Pathways to the MLA

Imagine browsing among the plethora of courses offered across the University of Pennsylvania and picking out the ones that best capture your imagination. That’s what you can do as a student in the Master of Liberal Arts program. 

Because Penn’s MLA is not the “great books” program you’ll find at so many universities—you don’t follow a single prescribed course of study—there are as many pathways to earning an MLA as there are students in the program. When you enter the program, you will work with your advisor to design your own interdisciplinary curriculum centered on a topic that interests you. After completing eight courses, you will undertake a faculty-guided final project known as a Capstone that integrates the interdisciplinary coursework you have followed in your program.

Julie Reynolds, who earned her MLA in Spring 2009, drew on her childhood love of Greek mythology to inform her Capstone project. “I love ancient things, but I knew that reading books on ancient history was not going to put food on the table.” She became a Certified Public Accountant, but says, “Now I’m pursuing what I truly love. The MLA program has been a phenomenal way to fulfill all those childhood fantasies.” 

Julie’s Capstone examined the influences that the ancient statue of Laocoön—the Trojan priest, uncle to Aeneas, who famously warned his countrymen against Greeks bearing gifts—that was unearthed in Rome in 1506 in the early years of the Renaissance. Her interdisciplinary program involved coursework not only in art history but politics, religion, and literature. “For me, art is a way to look at the ancient world through the people who lived then,” she says. “It’s my escape from the real world.”  Her MLA complete, Julie is now talking to professors about embarking on studies to earn her Master of Philosophy in the Liberal Arts. 

Richard Blumenthal came to the MLA program after a career as a lawyer. “I never really took English courses as an undergraduate,” he says. But as an MLA student he found himself fascinated by literature and centered his coursework in high-level courses within Penn’s English Department. “I’d always thought of myself as a slow reader,” he says, but now he thinks nothing of taking on courses requiring 400 or so pages of reading a week. “I wanted to prove to myself that I can do well, and that I can take Ph.D.-level courses and do well. And I can.”  Richard plans to begin coursework toward his Master of Philosophy in the Liberal Arts this fall. 

Kathryn Levy Feldman was an established freelance writer when she began the MLA. “When I started, I was just going to come to Penn to take some creative writing classes so I could teach writing,” she explained. “But then I discovered medical anthropology, and I became fascinated. It fit into a story I was doing about bereavement sessions at Penn’s vet school for people who’d lost a pet. And then Barbaro fell into my lap when I was asked to write a story for The Pennsylvania Gazette.” That assignment turned into “Something About Barbaro”. But it also turned into something more. 

“Barbaro changed my entire direction,” she says. “I began to focus on animal studies.  This is actually an academic field involving anthropology, history, English, psychology, and veterinary medicine, looking at animals from all different points of view.”  For her Capstone, Kathryn developed her theory of what she calls the “injured animal syndrome. “Barbaro broke his leg on national  television, live, in front of an audience of four million. Within seconds he want from being a superstar racehorse to an injured animal, and because his owners gave him the chance to live he attracted legions of people who knew nothing about racing but who were interested in him as an animal. He became America’s pet.” 

These are just a few of the pathways that students have followed to the MLA. 

Someone interested in visual culture and European history could pursue coursework in Ethnographic Writing, Medieval Architecture, Christian Origins, and National Identity in Painting in a curriculum intended to prepare a Capstone on twelfth-century royal patronage.

Another student interested in twenty-first-century communication could choose courses such as Digital Design, Globalization and Its Historical Significance, Technology and Organizations, or Computers, Ethics and Society that offer background and methodological fodder for research into Web 2.0 and virtual communities.

The varied offerings in the School of Arts and Sciences permit MLA students to build the skill set and encounter the content they need to create their own concentration and produce original research as the Capstone of their rewarding liberal arts graduate studies.

Where will your imagination lead you in the MLA program? Take the first step toward finding out by calling 215.898.7326 to make an appointment with an advisor. 

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