Duke University Alumni Magazine

Learning for the Love of It

"Lifelong learning doesn't mean something one does in one's leisure hours anymore. And it is very rare to be able to pursue a part-time educationat a graduate level outside of an MBA program."

ne recent autumn evening at Durham's Barnes & Noble bookstore, a fairly typical routine was under way. Shoppers browsed the tables of new fiction and nonfiction, readers plunked down in fat armchairs or perched on benches in the magazine section, and the espresso machine in the café gave out loud hisses at regular intervals.

MALS grad Lottie Applewhite
A.M. '97
Photo: Jeffery A. Camarati

But in one part of the store, something less typical was happening. Wedged between the biography and European history sections, bookended by a freestanding display of cookbooks and a solid wall of home-design magazines, two dozen chairs had been unfolded and a table was stocked with information packets and sign-up sheets. The men and women filing into this section were not there to shop, though many sipped from the café's paper coffee cups, a new best-seller or coffee-table art book tucked under an arm. They stopped at the table, picked up a few papers, checked their names off a list. Then they settled in to hear about one of Duke's least traditional and most successful offerings-the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program.

MALS is described as a "nontraditional" program because of its outreach to the community beyond the university walls. It provides an opportunity for people to engage in intellectual and educational pursuits and to receive a complete graduate education, even while they work at home or hold down full-time jobs or enjoy retirement. Its self-contained courses are interdisciplinary in scope, bringing many subjects and schools of thought to bear on a topic that might otherwise be taught from a single point of view. In its breadth of scope and depth of purpose, MALS can be seen as a role model for new ways of teaching and learning.

Current MALS student Stacy Torian '94
Photo: Jeffery A. Camarati

"There are a number of trends in education right now that the liberal studies model fits very well," says program director Donna Zapf. "One is adult education, in a serious way: rethinking the stages of a human life and where certain activities take place. We used to think of childhood and youth, then one is educated, and then one works, and then one retires and is put out to pasture. However, that traditional lay of the land is not where we live anymore-this idea of essential lifelong learning is new on the scene, and liberal studies does fit into that."

It fit for Lottie Applewhite A.M. '97, who earned the first of her several graduate degrees in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania. That degree was in occupational therapy, and she used it in her Army assignment to work with therapists in Scandinavia and Europe immediately after World War II. She went on to do graduate work and earn advanced degrees in that field and several others, including physiology and publishing, and for many years has been a medical writer and author's editor for physicians and researchers. Applewhite describes herself as "retired," but she begins to chuckle over the word even as it hangs in the air. The large desk and work area in her Carol Woods retirement-community apartment are covered with medical journals and legal pads. As the favorite author's editor of several prominent researchers in orthopedics, she is clearly working on several projects at once. She came to Carol Woods in the early 1990s and, despite her editorial work, began looking for something else to do. "To keep involved in academics was tremendously important to me, and to keep involved in academics that have nothing to do with my job. This gives me a change of pace, and it also keeps the mechanism working," she says, tapping her forehead.

Jim Barley A.M. '95
Photo:Jeffery A. Camarati

Applewhite challenged the mechanism for several years in the MALS program. She took one class at a time, from a biology-driven class on organisms with Steve Vogel, to a literature-based seminar on modernism with James Rolleston, to a semester of personal narrative with Melissa Malouf. "I got more out of it by spreading it out-these could not be done simultaneously with a mind like I have," she says. "I've got to sap every bit of juice that's in every one of these."

Students who enter MALS are embarking upon at least a two- to three-year commitment. Credit hours from nine seminars are required for graduation, along with a final project that combines a hefty amount of research and a substantial written paper. While most students take one course each semester, some take two at a time; occasionally someone will even take three. No matter how much time is spent in the classroom, the learning that occurs is a full-time project. "People are doing something very significant," says Zapf. "Lifelong learning doesn't mean something one does in one's leisure hours anymore. This is a graduate program. It is academically demanding. People who enter it are pursuing a graduate education. And it is very rare to be able to pursue a part-time education at a graduate level outside of an M.B.A. program."

