SMU Graduate Liberal Studies Program: Ethnography

The Human Experience Ethnography

MLS Students and Cultural Capital

December 8, 2011


Behavior Studied

In this ethnography I am studying the attitudes and opinions of students currently enrolled in the Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas.  In the Fall 2011 semester there are 280 students enrolled in the program according to Program Director Michele Mrak.  An informal observation of students reveals that the program enrolls both male and female students representing a wide age range – from immediately post-undergraduate degree to students in their sixties or older.

The students have earned a bachelor’s degree and written an application essay as a part of the admissions process. The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is not required for admission.  Typical University fees are waived for MLS students and program tuition is discounted as much as two-thirds compared to other graduate programs at the University.

The 36-hour MLS program has few required courses. The Human Experience, the course for which this ethnography is written, is the only specifically required course.  Students must also take one course from a list designated as “writing intensive” sometime during the program.  And finally, all students must do a capstone project to graduate.  Students are required to maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay in the program.

Students may choose from one of the following concentrations or design their own.

  • American Studies
  • Communication, Media and Technology
  • Creative Writing
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Gender Studies
  • Global Studies - Global Trends, Power, Non-Western Literature, and Geography
  • Human Rights and Social Justice - Human Rights, Political Science, History, Psychology, Gender Studies
  • Humanities
  • Organizational Dynamics
  • The Arts and Cultural Traditions  - Literature, Art, Poetry, Performing Arts, and Society

The MLS faculty consists of both adjunct and full-time SMU faculty.  Courses are offered weekday evenings and on Saturday morning at both the main campus in Dallas and SMU in Legacy in Plano, Texas.  The program offers numerous and highly varied opportunities for international study as well as summer classes at Taos, New Mexico.  The school year is organized into a fall and spring semester as well as two short summer sessions and one long summer session.

As a student in the program myself, I am interested in why students, many of whom are working adults, pursue a graduate degree in liberal studies.  My theory is that many students enroll for the love of learning rather than as a method of direct career advancement.  Further, I don’t believe many MLS students expect to immediately earn more money as a result of obtaining the degree. 

A master’s degree in a humanities concentration is not commonly associated with either an elevated or more autonomous entry-level career (as with a master’s degree in social work) or with career advancement (as with an MBA or a master’s degree in education.)  Nor is the MLS degree a terminal degree in an arts concentration as is an MFA in studio art or creative writing.  My hypothesis assumes that all MLS matriculants realize this and, for reasons I want to discover, have decided the MLS is the right fit for their needs.

Many higher education students – both undergraduate and graduate - view their education solely as preparation for a career.  “Students want something they can sell,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (Quoted in Cook 2010: n.p.). Melissa Ackerman writes, “… in practice, today’s youth are rejecting the opportunity to explore the breadth of their imaginations and are instead using college as the place to pad their resumes.”  This strategy, Ackerman writes, is called “careerism” as she postulates that it accounts for at least some of the mid-life career transitions that are now common in American society (Ackerman N.d.).

Liberal studies and humanities courses may be relegated to the bottom of students’ elective lists during their first and even second degrees.  In addition, professional programs may have little or no room for electives at all in their overcrowded curricula. Quoting former Beloit College president Victor E. Farrell Jr., Ackerman writes that, “job training, or vocational education, is the primary focus for today’s eighteen million college students.  Careerism is a major driving force behind the declining demand for the liberal arts.” (Ackerman N.d.)

However, I believe there is a type of learner who yearns to become broader in her/his understanding of the world; a person who has a curious nature and loves to learn.  I think this learner is the type of person attracted to a program like the MLS program.  W. R. Connor, President of The National Humanities Center, wrote about this subject in a recent American Academy for Liberal Education Scholars Essay.  “If recent trends continue,” he writes, “the liberal arts will be replaced by some form of vocationalism, in disguise perhaps, or migrate into other environments, such as Master of Arts in Liberal Studies programs, for adults who recognize what they missed in their undergraduate education” (Connor N.d.: 3).

