Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 31, 1997

MLA Program
Continues To
Evolve After
35 Years

Jean Grigsby
Special to The Gazette
In a sense, the Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) Program started with a conversation among scholars three-quarters of a century ago. Arthur Lovejoy, George Boas and George Chinard, all Hopkins faculty members, began the history of ideas Club over lunch back in 1922. The club, which still meets today, espoused learning as a cooperative venture and an interdisciplinary pursuit.

"At that time, the history of ideas was a radical movement, closely affiliated with this institution in a way that has been unique in higher education," says Nancy Norris, who has taught at Hopkins' School of Continuing Studies for more than 20 years and has served as director of the MLA Program since 1990. "Hopkins shaped the history of ideas, and in turn, the history of ideas influenced numerous scholars and programs."

One such program, the first of its kind in the country, was the MLA, which was dedicated from its inception to understanding thought from a variety of disciplines. The history of ideas seminars, examining the impact of historical periods, movements and individuals over a range of liberal arts topics, are the centerpiece of the program.

Soon to celebrate its 35th year, the nationally recognized MLA continues to boast an interdisciplinary approach, outstanding faculty and diverse, dynamic students. But it has hardly remained static. For example, last fall saw the premiere of Exploring the Liberal Arts: Ways of Knowing, a new course with a format unique among MLA programs around the country.

Ronald G. Walters, a professor of history at Hopkins, facilitated the new course. "Ron Walters was an excellent choice as seminar coordinator," says Norris. "He is emblematic of our outstanding MLA instructors. In addition, he is an eminent scholar and a superb teacher, who was the first liberal arts instructor to receive the SCS Excellence in Teaching award. He also advises a lot of MLA projects and is available to students for conferences and discussions about papers."

Norris credits Walters with the development of an engaging format that explores the similarities, differences and interrelationships between all categories of the liberal arts and involves teaching by a variety of Hopkins instructors.

"He asked faculty to discuss their articles or books, including works-in-progress and, in one case, an opera production," says Norris. "The sessions were stunning. None of the faculty chosen had taught in the MLA program, so students were introduced to a variety of new instructors and had the chance to talk to experts in their fields at the same time."

"The premise for the new MLA course was simple," adds Walters. "It is always interesting to get people to talk about their work, especially when they are able to convey the enthusiasm, frustration, insight and motivation behind why they do what they do."

"Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor who co-authored the book Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part, shared an example of his frustration," continues Walters. "Cherlin's research indicated that a sufficient level of income in the custodial household was more important to a child's welfare than a father's involvement. He told the class that, as a father, he disliked his own conclusion. Students would never receive that kind of insight from reading the text only."

Walters also left the specific format for each class up to the individual instructor, but "ways of knowing" provided the overarching theme for examining each discipline.

"As a class, we asked, 'What are the big questions?'" says Walters. "'What are the ways of thinking and looking at things that are different--or similar--for an art historian, an astrophysicist, a geographer and a sociologist?' The instructors shared the information; the students drew the conclusions. Not only did we make connections across disciplines, we discovered that Rosemary Wyse, professor of physics and astronomy, likes to paint and that Peabody Opera Theatre artistic director Roger Brunyate was a math major."

"Another characteristic of MLA faculty," adds Norris, "is that they teach in seminar fashion, using guided discussions as opposed to straight lectures. Being able to teach in that way is an art, and Ron Walters is truly gifted as an artist of the classroom."

The new course, which interested many students and filled quickly, will continue to be offered each fall. Every spring, beginning in 1998, a different category of the liberal arts will be explored. Next spring, for example, a number of different artists--musicians, painters and writers--will discuss their own work and the creative process with students in the seminar Exploring the Arts: Creativity, Beauty and Innovation.

"These new courses embody precisely the kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary approach initiated and advanced by the history of ideas Club," concludes Norris. Lovejoy, Boas and Chinard would be pleased.

A celebration of the MLA's 35th anniversary is planned for Sunday, Nov. 16.
In tribute to the late Ralph Harper, who taught literature and philosophy in the program for three decades, MLA faculty will discuss, from their own disciplinary perspectives, Harper's definition of humanity: "Freedom embodied."

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