Current MALS student Barbara Darden
Photo:Jeffery A. Camarati

Rare, but thanks to programs like MALS, becoming more accepted. Since Duke started MALS in 1984, hundreds of people have earned the degree. Most were shepherded through the process by Diane Sasson, whose long tenure as director saw MALS grow to become the largest program in the graduate school. In that same decade and a half, the field of liberal studies mushroomed throughout higher education.

The very first MALS program, then teacher-oriented, began at Wesleyan University in 1952. When MALS started at Duke, it was the first such program in the South, and one of only sixty in the country. Today, 125 programs are members of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs, and the degree can be earned at such schools as North Carolina State, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and the University of North Carolina-Asheville. There are even a handful of programs that have gone beyond the master's level, including an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Emory University and a liberal studies doctorate geared toward "the public intellectual" at Florida Atlantic University in Florida.

Donna Zapf succeeded Sasson last year. When she talks about Duke's program, enthusiasm and joy are evident on her face and in her words. Assistant director Margaret Dennis and program assistant Dink Suddaby have the same look and tone, projecting an absolute delight in the program and in its students. While the program has been life-changing for those students, it has been university-changing as well. "People are thinking about the idea that the university may well be for folks who are over forty or over fifty or over sixty, as well as for people coming out of high school and being trained toward their first job," Zapf says. "Universities have a larger mandate, a mission that might have a broader definition of who students are, and what society needs in education."

During her forty-two-year career as an educator, Barbara Darden told her students time and again: "Whatever happens in our classroom today is not an endpoint. It is merely a beginning point, and I fully expect you to want to learn more and more and more. The longer you live, the more you should want to learn."

Now, having retired and moved to the Triangle to live near her daughter, son-in-law, and two granddaughters, Darden is taking her sixth MALS course. "It would be kind of ridiculous if I didn't do what I've been telling my students to do," she says. "When you go back to school, you can look at continuing-ed courses or you can look at a degree program, and if you're going to invest the time, you might as well go for the product at the end. So it had to be a degree program-and oh, miracle, manna out of the sky, the MALS program."

Darden freely admits to being sixty-six, and in her seventh decade of education, she says she appreciates what her age is bringing to the MALS experience. "I try very hard not to be too forward with all this 'years of experience and presumed wisdom that the elder has,' " she says. "It's kind of fun to always be the oldest in the room-it has affirmed the fact that I'm still alive, and it has affirmed the fact that I can still contribute to what goes on in the class.

Tom Robisheaux
Photo: Jeffery A. Camarati

"I'm sitting in awe at how people who are twenty, thirty, forty years younger than I am, think-what their opinions are about the kinds of things that come up in class. I have been as fascinated by what my peers have to say in the classroom as I am by what the professor has to say sometimes." "When you put ten, twelve, fourteen people like that in the classroom, I just flip on the lights and things go," says Tom Robisheaux '74, whose "Medieval Worlds" seminar was developed from a history course he teaches. "This isn't about passive learning. I've taught several classes for MALS, and it's the most interesting, most exciting teaching and learning I have experienced in my fifteen years at Duke, bar none."

Once again, the reason for this comes back to what Zapf calls "the broader definition of who students are." "You operate on an entirely different level when you're teaching adults with life experience," says Deborah T. Gold, associate professor of medical sociology in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, sociology, and psychology:social and health sciences, and a noted researcher in the field of aging and osteoporosis. Gold has developed three different MALS courses in three years. "They bring a real desire to learn and a different perspective to the learning process-the occupations they've chosen, each one is so diverse that each one is able to make a unique contribution. It's a matter of pulling that substance into the context of their individual lives."