Theory

The sociological theory I am interested in exploring in my ethnography is a theoretical construct known as cultural capital.  This phrase refers to non-financial social assets (could be educational or intellectual or both) that promote social mobility – even beyond economic means.  Education, particularly graduate higher education, can impart cultural capital in the form of critical thinking skills, writing skills, linguistic skills, and scientific skills (Moss 2005: 3).  Helliwell concurs that individuals value education because its impact on their knowledge and skills – a model called the basic human capital model (Helliwell 2007: 2).

Social mobility refers to the use of intangible resources to achieve a vertical movement in social class.  Social mobility includes such capital as group memberships or bonds, individual relationships with others who value higher education, or networks of influence and support in higher education or in a student’s field of study.

The term “cultural capital” has been articulated by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in at least three works: Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction (1973); The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education in The State Nobility (1996).  Bourdieu has also written a book about this subject, Distinction (1984). Bourdieu’s work explores different forms of human capital – economic, social, cultural, and symbolic – and their relationship to power (Munch 1994: 139)

My ethnography is interested in exploring cultural and social capital theories as they relate to higher education and specifically graduate studies.  Bourdieu writes that capital (including cultural capital) is involved in a system of exchange and that he means the term applies “… to all the goods material and symbolic … that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation …” (cited in Harker 1990:13)

In addition to cultural capital, higher education also bestows social capital upon its students.  Social capital is related to cultural capital and consists of resources based on group membership, relationships, and networks of influence and support.  Carpenter explains that, “Social capital describes a system like an economic system. If a financial economy is based on exchange of money and capital is accumulation of financial resources, social capital is based on relationships between and among people (Carpenter 2010: 3).”  Social capital makes possible the achievement of certain “ends” that would not otherwise be possible (Coleman 1988: 5).

A person who possesses cultural capital is one who possesses knowledge, skills, education and/or advantages that they can use to achieve a higher status in society.  This status might be evident in their earnings, but is not necessarily so.  The President of the United States, a position with considerable cultural capital, is paid a salary less than the presidents of many small universities.  The cultural capital of his/her position, however, affords the President much higher status in society.

Further, Bourdieu describes a sub-category of cultural capital he calls institutionalized cultural capital.  Higher education can also be studied as a purveyor of institutionalized cultural capital.  A person who uses higher education for social status movement relies upon the institutionalized recognition that comes with academic credentials and its implied conversion to economic or social capital.  A graduate of Harvard, for example, might make her/his alma mater known in conversation because of the cultural capital and social status it implies.  SMU carries a prestigious connotation in the community as well.

Higher education, particularly a graduate degree, can offer gains in both cultural and social capital.  Moss says that graduate education (in particular) has become the primary educational terrain of the elite (Moss 2005: 2). There are many reasons to study for a graduate degree - earning a graduate degree can be used to amass social, economic, and cultural capital (and therefore prestige.)

Finally, the theory that higher education can accomplish a socio-economic “leveling” effect was studied by Moss in his paper, “Cultural Capital and Graduate Student Achievement.”  He found that the so-called “bourdieuian thesis” on cultural capital should be amended to include that “graduate students can be academically liberated from the cultural effects of their socioeconomic inequality.”  His research did not support Bourdieu’s theory that graduate students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to attain higher levels of graduate academic achievement because they possess greater cultural capital as a result of their upbringing (Moss 2005: 1).  Instead, he found that by achievement in graduate school, individuals can become academically liberated from their socioeconomic origins and the cultural capital – or lack of it – that they bring to graduate school.  While I haven’t particularly studied this in my ethnography, it is a possibility for a follow-up study of this population.

Method

A sample of graduate students enrolled in the MLS program at SMU completed an online survey (n=95).  The survey instrument is reproduced in Appendix A.

Survey respondents willing to be interviewed for the ethnography provided their name and email address in the final question of the survey. (n=60).

From this pool, face-to-face or telephone interviews were conducted with five of the survey respondents to learn more about their attitudes and opinions about the program.  Additional email queries were answered by seven students specifically about why they chose to enroll in graduate school, why they chose the MLS program, and why “now” was the right time for them to be in graduate school.

