordan and her afternoons researching historical agricultural data and comparing it to modern Arabic farming practices. The goal: to figure out how such practices are affecting water sustainability.

"The most important part of the problem is how the population has changed over time," says Poor, who is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. "The way that [Arabic] people used to live was much more nomadic, which stresses the land less." Using the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR), part of the Boston University Library in Jordan, as her home base, she hopes to visit farms and villages throughout the region.

After that, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies. Poor's ultimate goal is to study international maritime law in law school in the U.S. before returning to the Middle East—and the language and culture she loves—for a career in water rights.

Matters of Debate

Andrew BrandelAndrew Brandel '09 knows well the value of a good debate. As a self-described political junkie, he often argues politics with friends and faculty. It was a series of late-night debates about philosophy, intellectual tussles with his freshman-year roommate, that inspired Brandel to major in philosophy and focus on early 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. "I had to keep reading soI wouldn't lose," he laughs.

Another impassioned intellectual discussion led Brandel to his second major, in anthropology, an independent study on Heidegger, and now a 150-page honors thesis with two chapters written and counting.

“Using the social theories of anthropology, I’m taking portions of Heidegger’s rigid philosophy and trying to reinterpret it to build theories about how to think about mankind.”

—Andrew Brandel,
double major in philosophy and anthropology

During the spring semester of his sophomore year, Brandel took his first anthropology courses, including Anthropology of the Senses, with Naveeda Khan. After class, Brandel routinely walked Khan to her next class, asking questions and debating the intersection of anthropology and philosophy. "It was serendipitous," he says of their weekly strolls across Homewood. "I took her class because I was interested in epistemology. She and I would talk about the perception of time and some very philosophically informed anthropology."

By the end of the semester (and more than a few laps around Homewood), Brandel formally declared a second major in anthropology. With Khan's early and ongoing encouragement and the guidance of his thesis advisor, Anthropology Department chairwoman and Krieger-Eisenhower Professor Veena Das, he began an independent research project, which he hopes will eventually be the focus of a PhD in anthropology. "Anthropology is a particular way of looking at the world and addressing infinite questions," he explains. "Using the social theories of anthropology, I'm taking portions of Heidegger's rigid philosophy and trying to reinterpret it to build theories about how to think about mankind."

His subject matter is more than a little challenging. "Heidegger has a very systematic philosophy, and his treatises are incredibly difficult," says Brandel of the man who influenced numerous disciplines, including existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre was Heidegger's student at the University of Freiburg), theology, psychology, and postmodernism. Then there's the little matter of the translations. "They're very rough, and occasionally Heidegger leaves things in ancient Greek or Latin," he chuckles. "He just didn't care."

Brandel's thesis first explores Heidegger's philosophy on the building blocks of authentic selfhood. "I am researching what he has to say about selfhood and how an individual relates to others," he explains. In the second part of his thesis, he takes these building-block concepts and reanalyzes them using anthropological methods—such as exploring death and how various cultures use rituals and language to talk about death.

Currently there are nine double majors in anthropology, but Brandel is one of only two students with a double major in anthropology and philosophy. The other is his current roommate, Nick Jensen '09, who followed Brandel's lead. "We're definitely up a lot at night talking," Brandel laughs. "Nick's interests are very differently focused, but this semester we're both in the junior/senior seminar Anthropology of Personhood. Plus, he's trying to backfill his knowledge of German thought, so I'm helping him with that."

Brandel admits that even the most passionate student-researcher can get burned out, but says the school's close-knit academic community keeps his intellectual fire stoked: "Hopkins is so supportive of my research, and the faculty really embraces my ideas." The same goes for his proclivity for questioning and debate. "Every individual anthropologist brings his own way of thinking to the table," he says. "Defending my point helps me find my own voice of analysis."


When Left Brain Meets Right

Iris ChanLike one of her favorite writers, Anton Chekhov, Iris Chan '08 has no trouble reconciling her left brain with her right. Chekhov's medical training heavily influenced his writing, something Chan, a double major in writing seminars and public health, understands. "I can sympathize," she says. "If I were only a writing seminars major or only a public health major, I'd be dissatisfied. I enjoy being both analytical and creative."

She also enjoys the challenge of two reading-intensive majors, regularly carrying 18 to 20 credits per semester. "You grow accustomed to your weekly schedule," says Chan, who declared her double major early during her freshman year.

“If I were only a writing seminars major or only a public health major, I'd be dissatisfied. I enjoy being both analytical and creative.”

—Iris Chan, double major in public health and the writing seminars

But you won't find Chan in the library on Friday night. The Bethesda, Md., native balances her strenuous workload with plenty of social time spent with a wide circle of friends, most of whom, she says, have similar course loads. "In Chinese, there's a phrase roughly translated that means 'adding gas,'" she says. "We're encouraging each other. If the work wasn't hard, I would've been bored."

Sometimes Chan gets a question or two about just how well her two majors mesh. "My majors aren't disparate to me, because a lot of social science and public health issues are complex, to say the least," she says. "In order to express your ideas, you need to be an elegant writer." She points as example to another of her favorite writers, Charles Dickens. "He's referenced a lot in public health classes because he is addressing poverty and public health issues in his work."

During her sophomore year, Chan enrolled in Environmental History, a course cross-listed in environmental engineering and anthropology. "The readings were very much a blend of humanities-type thinking and trying to examine problems in the world," explains Chan. The course inspired her to embark on an independent study on the urban geography of poverty in Baltimore. Erica Schoenberger, professor of geography and environmental engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, guided the project, which blended Chan's public health background in statistical analysis, mapping, and study design with herlove of writing.

"My thesis is that accessibility and proximity to public services can raise or lower neighborhood well-being," explains Chan, who used Baltimore City public libraries for a proxy of public services.

With funding from a prestigious Provost's Undergraduate Research Award, Chan conducted field research by visiting all 26 Baltimore City public libraries, collecting and analyzing data on neighborhood income, homeownership, education, employment rates, and library usage. "I discovered that library patrons have different needs in an urban setting," she notes. "Libraries aren't a static resource. People are using them as free daycare for kids; they're using library computers to apply for jobs; and homeless people are using libraries to get out of the heat or cold. Resources are used in flexible ways, and it's up to librariesto be flexible."

In addition to this project, Chan has completed a variety of internships during her years at Hopkins, including positions at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.; the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future; Carroll and Graf Publishers in New York; and on Capitol Hill with Representative Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

After graduation, she'll look for a job inNew York's publishing world or with a healthcare consulting firm. A yet-to-be-published fiction writer, Chan is looking forward to having more time to read and write for her own enjoyment. But the completion of her rigorous course loadwill be bittersweet.

"After college, I won't be in an environment were I can learn as much as I want," she says. "Looking back on my Hopkins experience, I would do it the same way. Definitely."


Sarah Achenbach is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.