This breadth of experience is one of the strongest differences between MALS and other graduate programs. In a Ph.D. program, for instance, "graduate students have to master knowledge about a very particular subject, a specialty," Robisheaux says. "They become specialists, and they're also learning the professional language and professional behavior that go along with it. There is no reward for risk-taking, no reward for just learning for learning's sake, because it's all geared toward the professional training process. It has its place. But in the MALS program, it has all the rigor of any Duke graduate class, but [students] don't have the burden of becoming the masters of a narrow subject."

Instead, interdisciplinarity is the rule, as Robisheaux points out using his "Medieval Worlds" course as the example. "When I teach it just as a historian, in the history department, I feel confined to teach it strictly from the discipline of history. But when I teach in the MALS course, I bring in literature, art and architecture, medicine and demography. It's a richer experience, for them and for me as well."

The wealth of that experience is not lost on the students, as Barbara Darden acknowledges. "You have the word 'liberal' here," she says. "That implies a certain attitude and atmosphere. It's not just the range of courses and content, but I think it also speaks to how those are delivered." "It's a lively and engaged conversation," Zapf says. "It's not the teaching experience that every faculty is looking for, but for those faculty who enjoy engaging in a very intelligent, accomplished lay audience, this is a wonderful opportunity."

This audience for MALS is wide, and growing. Its broader definition can be seen in the group at the information session at Barnes & Noble, a mix of people who are younger and older, wingtipped and flip-flopped, black and Asian and white. It couldn't be much more representative of the community, and Zapf sees this representation as an important ongoing part of MALS. "MALS is a significant way that Duke gives to this community," she says. "I think that matters a great deal, in terms of goodwill. We are a part of this community, after all, and this program is definitely an open door to the community. Our students become ambassadors. They are just a remarkably diverse cross-section of the local community-communities, plural, because they're from different townships, from across professions, from service professions, education, medical, the corporate world, research outlets, and so on and so forth."

Jim Barley came to MALS from the corporate world. A successful business career was followed by a series of life-changing events: First, the death of his father helped him refocus on his family after working "seventy or eighty hours a week and feeling that wasn't enough," and then, just a year later, his wife died suddenly and left him with four children. He says the one-two punch led him through a process of self-evaluation and priority-setting.

"On September the third, 1989-I remember it very clearly-I was sitting in a [corporate] seminar about personal goal-setting," he says, "and it struck me: If I'm going to evaluate my life, what is going to be important? I thought, I will look back and evaluate much of what I've done in terms of the impact I've had on others, specifically my children." He decided there and then to change his career. Within a year, he was working as a consultant, and a year after that, received "a little flyer in the mail." It was from Duke's MALS program. In the fall of 1992, Barley enrolled.

"I entered with high expectations, and my expectations were exceeded," he says, listing the ways in which that happened. "You've got the administrative support, tempered with a personal approach. You have the academic support in the professors, whose competency and ability to teach, their motivation to teach, were unlike anything I had ever seen, which made you excited to be engaged in the process. And then you had your peers-they were there for reasons as personal as they were academic. They were there not just for a degree, but for a learning experience. And there was a relationship between those three things."

Despite spending the previous two decades in the Marine Corps and in business, Barley A.M. '95 says he was able to treat MALS as a completely different way of learning and working. "When I went to Maryland [his undergraduate alma mater], I went there to get a degree. I went there to get a credential. I wasn't [in MALS] for a credential-I was here for an education. And I was in absolutely no rush to complete it. In fact, the journey was really the experience. And when it was all over, which hardly seemed possible when it happened, the degree was just kind of a payoff."

Donna Zapf, Director of MALS
Photo: Jeffery A. Camarati

Many MALS students, like Barley, are in the middle of evaluating their lives when they come to the program. But there is another profile of the MALS student, the younger student, who has been bringing the program away from its traditional base of people in the middle of their careers or at retirement age, and giving it new life.

