What Is Fundamentals?

Students pursue answers to some fundamental questions.
Fundamentals students
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015
The more you feel like you can’t answer your question, the more you feel like you kinda want to prove yourself wrong.
Austin Brown
Fundamentals student, Class of 2017

What is the human response to catastrophe?
How do narratives work to create a distinct sense of presence?
What’s funny?
How do we belong?

These are fundamental questions, and they’re also Fundamentals questions.

I major in Fundamentals: Issues and Texts, or “Fundies,” as it’s affectionately referred to by those in the know. It’s a hard-to-explain, but intriguing major in the New Collegiate Division (a department which also houses Law, Letters, and Society and Religious Studies). There are only 37 of us, and each of us is paired with a faculty advisor who helps us formulate our question (see above), choose our text courses, our supporting courses, and to prepare for our Junior Paper (JP) and Senior Examination.

Sometimes we have potlucks!

For a while, I’ve wanted to write about Fundamentals. But it can be hard to write about an experience that’s yours in broad terms – and something important about my major is that every student’s experience in the major is individual to an extent not found in most areas of study.

So to that end, I talked to a few other Fundamentals majors about their experiences: a second year, a third year, and a fourth year, in order to understand how their experiences were tied to mine, and where they diverged.

Is Summary Possible?

When asked, I usually say that Fundamentals is “kinda like a Literature major but it’s more self-directed and you get to pick what you want to focus on.” I feel very strongly that your “elevator pitch” about something important to you speaks volumes about what you value about that thing, so to that end, I asked my Fundamentals colleagues how they describe the major to others.

Austin Brown, a second year from Austin, Texas, has the following elevator pitch for Fundamentals: “It’s an interdisciplinary English and Philosophy major where you ask a question, and then you spend the rest of your four years trying to answer it.”

Third year Jake Kaufman from Albuquerque, New Mexico describes Fundamentals as a major where you pose a question that serves to frame your studies, rather than one that begs an answer. He considers Fundamentals to be equivalent to “mini humanities grad school."

If fourth year Jon Catlin from Wasau, Wisconsin is in a hurry, he usually just tells people he’s studying Philosophy, but to him, what’s important is that "you get to read the best books with the people who know them best—and who are often crazy about them, which is the best part.”

Our elevator pitches are all a little different, but they all get at something integral to the major.

How Does Information Travel?

How did we even find out about this major, though? A lot of the time, when I tell people – even upperclassmen in the College – about my major, they’re unfamiliar with it. And that’s understandable, because Fundamentals is a small, uniquely Chicago major. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Some hear about the major through word of mouth: Jake heard about the major from one of his friends from his house in the College, Blackstone. This friend was taking a Fundamentals course on The Brothers Karamazov, and Jake told her that he wished he could spend an entire quarter reading Dostoyevsky. His friend told him that in the Fundamentals department, he could do just that – and now he does. Upon learning more about the major, he was drawn to the ability to see his studies as truly his own, rather than the department’s.

Austin has a similar story: he heard about Fundamentals from a friend who was considering the major. He was intrigued, so he went to a Fundamentals information session, where professors John McCormick and Malynne Sternstein (the undergraduate chair of the Fundamentals program) talked about Machiavelli and Nabokov, respectively. After this meeting, Austin was sold.

Both Jon and I did a lot of research about UChicago’s major programs before enrolling, extensively browsing the College’s listing of available majors and minors. I was immediately drawn toward the Fundamentals program. While Jon was investigating majors, he knew that he wanted to do an interdisciplinary Humanities major, and Fundamentals was the perfect option.

Why Fundamentals?

What drew us all to Fundamentals? In short, an interest: one that captured our attention so thoroughly that we felt confident we could spend our undergraduate years exploring it.

For me, “What’s funny?” felt like a natural question to spend my college years focusing on. I’ve always been theoretically interested in humor theory, but I didn’t always know that it was an actual area of study. After a sophomore-year-of-high-school Google search, I learned that humor theory… well, actually existed. I just didn’t think I could study it in college - until I found Fundamentals. Fundamentals allows me to apply my interest in humor to specific canonical texts, including Kafka’s The Trial, the subject of my Junior Paper. Picking my question was pretty easy; answering it is, of course, the hard part.

