How interdisciplinary faculty bring research into the classroom

By Alexis Ruesch

Dixie State University’s Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (IAS) department houses two programs that allow students to create a customized major: Integrated Studies and Individualized Studies. Alexis Ruesch, class of 2019, is a current student in the Integrated Studies program with emphasis areas in Human Communication and Sociology. Alexis interviewed new IAS faculty member Dr. Chelsea McCracken to learn more about what brought her to the IAS department.

AR: What is your favorite part of working in the Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (IAS) department? What attracted you to this program?

CM: My favorite part of working in the IAS department is helping students develop their interests and their research and writing skills. It’s very rewarding to be able to mentor a student who has never done research before, and the next thing you know they’re completing a major research project on a topic they’re interested in and telling you “I love writing about this topic!” I love writing about my own research interests too, so it’s great to be able to share that with students.

My doctoral degree is in linguistics, which is an inherently interdisciplinary field. Since earning my degree, I have developed a secondary research interest in education. The IAS department at DSU allows me to do social science research in a broader sense than is usually possible in a single academic department. Like many of our students, I see the IAS department as a uniquely good opportunity for me to be able harmonize all of my interests.

AR: What research have you done in the past? I know that you’ve done some research in New Caledonia, can you explain more about what you did there? What is happening with the New Caledonia referendum?

CM: For my doctoral research, I spent nine months over the course of three years conducting linguistic fieldwork in New Caledonia, a French territory in the south Pacific. The language I studied is called Belep and it’s spoken by about 2,000 indigenous Kanak people. By working with people in the community, I was able to systematically build up a picture of how the language worked. My forthcoming book, A Grammar of Belep, is a reference guide to the language and how it works–what sounds are used and how words and sentences are formed.

This November 4, New Caledonia held a referendum on whether to become an independent country. Many of my Kanak colleagues have been fighting for independence since the 1970s. The referendum did not pass, despite the fact that about 75% of people in predominantly Kanak regions voted for independence. It is unclear what the next steps are for them.

AR: What research are you working on currently? How does your research experience help you to assist students in the department?

The current focus of my research is on homeschooling. For several years I have been doing research for a nonprofit, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates for homeschooled children. Right now I’m working with a historian, Dr. Rachel Coleman, to produce the first representative study of homeschooled children’s academic achievement. It’s hard to study because most states don’t require homeschool students to take assessments, and if they do they usually don’t collect the data. We’ve managed to take advantage of a rare dataset to compare homeschoolers’ scores to those of traditional students, and have found some unexpected and interesting results. We’re planning to publish an article about our findings in the coming year.

Any students that have taken INTS 3100 with me know that I bring my research into the classroom! I have several different lesson plans that allow students to get their hands on my data and form their own analyses, or to critique the sources I’m citing in my own research. I think students benefit from the fact that I’m an active researcher–I’m often doing research on topics that are new to me, just like my students are, so I can give them hands-on research assistance. I can also commiserate about writing problems students are having because I’m having similar ones. The other day I found myself saying to myself what I often say to my students: “Just write words, they don’t have to be good yet, that’s what drafts are for.” My interactions with students in the IAS department have absolutely made me a better researcher.