"I've been asking, why is this? What are the younger students looking for in this kind of program?" Zapf says. "One, there have been younger students who are seriously looking for an interdisciplinary program. There are also younger individuals in transition, say, someone who wants to go to law school but has started a family and has young children and is home with these kids for a period of time but is very committed to academic work and wants a transitional stage. Or someone from their late twenties to early forties, who has launched a career and is committed to their job but wants a place where they can explore other avenues. MALS is the place that has provided a space for that kind of exploration."

One younger student who is taking advantage of that space is Stacy Torian '94, a twenty-seven-year-old who graduated with majors in French and political science and who tried the world of "traditional business" before starting her own press and becoming a self-published poet. She combines her literary work with MALS classes and a job at Duke. "When I got out of Duke and started working, I realized that things weren't coming together the way I wanted them to, professionally, because I seemed to be trying to make myself fit into this niche that just wasn't right for me," she says. "So I started working for a bookstore, because I was very interested in writing and books, and I started teaching English as a foreign language, because I was really interested in language."

At this point, she says, the idea of publishing her own poetry was born, as was the idea of entering a master's program. But the typical graduate-school experience seemed as unappealing as the business once had been. "I was going through a transition, rethinking some of the choices I had made and getting back to some of the things that had meant a lot to me that I had put on hold to pursue this traditional career track. And I decided to go ahead with the master's. I didn't want to do something traditional; I wanted a master's program that was going to allow me to explore a breadth of subjects. MALS just seemed the perfect program, because of the focus on interdisciplinary study."

Torian enrolled in 1998, and has one seminar and her final project left to complete. She is already appearing as a speaker at MALS information sessions. In fact, the autumn Barnes & Noble gathering was followed by a reading from her book Soul Speak, and the small crowd of MALS-wannabes suddenly swelled as people from all over the store slipped around the shelves to sit on the floor and listen. She was a hit.

"After getting so involved with the book and learning more about the publishing process, I became interested in doing something about blacks in publishing" for the final project, she says. "But I'm also thinking about ways that I can incorporate my poetry, to illustrate some of the points I want to make. So I want to do my project on black women using poetry as a means of empowerment and social activism, and expressing a voice. What I've done in MALS will tie into all that."

Discovering a voice is an enormous benefit of MALS, one in which Zapf sees larger social consequences. "It sounds a bit hokey, but programs like MALS are necessary as we cultivate democracy," she says. "We have to develop our ability to converse in serious ways, to sink into issues and to talk, to know how to talk across tremendous differences.

"There are skills that one can learn to do that, and the university has them. People here know how to frame ideas, how to develop skills in critical thinking, where to go for certain kinds of information, how to be able to listen carefully-not necessarily dispassionately, but to be able to set your passion aside and listen carefully to an argument that's being made that is quite different than something you might be thinking about at the time, and to see its merits and to be able to engage with it in a significant way. I truly believe MALS promotes that, because those skills are part and parcel of the academic world."

Rick Davis A.M. '97 wouldn't call this "hokey." In fact, when he talks about his MALS degree, he continually comes back to the point that the core of his experience was "a debate, and an argument, and a construct for the truth." Davis, who is now director of enrichment for the University of North Carolina Alumni Association, came to MALS in search of the liberal arts component that he says was missing from his undergraduate business education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "There was a big void in my intellectual life. I was climbing the corporate ladder, achieving quite a bit, but there was something missing."

When he entered MALS, he says he expected it to fill that void, and even to help him in his corporate career. It did both by exposing him to a new way of thinking. "I found the experience of the classroom in MALS at Duke to be the most rigorous and challenging experience I ever had. Everybody brought a dimension to the seminar table that was stellar, was competitive. I was in a seminar with a person who had studied Latin and physics as an undergraduate, had been to Zimbabwe to do these incredible human services. Look at Lottie Applewhite, with all of her degrees. These people brought so many different achievements, and academic rigor, and I felt I had to work harder, because I could see concepts and discourse came very easily to those folks who had an undergraduate liberal-arts program degree."

