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Embracing an Interdisciplinary Approach to Graduate Education

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Dartmouth’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies

After more than three decades at Dartmouth, the College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program is reaping the rewards of its enduring commitment to interdisciplinary study. The program was founded in 1973 to “bring the attitudes and beliefs associated with the liberal arts into a graduate environment,” says Professor Donald Pease, the program’s chair. Since then, he notes, MALS’s fundamental assumption—that a graduate program should have an interdisciplinary focus—“has moved from the margins of academia to a central position.”

Derek Lundquist

Derek Lundquist, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies student, is writing a thesis on the impact of the American Bar Association on the Russian legal system. He plans to attend law school after completing his master’s. (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

The demographics of the program’s students reflect that change, Pease says. In 1999, Pease and MALS Executive Director Lauren Clarke revised the program’s curriculum, creating concentrations in cultural, environmental, and globalization studies. MALS also offers a creative writing track and a general liberal studies degree.

MALS’s student body of about 180 includes international scholars from 22 countries. “Until 10 years ago, most MALS students were secondary school teachers,” Pease recalls. “While MALS has continued to address the pedagogical and scholarly needs of that group, the program now enrolls many young scholars who intend to pursue PhDs in the humanities or advanced degrees in law, business administration, medicine, or engineering.” Among them are recent BA graduates from schools such as Berkeley, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

Derek Lundquist, Clark University Class of 2008, is one of this new breed of MALS students. He is pursuing interests in government and globalization, en route to law school. “My thesis is on the impact of the American Bar Association dialogue talks and exchanges with Soviet/Russian lawyers on the Russian legal system, particularly jury trial practices and judicial independence,” he says.

Before taking on skill-focused training in law school, he says, his MALS degree is an opportunity to explore the wider implications of the profession.

As the needs and ambitions of its students have changed, MALS has moved from an emphasis on providing summer studies to a year-round academic program. Recent graduates have gone on to prestigious doctoral degree programs, including fellowships and scholarships at universities including Indiana, Michigan, NYU, Princeton, and Oxford. In 2006, Anna Schuleit, MALS ’05 in creative writing, received a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship in support of her site-specific art, which uses temporary installations to invoke lives and memories attached to places.

An interdisciplinary approach benefits the faculty as well. The program’s team-taught courses “bring scholars together who have different points of view, and whose interests are not restricted to their disciplinary enclaves,” says Pease. “The courses that result from these joint ventures prove deeply edifying, to students and teachers alike.”

BY KELLY SEAMAN

Last Updated: 1/12/10