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COMMENT: Courtney Clements, Continuing Studies Program (415) 725-2650

Master of Liberal Arts program hosts information session Feb. 29

STANFORD --Donning theatrical mustaches and bowler hats, two graduate students leaned back in their chairs and hoisted imaginary glasses of port as they transformed the Stanford seminar classroom into a 19th-century London pub. The time was May 1865 and the two British gents had plenty on their minds, from the recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln to a first-ever win of Epsom Downs Derby by a French horse.

So began week seven of "1864-65," one of three evening seminars offered this fall to adults enrolled in the Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) degree program sponsored by Stanford's Continuing Studies Program. The serial publication of Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend was the literary anchor of the course on Victorian history and culture taught by Linda Paulson, a lecturer in English who serves as assistant dean of the MLA program.

Paulson organized "1864-65" during an intensive three-week institute on interdisciplinary study at De Paul University last summer that was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"I've known for years that I wanted to do a course like this because I think cultural history is a wonderful way to talk about literature," Paulson said. "I was curious to see what imbedding a novel in its own time would give to a class - and to a book."

The experience of reading the novel week by week, as the Victorian public read it in serial publication, was central to the course, Paulson said. Dickens wove the scandals, parliamentary wranglings, street music, current events and scientific discoveries of his day into Our Mutual Friend, and understanding that helped to make the novel more vibrant.

"As it turns out, we were finally reading the novel with at least a 20th-century approximation of 19th-century eyes - that is, with an understanding of the currency of many of the issues that have become rather rarified and literary since then," Paulson said.

First proposed by Marsh McCall, professor of classics and dean of the Continuing Studies Program, the MLA program is completing its fifth year with the blessing of the Faculty Senate, which voted unanimously last spring to continue it for at least another five years. An information session for prospective students is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29, in Cypress North Room of Tresidder Union, with applications for admission to next fall's class due a month later, on March 29.

The flexible MLA program offers courses from many disciplines, including anthropology, art history, classics, history, literature, urban planning, philosophy, history of science, political science and psychology. Applicants must have a bachelor's degree or its equivalent and submit a critical essay and a transcript of undergraduate work to verify a 3.0 GPA. Students are encouraged to take at least one seminar each year to complete 36 units of coursework, plus a two-unit writing project that results in a 50-page thesis. Tuition for each MLA seminar is $810, and all courses are taught by Stanford faculty.

Adults who have dusted off research and note-taking skills and joined the academic fray in recent years come to the MLA program for many reasons and from a multitude of backgrounds. Gathered around one recent seminar table were a systems programmer, marketing consultant, community volunteer, fundraiser, psychiatric social worker, professor, attorney, video producer, art docent, orthopedic surgeon, counselor and several teachers.

"You've got people who are coming into the classroom with life experiences that they are eager to share," said Paulson, who has taught four of the 42 seminars that have been offered to date. "They've come to a point in their lives where they've decided this is really important for them, not because it's going to turn them into doctors or help them make a lot of money, but because they value education.

"Nothing could be better for a teacher than to be in a situation like that, where people are really putting out the energy and actively questioning things, not just going through the motions."

Paul Robinson, a professor of history who has taught three graduate seminars, said he constantly is impressed with the enthusiasm he sees in MLA students.

"I find them all incredibly eager," Robinson said. "For one thing, they really want this and they make the trek down here at night from as far away as Mill Valley and Berkeley with virtually 100 percent attendance."

Robinson has been adviser to three MLA students working on final theses.

"I treated them as I would treat an honors major working with me as a tutor," he said. "They met with me every couple of weeks for a year and ended up producing superb analytical papers."

Incoming MLA students who have had little contact with academics in recent years, however, often find that analytical writing is a big hurdle.

"Nationwide, writing tends to be the challenge everyone identifies as most crucial," Paulson said of the discussions she has heard at national conferences sponsored by the umbrella Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs. "Everyone throws up their hands and says, 'What do you do with these people who are very bright but don't know how to write? You can't put them in a freshman English program.'

"Which, of course, is exactly what I did."

This fall Paulson developed and taught, with a team of seven other instructors, what has been dubbed by some survivors a "writing boot camp." Geared for the entering class of MLA students, the class focused on the plague of 1348, examining that watershed year from the perspective of literature, art, religion, philosophy, science and medicine. Students wrote two-page papers every week that they faxed to Paulson on Monday and had returned to them in class on Thursday evening.

As the course progressed, Paulson said, students "gradually began to grab hold of a focus and investigate their ideas, instead of simply laying out facts and blowing right past them."

"They really learned to write and by the end of the course were producing solid, critical prose," she said.

Bonnie Volkman says the writing skills she's picked up in five years of seminars have been passed directly to her own high school students.

"I originally applied to the MLA program because it made sense to me as a teacher to be involved with new scholarship," she recalled. "I teach college prep and honors classes, and the seminar work really has helped me to be a better teacher."

Volkman joined the MLA program in the fall of 1991, the first year it was offered, and will graduate on schedule this June, completing her course work in the projected five-year track. This year she has been exchanging and critiquing rough drafts of theses with classmates in her writing group, as all head into the final academic stretch.

As they've argued their way through seminars on medieval religion, science and technology in Silicon Valley, the origins of the novel and European thought in the 20th century, Volkman and her classmates say they've found support in one another's brilliant discoveries and embarrassing fumbles. They've compared notes on their children's piano lessons and shared the heartache of spouses' illnesses. They've also celebrated over pizza at Ramona's and li