Description and Analysis of Data

Responses to each question don’t always total 95 responses or 100%.  Some respondents chose to not answer one or more question.  Others misread a particular question and responded inappropriately (for example, writing “UNT” in the field asking for the year they had earned their bachelor’s degree.)

Names of interviewees have been changed in this paper to maintain their anonymity.

The first five survey questions established a little about the identity of the respondent.  Are you male or female?  Into what age range do you fit? How long ago did you earn your bachelors degree?  In what concentrations are you interested?  Has this changed since you began the program? How far into the MLS program are you?

The following tables reveal the responses to these identity characteristics.

Gender and Age

Gender and Age

Percentage of Survey Respondents

Female under 30 years of age (yoa)

18%

Female between 30 and 50 yoa

40%

Female over 50 yoa

21%

Male under 30 yoa

3%

Male between 30 and 50 yoa

8%

Male over 50 yoa

11

All age groups were represented among the respondents.  It is unknown if the relative percentages are representative of students enrolled in the program.

Age played into matriculation decision for two of the students I interviewed.  Scott is a 25-year-old man with a business degree.  He works in intangible sales and has been at his job for 2 years.  He has been unsatisfied with his career path and wants to be a writer, something he has done for self-expression since he was a boy. He believes the MLS degree concentration in Creative Writing will help him get credentials and learn the basics of his new profession.

Fred is on the other end of the career spectrum and wants to teach in higher education as a retirement job.  He is 60, has a previous master’s degree in social work, and has taught sociology part-time at the community college level.  But he feels the Human Rights and Social Justice concentration, which is a passion of his, will give him the opportunity to inspire students in those fields in the future.

Several students responded that the timing was right for them to pursue the degree now due to the age of their small children or the fact that they haven’t yet started a family.  Allison, a 30-something student studying Organizational Dynamics says, “It was very important for me to earn a master’s degree before starting a family.”

Brad is taking his first course this semester in children’s literature.  He has been looking at the program since 1998 – for 13 years!  This year was the time for him to start because he “finished some personal projects that were in the way and my career got to a point where the commute from Fort Worth (his home) is less of a strain on my work schedule.”

One of the respondents to the question why are you enrolled in the program answered simply, “I started but didn’t finish my master’s degree 30 years ago.  I am here on unfinished business.”  And from another: “I am approaching retirement and I want to keep my brain engaged and functioning.”

Date of First Bachelor’s Degree

Year first bachelor’s degree was earned

Number of respondents

before 1960

3

between 1960 - 1965

1

between 1966 - 1970

2

between 1971 - 1975

2

between 1976 - 1980

8

between 1981 - 1985

6

between 1986 - 1990

6

between 1991 - 1995

11

between 1996 - 2000

11

between 2001 - 2006

14

between 2006 - 2010

25

in 2011

2

The earliest first bachelor’s degree reported was earned in 1954.  The spread of years among respondents represents fully seven decades. 45% of the respondents have earned their bachelor’s degree within the past ten years.

What do MLS students have in common despite their age range from early 20s to late 70s?

The diversity of the students in the program was mentioned as a surprise and/or a satisfaction element for many respondents.  “I have been surprised at the diverse backgrounds of those in the program,” one student writes.

Another says, “My biggest surprise is the variety of professors and students I’ve met; the one binding thread is their desire to learn and expand their worldview.”

“A wonderful surprise has been meeting great people with so many different backgrounds that I would have never met otherwise.”

“I love to learn about new things and wanted to meet interesting people.”

The MLS program appears to succeed in its mission to both be diverse and create a community of learners who are passionate about higher education.

Number of MLS courses taken (including current enrollment)

Number of Courses

Percentage of Survey Respondents

Between 1 and 4 courses

41%

Between 5 and 8 courses

30%

More than 8 courses

30%

The respondents were well distributed with regard to the portion of the curriculum they’ve completed.  The vast majority of the courses in the MLS program are 3 credit hour classes.  The degree, then, typically consists of at least 12 courses.

Academic rigor came up a lot in both survey responses and my interviews.  Many students seem to take two classes per semester, but others told me that they couldn’t manage more than one per semester due to the challenging expectations of the professors. 

