Doctoral candidate in German Studies
Master’s student in Computer Music and Multimedia
What prompted you to apply for the Open Graduate Education program?
I had actually gotten wind of the program from Dean McLaughlin while visiting Brown as an admitted student. At that time the program hadn't been officially announced yet, and there was no guarantee that I would be accepted into it. My department already offered the possibility of a secondary specialization, so I knew in any case that my interests would be accommodated. The general ethos of interdisciplinarity here at Brown was certainly a huge factor in my decision to come to Brown. Getting accepted into the Open Graduate Education program was the icing on the cake.
How would you describe your experience in the program so far?
Being a full-fledged graduate student in a second department has been a very rewarding opportunity, but it is not easy. You’ll find yourself having to frequently “switch gears” as you move—both physically and mentally—from one department to the other. You’ll also have to make decisions about how best to use your time, since you’ll be facing both the academic and social demands of two programs, which will sometimes conflict. The boon of all this, of course, is that you become the architect of your own program; your advisors may help to steer you within the one department or the other, but it is entirely up to you to discover and decide how the two will fit together. The meetings and dinners with the deans each month have been a huge help; they are always eager to hear about how your program is unfolding, and ready to aid you with negotiating the requirements of two programs.
What most excited you about this opportunity?
I've always been as passionate about creating music as I am about theorizing it from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The Department of German Studies at Brown is a great place to be involved in this work, given the unique strengths of the faculty in aesthetic theory and music. Brown's program in computer music and multimedia is unique for its own interdisciplinarity as well as its emphasis on theory, and the chance to pursue graduate work in this field alongside my other research is an opportunity I never expected to have. I'm reminded here of Friedrich Kittler, the famous German media theorist, who taught computer programming alongside literature in Berlin, and insisted that students in the humanities be trained in both if they wanted a comprehensive understanding of modern culture.
What have you found most challenging?
Everybody will have a different experience, but you might encounter some resistance from people who are still convinced that a very narrow focus is the only way to do good research. It's also likely that your home department will start to feel a little less like "home" as you begin to spend more time with a new group of colleagues in your secondary field. It's likely that few people will immediately understand what it is that you're doing, given that your work now presupposes expertise in two fields rather than just one. One of your responsibilities in this program is to bridge those divides and show others why your work is novel and important. This responsibility is actually a very rewarding opportunity to continually reflect on the meaning of your research and your place in the program.
Why did you choose Computer Multimedia for your master's?
My major at Northwestern was philosophy, but I also did courses in computer science and studied viola at the conservatory. After college I spent a few years abroad in Germany and began to see close affinities between my fields of interest, which started when I read Theodor Adorno's "Philosophy of New Music." I was impressed by how he engaged in that work with the contemporary composers of his day. Typically, where music appears in the humanities, it is often only to say something very general, without much technical insight, about canonical composers like Wagner or Mozart. Given my interests in computers and hardware, I found the book to be an invitation to think about the newest musical techniques and technologies through the lens of my work in philosophy. I always remind myself that Adorno, at an early age, was told he would have to choose between Beethoven and Kant. And then I remind myself about how lucky and enriched we are that he didn't.
What have you enjoyed most about the regular meetings with the other program participants and deans?
Communication is obviously a very important part of this program. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann wrote of the communicative barriers that arise as society becomes more "functionally differentiated." Graduate study, of course, reflects the latest state of that differentiation, and every graduate student goes through the experience of feeling that he or she speaks a private language. Not surprisingly, the students in our program have all been eager to hear about each others projects. Each meeting involves stretching one's ears to the discourses of other, unfamiliar disciplines. One is often forced to reflect on the premises which are taken for granted within the usual disciplinary confines, with the unanticipated result that one begins to see the blind spots. This kind of intellectual stimulation has been the most enjoyable part of our meetings for me - that and the free food.
How did you structure the master's work into your PhD schedule? Has your plan or schedule changed?
I proposed a schedule that front-loads my courses in computer multimedia, since I've done less work in that field than in German studies. Since the overarching goal of the Open Graduate program is to see what the secondary field can bring to the main field, I thought it made sense to order my courses like that. Obviously the interaction goes both ways, however, and since I've been given the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant in computer multimedia next year, hopefully I'll have the chance to funnel my work in philosophy and aesthetics into the courses I'm involved with there. That would certainly be a boon for the undergraduates as well, who are always looking for new ways to think about their creative work in music and multimedia
What advice would you give to those applying this year?
Go out on a limb. The most interesting connections you'll find between your fields will be the ones that you didn't anticipate. The secondary field should be something you're passionate about, not something that just shores up your resume--although it will undoubtedly do that. Since the program is demanding, the enthusiasm that shows up in your proposal will also tell the committee something about your ability to complete it successfully. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the program to take a class in the intended field. It's encouraging to keep in mind that, if you're accepted into the program, you'll be a "free" graduate student for your secondary field, courtesy of the program. It's more likely, however, that they'll be interested in you because of the new perspective and background you would bring to their department. The support I've received from the Graduate School, my home department and especially the professors in my secondary field has been tremendous so far. If I may be permitted, I think Zachary Sng in German Studies and Butch Rovan of MEME [Multimedia & Electronic Music Experiments] deserve special mention and thanks here.