Jon had an easy time picking his question, too. Fundamentals majors are allowed to change their question as they progress along their undergraduate career, but for Jon, changing his question (“What is the human response to catastrophe?”) was unimaginable; he’s always felt attached to it: "I was 17 and took a summer course at Harvard on Holocaust literature. My question is still perfect for me because I feel equally valid answering it through historical, literary, religious, and philosophical texts, yet it has a specific experience at its core, so I never drift too far.”

Austin’s question, “How do we belong?” also sprouted from experience. “I think that, for me, in a weird way, it almost came from my first year in college, coming from a high school where I didn’t feel like I belonged,” he explained. "I was still trying to figure everything out, and I was like, how do I do that? What am I doing to belong? I’ve always wanted to approach these questions that are relevant to my life in a top down way as well as from a bottom up way, where I can use the texts that I read in classes to inform how I behave. I think Fundamentals really pushes that – pushes you to use your texts in real life.”

Jake’s question, “How do narratives work to create a distinct sense of presence?” evolved from his original question, “What is the function of a narrative?” Jake has long been interested in “the fact that we have the capacity to walk in our own world, and yet find comfort in a world to which we do not belong, but that we do create.” He explains that he is drawn to the “conflicted and confused relation between the fiction we write and the reality we live,” partly because he finds himself turning to, and becoming immersed in, stories in order to escape from and come to terms with the world. He wants to investigate what this experience means, and how it happens.

How Is a Question Answered?

So we’ve all asked a question, but how exactly do we go about answering it? Luckily, the Fundamentals curriculum is designed to help us.

We all applied to the major as first years, and started the required introductory sequence our second year. In my year, we read Solzhenitsyn and Kant: this year, the required courses have been on Machiavelli’s The Prince and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. These courses are aimed to teach us about the kind of close reading we’re expected to do as Fundamentals students.

Third year, the focus is on taking text courses (6 Fundamentals courses about specific texts and authors) and supporting courses (4 courses related in some way to the student’s question), as well as preparing for and writing our Junior Paper, the most significant piece of writing we do for the major. For our JP, we are tasked with focusing on one text and doing a close reading of that text through our own particular lens. For Jake, a third year, the Junior Paper is a terrifying opportunity to let his academic interests and abilities truly stand alone. He’s decided to study the cultural effects of narrative shifts in the tenth chapter of Ulysses, looking specifically to the curious kind of world built in Ulysses, and trying to “pinpoint the moment of fiction that occurs between the fabula - the list of events in the story - and the story proper, when so much of that fiction is based and indeed realized in reality.” Like with everything else in the Fundamentals major, the Junior Paper can be disconcertingly, even dauntingly individual, but ultimately, the department offers an amazing support system.

To help us write our paper, we meet biweekly with Malynne Sternstein, the Undergraduate Chair, and Cameron Cross, the Fundamentals Coordinator, in a beautiful seminar room with a stately wood table in the middle. At these seminars we talk about what we’re thinking, what we’re doing, and we get feedback, questions, and support from the other members of our cohort.

We planned on meeting for just an hour last time... and two hours later, we were still sitting around the conference table, drinking stale coffee, with no sign of our enthusiasm for our friends’ work diminishing. “I’m not alone in this endeavor; it is just I that holds the pen,” commented Jake.

How Is Knowledge Evaluated?

As a fourth year, your focus shifts to preparation for your Senior Examination. Fourth years must select the six books on which they’ll be examined, submit their list to the Fundamentals faculty, and then complete their examination during Spring Quarter.

Jon, who’s currently preparing for his Senior Exam, explained to me what’s so daunting and exciting about the impending examination: “By your fourth year as a humanities major, you've read easily a hundred books, so it really forces you to reflect on your education and which books have really influenced the way you think about your question. Still, I'm excited for the chance to synthesize everything I've been doing the past several years. In a sense it's kind of the opposite approach as the third-year paper, where you really hone on one text, one author's way of thinking, one specific textual question. This is the final payoff of all that close reading.”

What Unites You?

As Austin puts it, "The more you feel like you can’t answer your question, the more you feel like you kinda want to prove yourself wrong.”

It is this drive that unites us. We all have deeply individual focuses of study, but we’re united by almost-obsessive search for personal truth within literary works, by this pursuit to confront the unanswerable, and by reading so close that we need a magnifying glass.

Tagged: Majors, College, New Collegiate Division