A few students I spoke with are taking more than two classes routinely. “I need to get out of school and begin my career,” explained Debbie, a young woman who just earned her bachelor’s degree earlier this year.  She has an undergraduate degree in art history and felt the need to earn a graduate degree immediately to distinguish her in the job market.  Unfortunately, she was not accepted into either of the art history graduate programs she applied to, so she decided to apply to the MLS program and do graduate work in The Arts and Cultural History concentration.  She is hoping to complete the 36-hour program in two years before entering the workplace.  Debbie feels that a master’s degree will be of benefit to her when she enters the workplace.

Many students remarked that they had been surprised by the amount of work required by the program.  One respondent wrote, “I am happy with the degree of difficulty of the coursework; it places me outside of my comfort level and requires me to perform under different circumstances than I would normally.”

Another student says she loves, “the program’s encouragement of learning and discovery.”  Others talked about the passion of the students and faculty, the caliber of the faculty, and the high expectations that stretch them in new ways.

MLS Degree Program Concentration

Concentration

Percentage of Respondents

American Studies

8%

Communication, Media, and Technology

1%

Creative Writing

9%

Environmental Sustainability

7%

Gender Studies

1%

Global Studies

7%

Human Rights / Social Justice

17%

Humanities

18%

Organization Dynamics

3%

Arts and Cultural Traditions

11%

Self-Designed

21%

Unsure

16%

Every concentration was represented among the responses.  52% of respondents are in self-designed concentrations, are still unsure about their concentration, or because of matriculation date are not required to have a concentration.  Many respondents mentioned that this flexibility was a major factor in their decision to undertake the MLS program.

By far, the most comments I got about a particular concentration was the Human Rights / Social Justice concentration.  This is the only program of its kind in the metroplex and has some very passionate faculty and students.

Jorge is a young man who hails from Mexico.  He spent several years after emigrating to the U.S. just establishing himself culturally, emotionally, and economically, but when he was ready to return to school the Human Rights concentration was the right one for him.  He describes himself as a human rights activist and says, “It has been my personal and professional goal to someday become an academe member and teach or do research.  The MLS had the perfect combination of content, class variety, liberal thought, and even price I was looking for.”  Jorge is in his last year of the program.

The other area of study that was often mentioned by respondents is the area of art and art history.  Clearly many are enrolled in the program to study in these areas, but I found the comments by students who hadn’t experienced arts courses to be really interesting.  “The only surprises have been how much I can enjoy a subject if I give it a chance,” one writes.  “I have developed a strong interest in art history,” another responds. 

Finally, one student says, “Biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed the two art classes.”

Concentration Decisiveness

“I have changed my concentration interest since I’ve started in the program.”

Percentage of Survey Respondents

Yes

14%

No

86%

MLS students appear to be very decisive about their concentration interests.  However, more open-ended questions (found below) on the survey also revealed a surprising open-mindedness about sampling from unfamiliar course areas.

Next, I asked the MLS student why they’re in the program.

Many respondents talked about lifelong learning in response to my question.  The responses I got to the question “why?” will make humanities lovers’ hearts sing.

Probably my favorite response is, “I wanted to become a Renaissance woman.  This program offers much for my personal growth.”

Another woman who is pursuing a self-directed program says, “I knew I wanted to study in a way that would connect me with people from many different disciplines.”

Life-long learning responses were in large supply.  “I wished to expand my mind and become a better thinker, writer and teacher,” said one student.  “I want to broaden my understanding of the world,” wrote another.

A student with a doctorate in the biological sciences wrote, “I grew tired of specializing in science and needed to cultivate the rest of my intellect.”  Many students mentioned that they have explored areas they never expected to.

A female attorney of over twenty years writes that she has an undergraduate degree in business and a law school degree but that she wants “… to take the humanities, art, and sociology classes that I didn’t have time to take before because I really love those subjects.”

Another student explains that her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and MBA in marketing didn’t allow her to take liberal studies courses – and the MLS will.