One of Davis' seminars was a cultural anthropology class in which the group discussed such difficult social topics as race and gender issues. He says the students had a diversity of thought that necessitated listening in order to learn. "I took it upon myself to maximize the experience by really listening to other sides, as opposed to quickly defending my position-'defend, defend, defend, and whoever remains standing wins.' I've been in that environment in the corporate world, and there's a higher order here.

"I challenged my colleagues to stop defending and positioning, and listen to those folks who are speaking. And at the same time, I would challenge those who were speaking that, if we are seeking the truth, we have to sidestep all the baggage" that comes with the issues being discussed. "Let's get into the truth of that-why is abortion a volatile issue?" he would say. "I saw that as a purpose of the MALS programs, to define why we were even having an argument. To seek the truth. If more students and more individuals in the country would take that on, I don't know that we'd have these struggles in understanding our cultures, our subcultures, and our neighborhoods."

After a year as director, Donna Zapf looks forward. "There are goals that are part of the ongoing well-being of MALS that take a lot of money, work, and time," she says. "We want a continually healthy pool of good students. We have a big pool of students, and it's very gratifying that that interest is there, but there are many competing liberal studies programs in the area. "I have a real commitment to keeping MALS courses at the forefront of recent thought and research that are representative of the university. Another mission that I see is that MALS courses be always relevant-within an ethics course, one could read about ethics in relation to pressing ethical problems, or 'Science, Technology, and Social Change' can use a framework of sociological methodology to look at issues that are pressing in the community. The program is of contemporary relevance, a direct relevance to the world of an individual's life, and that's why it's exciting to people coming into the program."

And as "liberal" and "interdisciplinary" studies become academic buzzwords, there are new possibilities to explore, and potential pitfalls to be aware of. So far, Duke has done an excellent job of maintaining a first-rate program, says Howard Kushner, director of the MALS program at San Diego State University. "Duke's program is one of the best in the nation-it is a role model for others," Kushner says. "Its great strength is that, unlike most, it includes the sciences in its curriculum."

"Other programs in the United States are often so oriented to draw in students, no matter what, that they are not as rigorous," he says, adding that only a handful of other programs are as academically demanding as Duke's. "Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, San Diego State University, DePaul in Chicago, Dartmouth, and Hopkins-they are the serious programs and reach the same type of audience."

Zapf says Duke's MALS staff will be doing "active research" to see how the trend toward liberal studies can help their program maintain its reputation while helping its students, and helping the university as well. "What are the things that liberal studies is doing of interest in relation to other programs?" she asks. "There may be things that MALS will be doing that we can't anticipate, but we can be looking for them, and awake to them. All of the people who are involved in MALS actively are very, very open and innovative in thinking about this program."

At the same time, she stresses, MALS has a unique place, and a unique identity. At its heart is the "pure joy of learning ...real intellectual curiosity," she says. And thus the program has as its continuing mission to "maintain the heart of the identity of MALS-which is about learning for the sake of learning."

"It is a place where one truly can move deeply into a subject, to take a course that fills you with intellectual excitement," she says. "That is at the heart of the program-and at the heart of the university. And that cannot be lost."


  • "Black American Intellectual History" Wahneema Lubiano, professor
  • Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, Marilyn Richardson, editor
  • Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, John Hope Franklin and August Meier, editors
  • Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, W.E.B. DuBois
  • Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
  • Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, Cornel West
  • Meridian, Alice Walker

Spring 2000

  • The Animal-Human Boundary
  • Framing Shakespeare
  • The Emancipation of Music
  • First-Person Narration: Autobiography/Fiction
  • The Southern Plantation, 1770-1970: Odyssey in Black and White
  • The Victorian Orphan

Summer 2000

  • Death and Dying
  • Nationalism
  • The Russian Revolutionary Cinema
  • Health Care, Narrative, and Social Theory
  • The Bloomsbury Group

Fall 2000

  • Ethics in America
  • Opera, History, and Social Meaning
  • Medieval Worlds
  • Global Environmental Politics
  • Science, Technology, and Social Change
  • Madness and Society

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