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How IAS faculty are breaking down the boundaries between disciplines

By McKay Kennedy

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. McKay Kennedy, class of 2019, is a current student in the Integrated Studies program with emphasis areas in Communication and Biology. McKay interviewed new IAS faculty member Dr. Mark Jeffreys to learn more about his experiences in the IAS department.

MK: What is your favorite part about working in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences department?

MJ: That’s a toss up. I’ve always found my colleagues in the department to be great people. And I’ve always loved having students from across many disciplines that I can learn from as well as teach.

MK: What attracted you to this program?

MJ: I’m an interdisciplinary creature by nature. My interests ramble and meander over traditional academic boundaries. Once upon a time, I was a pretty typical poetry professor, which was fine, but I kept wandering into oddball areas like Disability Studies, Human Evolution, Cultural Evolution, and so on. Once I’d gotten my second doctorate, this time in Anthropology and Human Evolutionary Ecology, I really needed a home where I could roam. For many years, I held a joint appointment in Behavioral Sciences and Integrated Studies at Utah Valley U, but this particular program at Dixie also offered me the opportunity to build out from Integrated Studies, adding the Bachelor’s of Individualized Studies to the department and working extensively with the Booth Honors Program, which also draws majors from all across campus. Academic diversity is meat and drink for me.

MK: What attracted you to Dixie State University?

MJ: I’ve spent the bulk of my career, since the early ‘90s, working at downtown campuses that began as two-year colleges and were sort of spontaneously combusting into four-year, open universities just as I arrived. That was true at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and at UU. So joining Dixie at this stage of its development felt like a comfortable fit, with a lot of room to grow. Plus, my family really wanted to move to this area, and I’m quite fond of the spectacular natural setting myself.

MK: What research have you done in the past?

MJ: Goodness. At the risk of sounding like I’m just ticking off random boxes, I’ll list some topics, more or less chronologically: the rhetoric of high modernist poetics; the poetry of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and Sterling Brown; genre theories of lyric poetry; song lyrics as poetry; the cultural position of the disabled body; genetic monstrosity in film; memetics; the Dorset-Thule transition in the Canadian Arctic; language evolution; behavioral game experiments exploring the intersection of human coordination, cooperation, and communication; the long-term cultural resilience and community stability of a rural Canadian village. You know, stuff like that.

MK: What research are you working on currently?

MJ: The Canadian village project is long-term and ongoing. I hope to make a two-decade study of it. At the moment, I’m writing up an initial brief monograph about what I've seen so far. I’m also hoping to make some headway on a project I’d like to pursue, investigating the nature and persistence of biologically maladaptive (i.e., genetic fitness decreasing) cultural behaviors. Amusingly, high educational attainment is one excellent candidate case of that.

MK: How does your research experience help you assist students in the department?

MJ: I’m not sure I want to be the one answering that question for myself. I’d expect our alumni could answer it more accurately and honestly. But at the very least, it means that I have a broad background in the methods of both humanities scholarship and probability-based empirical hypothesis testing, which in turn means that I can usually be of assistance giving research direction, despite the great variety of disciplinary emphases among our students.

MK: What is your favorite subject to teach?

MJ: Another toss-up: cultural evolution, time, and the literature of the supernatural. I’ll be teaching evolutionary medicine in spring ’19 for the first time, and I have a suspicion my favorites list may grow longer.

MK: What made you decide to become a professor?

MJ: You know, I never thought I’d enjoying teaching. I was an easily bored and distracted student, and I saw teachers' lives as dull. But in 1985, I began the MFA program in poetry writing at the U of Montana and needed to support myself with a graduate teaching assistantship. Oh, ho! Except for the grading, it was fun! I decided that I like that life after all and just kept right on after my Master’s, heading to Emory U for my English doctorate. By 1990, I was an assistant professor at Morehouse College, and I’ve been professoring ever since, aside from a year off roughly once every decade, to putter around for a while.

MK: What educational steps have you taken in order to become a professor?

MJ: Well, I didn’t mean it as a step to becoming a professor, but that initial experience as a graduate teaching assistant while I was busy writing poetry in my early twenties was both eye-opening, as I said, and also crucial to my getting more opportunities to teach once I went on the job market for English professors a few years later. Teaching is the best way to master whatever you’re teaching and the best way to show that you know how to teach.

MK: What advice do you have for students going on to grad school?

MJ: Indulge your curiosity. Be alert for the topics that fire you up. Be persistent, whether you’re feeling disheartened or not. Show some determination. (The fashionable term here is “grit.”) Above all, look for any opportunities to learn and practice new methodologies, even if they're challenging. In the end, research comes down to your methods. If I had one wish, looking back, it would be that I had picked up more and better methods, sooner in my career.