Others wrote about their motivation with a sense of humor about their brains.  “I needed to get my brain functioning again and prove I still have one,” a gentleman wrote.  “I want to use my brain so it doesn’t atrophy!” exclaimed another.   Another respondent writes she wanted to “dust off my brain and use it again.”  “I want the brain exercise and because I want to be learning until the day I die,” writes another student.

Stacy has been in the workforce for 5 years.  She found that she had begun “to crave learning” and finds that the MLS program allows her to take courses in topics she didn’t have time for in her advertising and marketing bachelor’s degree. “I was looking for a new challenge and have always loved learning and academia,” she said.

Others gave similar responses.

“I was looking for some personal growth and intellectual stimulation.”

“This is a growth time for me.”

“I’ve wanted to broaden my horizon and learn new things outside my everyday circle.”

Several students mentioned an improvement in their critical thinking skills and writing skills as a result of having studied in the program.  One said, “I’ve discovered a creative side to me in writing, which is a surprise.”  She follows by saying that she learned a new appreciation for poetry in her first class – The Human Experience.

The spirit of liberal studies programs is captured in this response, “I believed the MLS program was more about LEARNING instead of just obtaining a degree.”

Economic Expectations

“I expect that the MLS degree will result in a raise or higher paying job as soon as I complete it.”

Percentage of Survey Respondents

Yes

30%

No

70%

Question 7 asks if the student expects the MLS degree to increase his/her income.  As I suspected, economic capital is not the primary reason for matriculation into the program for many students.  I carefully wrote this question so as to eliminate false positive responses from younger students who naturally expect to earn more money in future years.

Many students talked about the MLS program finally being the higher education experience that allows them to dabble in all the subjects that interest them.  Others intend to utilize their MLS degree for career changes or advancement.

“I wanted to get back in the classroom and take classes for enjoyment,” one satisfied student writes.

“I teach 6th grade World Cultures in a public school,” one student responded.  “Instead of earning a Master of Education, I preferred to seek out more education in the field that I teach.” 

A number of students mentioned teaching in higher education as a possible outcome from them having earned the MLS degree.  The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Texas’ regional accrediting agency, requires a graduate degree and 18 semester hours of coursework in the subject you teach – something that is attainable in the MLS program.

Ben is an undergraduate admissions counselor at SMU – a position that he came to as a result of corporate downsizing a few years ago.  He sees his tuition benefit as an important part of his total compensation – in fact, half a dozen SMU employees and MLS students responded to the survey.  Ben sees the program as a way to both “expand his mind” as well as prepare him to eventually teach history at the college level.  He says, “The MLS program has allowed me to focus on … academic interests as opposed to the corporate grind to which I had become accustomed.”

I met Cynthia, a young woman in the program who has very specific teaching goals.  She has designed an interdisciplinary theater arts concentration that will allow her to teach subjects like theater appreciation, acting, and stagecraft classes at the community college level.

Sue has had an interesting approach to the program.  She is a Humanities concentration student in the middle of the program.  She told me that she started the program just for personal enrichment.  She viewed her commitment as class-to-class (“as long as I find them inspiring”) and wasn’t really committed to earning the degree until she had taken over half the number of classes required for the degree.  She says her commitment grew from “class by class” to “get 18 hours under my belt to be qualified to teach humanities in a community college,” to now being fully committed to earn the degree

Some students plan further education beyond the MLS.  One of the men under 30 group looks to the program to help him become “well rounded for my next endeavor, a psychology master’s degree and eventual doctorate.”

The next survey question was an open-ended question that asks about satisfaction with the program thus far, expectations having been met, and/or surprises.  Despite the somewhat cumbersome nature of the question wording, the question elicited many really great and thoughtful responses. 

Without a doubt, the vast majority of the respondents are highly satisfied with their experience in the MLS program.  Responses to this question were even more effusive than I expected.

A number of students used the word “love” when they described their satisfaction.

One of the gentlemen in the program writes, “I have also fallen very in love with SMU… more so than I had ever imagined I would.  It’s hard to put in words really.”  This student told me that his father had earned a master’s degree at SMU in 1968 and that this experience is even more important to him because of that connection

One of the interviewees, a woman who just earned her undergraduate degree earlier this year, says that the “amazing classes make me never want to graduate!”

