MLA program celebrates 25 years at Stanford

Stanford's master of liberal arts program, among the most rigorous nation-wide, has awarded 259 degrees in the past 25 years.

Linda Paulson

Linda Paulson leads Stanford’s master of liberal arts program, which has awarded 259 degrees in 25 years. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

The red, bound theses outside Linda Paulson’s office may look slim, but they speak volumes about the weighty scholarly work produced by students in Stanford’s master of liberal art’s (MLA) program.

They bear such titles as “This Machine of Ours: The Role of Biomechanics and Ergonomics in Leonardo da Vinci’s Machine Designs,” “The Transitional Medieval Astronomies of William of Conches and Sacrobosco” and “The Fall and Rise of the Honu: Delisting the Threatened Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.”

The program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has awarded 259 degrees based on such theses. Paulson, who has led the program for 24 of those years, displays each with pride outside her Littlefield office.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’re the most rigorous, as well as the most carefully husbanded, MLA program in the country,” she said. “At regional and national conferences, our students’ presentations are regularly among the very most interesting, smart and well-presented.”

Diverse student body

Those students, who generally number about 100 annually, range in age from 24 to 70 and come from professions ranging from high school teachers to chief executive officers to software engineers. Their applications are reviewed by Paulson and a committee of faculty members.

“What we look for is a sophisticated and flexible quality of mind, an intellectual curiosity, a willingness to contemplate complex, perhaps even unanswerable questions,” Paulson said.

The resulting students are a delight in the classroom, according to faculty members who teach in the MLA program, which is offered through Stanford Continuing Studies.

“Traditional Stanford students are wonderful to teach, of course, but it’s also very rewarding to teach returning students,” said Caroline Winterer, director of the Humanities Center and professor of history. “These are the kind of people who put in a long day at the office, race home to feed dinner to their kids and greet the babysitter, then come to campus for an evening of work that doesn’t end until 10 p.m. They’re focused and serious, and they bring hard-earned wisdom to their classroom activities. They want to be there.”

Such comments are no surprise to Paulson, who teaches the program’s second-year foundational writing course.

“Faculty love teaching MLA students,” she said. “They comment about the refreshing challenge of teaching those who are peers and who bring to the classroom serious life experience. They are regularly impressed by their methodical and thorough study and research skills.”

The admiration is mutual. Caroline Stasulat, masters and undergraduate programs officer in the Graduate School of Education, credits the program with giving her access to “world-class faculty and resources” and the opportunity to continue her education while working. Stasulat, who like all Stanford employees can take advantage of the university’s substantial tuition remission program, said she also selected the MLA program because it is interdisciplinary.

“I knew that I wanted to continue my education, but struggled deciding what to study at the graduate level,” she said. “I didn’t want to pursue one of my interests at the expense of others. When I learned of Stanford’s MLA program, I was immediately drawn to it.”

Intellectual curiosity

A recent survey of MLA students revealed that they enroll in search of unmet intellectual challenges, to fill gaps from their undergraduate educations and to balance day-to-day lives often defined by Silicon Valley’s technology focus.  They report gaining emotional and intellectual fulfillment, personal friendships and enhanced writing, research and critical thinking skills.

“The best parts of the program have been developing the intellectual rigor required to formulate arguments and write well, the discussions had with professors and classmates and the ensuing warm friendships,” said Los Altos software engineer Tony Martin.

“Graduates regularly tell us that the program has been life-changing,” Paulson said. “The habits of mind and the skills they have gained, along with the intellectual companionship they have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, have dramatically enriched their lives and expanded their understanding of their own potential.”

Despite its success, the MLA program’s genesis was mired in controversy. During a 1991 Faculty Senate debate, members worried that the program would not be rigorous enough and would take faculty time away from full-time students.

Marsh McCall, then the dean of Continuing Education, argued that participants in the Continuing Studies program deserved a chance for “intellectual final validation.” At that time, most MLA programs were located on the East Coast, but a movement was afoot nationwide. Stanford’s first 25 MLA students included four teachers, four physicians, engineers, a nurse, a social worker, an accountant and a lawyer.

In the past 25 years, Paulson said, the program has become even more rigorous in its admission, given the academic challenges. Students complete a 50-unit interdisciplinary course of humanities, science and social science courses, capped off by a substantial thesis overseen by a faculty adviser. The first year consists of three foundations courses that look at the broad framework of history, literature, philosophy, political science, geography, economics, art and the sciences. Most students take one course per quarter and complete the program in four to five years.

What the next 25 years holds for the program is uncertain, Paulson said, although she anticipates that it will become even more interdisciplinary and the students even more prevalent at regional, national and international symposia and conferences.