Beyond the Learning Curve: and MA:VCS Programs

Posted December 20, 2015 in Master of Visual and Critical Studies, Faculty, Student, Collaborative Design

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of Portfolio. View the complete issue here.

There’s no denying the shifting landscape of higher education, but where others see obstacles, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) sees opportunities to reframe questions and explore new ways of teaching and learning. That’s why the college’s two newest graduate programs are both responsive to the present and designed for the future.

In its first year, the Master of Architecture () program has more than lived up to its billing of being “very unlike the usual.” Director Brian Craig says that by placing foundational content classes and a rigorous studio course into separate portions of each semester rather than positioning them concurrently, the program’s unique curriculum structure allows students to dive both deeply and broadly into architecture.

“We’re absolutely convinced that the structure is working, particularly with the way we’ve been able to integrate foundational knowledge into the studio. The students weren’t just focusing on spatial or visual aspects of architectural design; they developed a fully systemic understanding of architecture and placemaking.”

Though the eight students in the program’s inaugural cohort come from a diverse mix of institutional and disciplinary backgrounds, they’ve meshed into a cohesive group. “The future of architecture lies in transdisciplinary collaborative design, and I’ve been thrilled with how the students have supported and challenged one another. They’ve developed a very powerful and positive studio culture.”

Industry professionals agree. The six students who entered the ’s two-year track with a preprofessional degree have all earned internships at architecture firms. Students have also been awarded significant scholarship funding, most notably taking three out of the seven merit- based Michigan Architectural Foundation Scholarships awarded this past academic year. The program itself is on track to full accreditation, having been recently promoted to candidacy status by the National Architecture Accrediting Board.

“The comments and recognition our students and our program have received from outside sources show that the work we’re doing can stand up to work being done anywhere,” said Craig.

 student work

Like the , KCAD’s newest graduate program, the Master of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies (MA:VCS), is designed with a rapidly changing world in mind. “From the printing press onward, we’ve exchanged visual communication on a large scale, but the pace of that exchange has increased exponentially with the advent of the information age,” said MA:VCS Program Chair Diane Zeeuw. “We need to strengthen our collective ability to deeply understand information by critiquing it. Now more than ever, we need people who can dismantle information and see what kind of impact it’s having on us.”

In this experimental, theory-driven program, students will explore visual culture—the relationship between visual images and those who consume them—where any artifact may become important, not just objects belonging to the specific category of “art.” Students will also grapple with the ways in which human beings cognitively process visual information, and how that process affects the way the things we see shape our personal beliefs.

“We’ll be exposing students to an array of accepted qualitative modes of planning, framing, implementing, and reporting research that will provide them with viable prototypes for serious academic engagement within the scholarly community,” said Zeeuw.

This kind of study is best informed by a broad perspective, and both the faculty and inaugural cohort of the MA:VCS reflect just that. Zeeuw, who also teaches In the Painting program, is joined by Art History professor Dr. Karen Carter and Digital Media Program Chair Brad Yarhouse. Noted scholars in a number of different fields have also expressed interest in teaching in the program.

The inaugural cohort draws from a number of different undergraduate disciplines, including drawing, painting, art history, and even economics. “It’s a rich laboratory environment when we get a group of research- oriented, articulate, graduate-level students together,” said Carter. “We’re creating this hotbed of intellectual exchange and debate that needs to exist in more places.”

Both a full degree and a certificate option are offered. In this way, the MA:VCS can adapt to students’ varying needs and goals. While graduates will be prepared to publish in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, these critical and communication skills can be applied to any field and will remain versatile well into the future.

“The ability to intensely read and discuss important intellectual ideas, analyze them, and communicate your own ideas to your peers is invaluable,” said Carter. “These skills are a doorway to lifelong learning.”

To learn more about the and MA:VCS programs, go to