“My experience has been fantastic,” writes another student.

“This is a must do program.”

“The program is beyond my wildest expectations.  It is probably the best decision I have ever made.”

“I am surprised how much I love it.”

A number of students praised the faculty in their responses about satisfaction.  One mentioned being impressed with the “caliber of the instructors.”  Another said the faculty is “passionate.

“It is a true honor to be taught by these people.”

And finally, “SMU has some real gems on its faculty.”

Some of the students expressed mild surprise and gratitude that their professors treated them with respect and were interested in their opinions.  One said she was, “very satisfied with the high-level discourse in my classes.”  Another said, “I’ve been encouraged to share my viewpoints and enter into lively discourse where mutual respect is given.”

Students report their satisfaction with both the program and the university too.  One first-year student told me that she couldn’t believe how accommodating the program was with all the options that were available to students.

Another said, “What has surprised me most about SMU in general has been how nurturing and supportive everyone is.  I have not found a single disagreeable individual, nor have I been denied any assistance from someone I have approached with a concern.”

Of approximately 950 question responses, I was astonished to receive only three responses that could be viewed as negative.  All three of these comments were in answer to this question.

One student wrote, “Some excellent instructors but too many below par.”  Another wrote (without further explanation), “They (his/her expectations) have not been met.”  And finally, “I am satisfied with two notable exceptions. One class I could have done a much better job teaching.  The other the teacher was an obnoxious liberal.”

It is possible that students with a negative viewpoint self-selected to not participate in the survey.  However, I think it’s more likely that there are few students who haven’t had a positive experience.

Social Interaction

“I have hung out socially with fellow MLS students.”

Percentage of Survey Respondents

Yes

57%

No

43%

The final question of substance asks whether the respondent has “hung out socially” with other MLS students.  In an evening program for non-traditional students with a three-generation age-span, I fully expected a majority of the respondents to say no.  Instead, 57% said they had. 

This is an area of particular interest to me that I hope to study further.  As students of evening seminar-type classes, it would seem many of us arrive directly from work to go to class – and then go directly home due to the late hour.  What I am interested in is how students broke out of that routine in the first place, and then I’m interested in the cultural capital they’ve assigned to developing friends and social relationships with fellow MLS students.

Conclusion

The rich data I gathered from both the MLS student survey and the interviews I conducted leads me to believe that the students in the program have a number of shared characteristics.

First is their common interest in self-challenge and learning for learning’s sake.  Variations on this theme were repeated again and again in the responses.

Second, fully 70% do not have financial gain or career mobility as a primary goal in matriculating into the MLS program.

Both characteristics are informative.  Students in the MLS program appear to have been well informed about what they were getting into when they enrolled.  The program appears to live up to the expectations of the students – in fact; many students said it “exceeded” their expectations.  There appears to be a strong correlation between the marketing and informational efforts by the university and the satisfaction and challenge reported by the students.

The MLS Program Office appears to do a stellar job of capturing both the essence of the MLS experience in marketing materials as well as engaging the type of graduate student who will excel in the program.

Both the MLS website and printed marketing materials do a good job explaining the program and identifying the type of student who will excel in it.  Selected website quotes bear this out:

The Master of Liberal Studies attributes its success to a broad-based, multidisciplinary curriculum that encourages (to use a current business phrase) "thinking outside of the box."  A greater understanding of cultures and values, an expanded historical and geographical context in which to consider current issues, the exchange of viewpoints in a diverse classroom filled with professional adults from all walks of life -- this is learning that is of the greatest use, in the workplace as well as in our private lives.

Each journey is guided by personal passion and scholarly curiosity. Every individual passage is accompanied by fellow seekers of knowledge who collectively enrich the experience.

Along the way you may expect to be challenged, surprised, inspired, enlightened, energized and perhaps even transformed. Students interface with educators from virtually every university discipline. Instructors bring unmatched credentials and dedication to the teaching of a range of subjects that spans the ages and expands to explore the universe.

