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Unique Ethnography Experience Offered by Master of Liberal Arts

Ethnographic Traditions Course Covers Large Spectrum of Ethnography

Omar McRoberts MLA faculty

Omar McRoberts, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) faculty member, first learned about the MLA before he taught in the program when a student asked him to advise the MLA thesis he was writing. After a couple more MLA students did the same, Professor McRoberts started taking note of a special quality to each of the projects. They were all novel, interesting, and creative, he says, as well as rewarding for him to take part in. And so, he took the initiative on his own to inquire about becoming part of the MLA program’s faculty.

“The students reflected such a wide diversity of interests,” he says, “and the program seemed to be giving them the flexibility to explore those interests within a structure that pushed them toward focus, clarity, and rigor. I’m looking forward to teaching in the MLA program in the future because the experience has been so rewarding for me, and hopefully for the students.”

Ethnographic Traditions Course Covers Large Spectrum of Ethnography

The class he teaches, Ethnographic Traditions, is nearly identical to a class he teaches his PhD students in sociology at the University of Chicago. The students read the same books and carry out the same assignments, which includes everything from conducting ethnographic research, to sharing notes from their field work in class and analyzing and commenting on those of others, to writing analytical final papers. The variety of potential areas to study, Professor McRoberts notes, is nearly endless. His students have studied religious congregations, the food culture of the farm to table movement, public libraries, commercial shopping areas, gentrifying neighborhoods, and courtrooms.

“Though you might not expect some of these areas to be sociologically meaningful,” he says, “from the perspective of the ethnographer all of social life becomes full of meaning and interest. Looking at the world with an ethnographer’s eye allows it to sparkle with a kind of impossibility.”

To gain exposure to a variety of theoretical approaches and empirical topics in ethnography before conducting their own research, students read works on the practice of ethnography as well as actual ethnographic studies. With a focus that spans the breadth of the human condition, the class draws on a broader tradition of inquiry than might traditionally be associated with the social sciences, introducing students to the diverse array of philosophical strains that underpin the ethnographic theories studied.

“The class should appeal to students interested in both the social sciences and the humanities,” McRoberts says. “In part, this is because it concerns the study of and reflection upon the human condition in live situations, but also because the main theoretical approaches to the practice are rooted in deeper philosophical traditions, such as existentialism, pragmatism, and phenomenology.”

The students reflected such a wide diversity of interests and the program seemed to be giving them the flexibility to explore those interests within a structure that pushed them toward focus, clarity, and rigor.

Omar McRoberts - Headshot

Omar McRoberts, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and MLA faculty

How Master of Liberal Arts Education Enriches Life

McRoberts notes that there is nevertheless an important difference between his MLA students and his college and PhD students. It has to do with their motivations, he says. While undergraduate and graduate students are pursuing a specialization, MLA students arrive from anywhere across the professional development spectrum. Their goal, he says, involves finding enrichment for themselves and their professional lives.

“Some want to invigorate an existing career by acquiring new intellectual perspectives,” McRoberts says, “others may be looking to switch professions mid-career. MLA students are often fully immersed in non-academic life, with all the challenges it brings. My job as a teacher is to encourage and support their commitment to this important mind-work in the midst of life’s complication. The value of liberal education for adults is that ultimately it really does enrich life.”

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