Interdisciplinary studies director leads international organization

24th November 2015

By Steven Krolak

Dr. Deborah Finkel, professor of psychology and director of the interdisciplinary studies graduate program (MIS) at IU Southeast has just completed her first year as president of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs or AGLSP.

It’s kind of a big deal.

The AGLSP is a professional organization devoted to the range of interdisciplinary graduate degree programs traditionally known as liberal studies. Its membership of academics and administrators is worldwide and its impact on the lives of students and their institutions is profound.

The AGLSP sets rules and requirements for interdisciplinary programs, which are gaining in popularity as students seek to customize their learning journeys to adapt to expanding career opportunities in fields that demand a diversified skill-set.

“More than ever, we need big-picture thinking,” Finkel said, encapsulating the rationale for the interdisciplinary approach.

Halfway through her first term as president, Finkel has brought her own brand of big-picture thinking to the AGLSP itself.

She has revamped major aspects of the organization. Membership has been simplified, to allow more members to serve, vote, receive awards and contribute, enhancing the AGLSP’s budget and capabilities. The organization’s journal has gone online, and traffic data is positive. Finally, the annual conference, featuring workshops that give program directors guidance on all aspects of liberal/interdisciplinary graduate studies, was a success.

“This is nuts and bolts stuff,” said Finkel of the workshops. “How to deal with uneven skills among students, how to help them stay in school and graduate, how to help them make the shift to global citizen.”

While building an international reputation in behavior genetics, Finkel has also established the Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies program at IU Southeast. Under her leadership the program gained crucial support from the university and was re-accredited.

“I couldn’t have done it without the inspiration and leadership provided by the AGLSP,” Finkel said. “It helps me make our MIS a better program.”

According to Finkel, interdisciplinary programs not only embrace diversity in programming, but also in their student populations, which include traditional students, adult learners, veterans, retirees, millennials, athletes and more. “Every student has a different set of life circumstances that would affect their academic trajectory,” she said.

That might present challenges to directors struggling to figure out whom to market the programs to, but it’s a core value of the degree as a whole.

“The students all bring something to the classroom that is unique,” said Finkel, who teaches Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies course in the first year to all incoming MIS students.

“Every time I lead it, the course takes on a different hue and tenor, as students bring their own backgrounds and skills to it,” she said.

This year’s AGLSP conference, held last month in San Jose, Calif., illustrated the range of learning and possibility inherent in interdisciplinary research. Under the theme of “Place Matters,” scholars from across the U.S. and Canada contributed papers in history, psychology, environmental law, film, literature, communications, design, economics and many more.

“It really appeals to me,” Finkel said of the variety in the MIS program. “I came from a small liberal arts college, so this is back to my roots in liberal arts, but expanded beyond my training in psychology. The courses stretch students beyond their training, too. We’re doing that together.”

With interdisciplinary programs increasingly in demand, especially among traditional students attracted to the ability to design their own degrees, the guidance afforded by the AGLSP in areas of curriculum and structure is crucial.

In summing up the relevance of interdisciplinary degrees, Finkel quoted the engineer Stuart G. Walesh, “The computer is incredibly fast, accurate and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a challenge and opportunity beyond imagination.”

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