Our students and graduates regularly report that they have discovered a new passion or talent they never realized they had. Others find their lives changed and their direction altered by an MLS faculty member or course. But most importantly, they find themselves inspired to leave their very own mark on the world (MLS Program Website N.d.) 

Prospective students who read these messages and also hear similar things from both students in the program and the program staff, appear to have made a good choice by matriculating.

Liberal arts education had fallen out of favor by the time that many of the MLS students were in college for the first time.  Engaging in higher education to become a well-rounded person and to understand the world around oneself better has not been widely popular for decades.  Undergraduate education is often seen and marketed as the first milestone in pursuit of a career. 

Engall and Dangerfield write about the “market-model university” in The Harvard Magazine:

Between 1979 and 1994, among all bachelor’s degrees in higher education, three majors increased five- to ten- fold: computer and information sciences, protective services, and transportation and material moving.  Two majors, already large, tripled: health professional and public administration.  Already popular, business management doubled. English, foreign languages, philosophy and religion all declined.  History fell, too…On the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test only nine percent of students now indicate interest in the humanities (Quoted in Connor N.d.: 2).

Graduate education has become almost exclusively related to credentialing for a career.  To find a graduate program with satisfied and achieving students who do not expect direct career rewards is like stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.

My thesis that the MLS program attracts self-identified “life-long learners” appears to be borne out in the students who provided data for this ethnography.  MLS students appear to find intrinsic value in the cultural capital they gain from studying in the program.  This is evidenced by their response that they don’t expect to earn more money (another type of capital) as a result of the degree.  It’s also evidenced in their establishing social relationships with other students despite the fact that since the program is scheduled for working adults, it would be easy to study in the program without establishing “out of class time” friendships.

Whether MLS students experience social mobility as a result of the cultural capital gained has not been investigated in this ethnography and is perhaps a subject for further study.  Additionally there are two other areas that I’d like to explore further based upon the data I collected for this paper.

First, I am interested in learning more about the social networks the MLS students have experienced and the friends they’ve made.  I was surprised that 57% of the respondents have been motivated to expand their social networks with fellow MLS students – and that they have followed through with that motivation.  I would have assumed that most MLS students arrive on campus after work, go to class, and then go home.  Clearly for over half of those who responded, this is not the case.

I wonder if the nature of their social experiences has begun as an extension of a class together.  For instance, did the class or professor encourage attendance at a human rights event or a museum exhibit opening?  Were the students placed on a project team together?

Further, what cultural or social capital do MLS students gain by making friendships in the program?  Perhaps for many, meeting others with similar interests was actually a motivating force for enrollment in the program. I believe that this illustrates the theory of social capital – those resources that are based on group membership, relationships and networks of influence and support.

Second I’m interested in the students who brought up writing and research skills in their responses to the survey satisfaction question.  At least seven students mentioned a desire to have courses or assistance available in how to research and write graduate-level papers.  Whether mentioning the need for more assistance or talking about their improved writing skills, it appears that MLS students, like Moss, consider writing skills as an indicator of cultural capital (Moss 2005:3)

“I am surprised that I am expected to submit papers that are graded as though they were to be published.”

“My writing has dramatically improved.”

“I am dissatisfied with the writing center not being able to help MLS/grad students.  Some of us are a bit rusty and need writing assistance.”

“The writing styles have been different but I love the support our professors offer.”

“… focus more on the professional aspects of academia like research.”

“The program itself did more to help me grow than I expected – specifically through writing and other creative assignments.”

“I wish there was an opportunity to have specialized help with writing.  I would like to see a 1 hour credit for individualized writing tutoring with faculty from the English department.”

These highly motivated adult learners have chosen to challenge themselves and make personal and financial sacrifices to obtain a master’s degree from SMU.  They have spoken about finding – sometimes unexpectedly – intrinsic and intangible value in their experience.  Surely these sentiments speak to Bourdieu’s cultural capital – non-financial social assets that promote social mobility.  Additionally, the benefits of the social capital gained by the network of learners blossom during the period of education but aren’t fully realized until after the degree is conferred.

Works Cited


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