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Interdisciplinary Studies M.A. covers all bases

April 23, 2009

If Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences was a baseball team, and its renowned graduate degree programs were the players, the growing Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program would be the versatile, much-in-demand utility infielder.

Created in the fall of 2000, the fledgling program was described by ASU Insight West at the time as “a new way to focus our intellectual efforts and strengthen our interdisciplinary commitment.”  By all accounts, the program has hit a homerun, providing students with an opportunity to individually tailor a program to their specific needs from a variety of interdisciplinary course offerings, both within New College and across many of the university’s programs at its four campuses:  Tempe, West, Downtown Phoenix and Polytechnic.

“This is a unique and popular graduate degree program,” says Robert Taylor, MAIS director and the man behind ASU’s acquisition of the acclaimed Simeon Schwemberger photographs, a historical collection of more than 1,800 compelling images of American Indian peoples, homes and landscapes dating back to 1902.  “The benefits of such a broad curriculum, especially for the students in the core courses shared by all, grow from the diversity of academic approaches encountered.  This is only possible in an interdisciplinary environment such as that of New College.”

Taylor calls the program “a new degree for the new century, offered by the New American University.”  He says it has become increasingly popular and well known over the years, as New College has emerged as the core college of the West campus, positioning the campus as a center of excellence in interdisciplinary arts and sciences.

“The proof of the value of this degree is in the escalating numbers of applicants since we restructured the program with multiple focus areas, clusters of courses from specific interdisciplinary areas, that make solid organizational sense of what could appear an overwhelming array of offerings,” says Taylor, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in his native England and his Ph.D. in political theatre and film from the University of Kansas.

The MAIS graduate program was recently considered for disestablishment because of state budget constraints.  However, it received such vocal support from community leaders, alumni, and its own students, that the program and its four sister master’s offerings in New College are alive and well and accepting applications for the fall and summer sessions.  The MAIS program features a “rolling deadline” policy, so applications are accepted continuously.  Taylor recommends fall 2009 applicants submit their qualifications before June 1, but applicants still will be considered throughout the summer months.

“Our students explore scientific perspectives and methods, and better appreciate them as the necessary tools for understanding nature and society,” says Taylor.  “The coursework is innovative and provides the foundation and skills necessary for effective expression and a greater understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures, past and present.

“This program encourages people to think out of the box, to cross disciplinary borders, and, via multiple methodologies, build a portfolio of awareness, knowledge and skills for the new global marketplace.”

Core courses in creative and critical thinking, research and problem-solving skills, plus electives specially selected for individual students, or grouped into concentration areas, such as Civic Leadership, Non-Profit Studies, Visual Cultures, English, Applied Arts, and Cultural Studies, are followed by a final capstone course that can take a variety of directions.

An example of research being done in the MAIS program is graduate student Ann Mello’s study of “Life Transitions of Young Spouse Dementia Caregivers.”  It is one of the first of its kind, recognizing the early-age onset of dementia in people under the age of 59 years.  The results of Mello’s research back the need to recognize and give greater identity to young spouse dementia and Alzheimer’s disease caregivers, as well as the need for age-appropriate resources that will provide guidance and assistance in obtaining needed benefits and services to help support them in their caregiving role.

Another MAIS capstone project was authored by graduate student Gay Bailey, “Beyond Stargazing: Preservation and Organization of data Regarding the Navajo Star Ceilings of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto” in the Four Corners area of northeastern Arizona.  Bailey’s research caught the attention of American Indian Rock Art Journal and is both important and innovative because it provided a digital means to preserve a 30-year collection of deteriorating photographic slides of Navajo “star ceilings” – pictographs on the ceilings and walls of ancient ledges and caves that help tell the story of the Diné people’s arrival in the area.

Elizabeth Langland, a university vice president and dean of New College, says faculty strength is a big factor in students’ attraction to the college.

“The faculty of New College not only have expertise in their respective disciplines but also broad experience with interdisciplinary inquiry, both in the classroom and in their research.  Their excellence is at the core of this program’s success, and working one-on-one with the faculty enables students to shape distinctive and effective programs of study that prepare them to contribute in numerous ways to solving the complex problems we face as a society.”