Michael Wilson

MLA | 2013

Photo: Michael Wilson delivers a post-MLA Ted talk at Purdue University

If you ask Michael Wilson, MLA ’13, what advice he would give to someone considering enrolling in the Graham School’s Master’s of Liberal Arts Program, his answer is immediate and emphatic: “Jump in now and do this. I don’t know of any other program that could be as life-changing. This is a positive change that you can implement yourself right now, and the effects will stay with you for the rest of your life.” Wilson speaks from experience; the program yielded just such a profound change for him.

When Wilson discovered the MLA Program, he was at the crest of a fast-paced, demanding career as an entrepreneur. For two decades, he had been founding, nurturing and then selling start-up companies. His ventures ranged from restaurants to technology firms. The diversity of his business portfolio reflected an intellectually omnivorous nature.

“I took Chemistry and Calculus in college,” says Wilson, “but I was always Liberal Arts-minded to my core, thirsty for perspectives provided by the Humanities. I’m one of those guys who loves both thermodynamics and Shakespeare, and I think at heart we all need a balance of the two. In my businesses, I basically implemented and practiced my love for both the arts and science.” Wilson even named one of his companies—the software design firm Tortus—after the Latin word for ‘twisted’ in a nod to the twin roles that aesthetics and engineering play in technology innovation. As this firm specializing in web design grew larger, Wilson brought on board “artists who could work in any kind of medium, from sculpture to stained glass, as well as programmers who could calculate Pi to its 50th digit.”

Tortus was one of several businesses Wilson built in his 20s and 30s, working at a pace he admits was “frenetic.” But in 2009, as Wilson neared forty, he found himself wondering if he was ready for a new chapter. He sold off a chain of businesses and contemplated his next move. Wilson realized, he says, that “I was at a pivotal time in my life. I needed to figure out more about what made me tick, and why I made the decisions that I did in life. I was curious to know what motivated me as an entrepreneur.” He wanted the opportunity to engage “in self-reflection, and to understand the framework of how I think about myself and the world.”

He decided to investigate the MLA Program. “I drove up to the University of Chicago and interviewed at the Graham School. The day was golden. The Director gave me a tour of the Gleacher Center and of the Egyptian relics on campus. I said to myself, ‘This is exactly it.’”

The Graham School would prove the beginning of a radically new path for Wilson. Inspired by his courses and his connections with University of Chicago faculty, he has embarked on a new career: doing cutting-edge graduate research in the Engineering Department at Purdue University. His work explores cognitive function and learning patterns, focusing on questions that lie on the boundary between psychology and mechanical engineering. Through experiments involving instruments that track eye movement, he is helping to uncover the physical markers of how humans learn.

Wilson never imagined the MLA Program would so fundamentally change the direction of his professional life, toward the pursuit of a PhD in Engineering. His first MLA course was not even in engineering or natural science, but in anthropology, examining the cultural symbolism of the Olympic Games. “This was when Chicago was vying to host the Olympics,” Wilson recalls. “The class was magnificent. It was just riveting. We read Durkheim, decoded symbols, and discerned the reasons for the rituals surrounding athletic events.”

In his early months at the Graham School, Wilson knew only that he had found the ideal place to fulfill the hunger for knowledge that followed him his entire career: “I hadn’t been in a classroom for twenty years, so it was mouthwatering and mind-blowing from the start.” The MLA schedule offered him the freedom to explore all the branches of learning that fascinated him, with world-class faculty as his guides. “I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough, and I just needed more,” he remembers.

Because Wilson’s work as a consultant sent him across the map, he would fly (or occasionally drive for hours) into Chicago for class each week. He used those commutes to read, write and think about the new material he was mastering, and to process what happened in class. “Being on a plane both set me up for class, and allowed me to decompress afterward, when it felt like there was smoke coming out of my ears. All of us students, mature adults as we were, would leave class as a tight-knit community of people who knew they were being challenged and lifted up by a maestro professor.” His busy professional schedule limited Wilson to one class per quarter, but as he soon discovered: “the courses are so rich and dense in the MLA, it helps to do one at a time, rather than doubling up. When you focus on one topic, it is more enjoyable if all you have to think about is Thermodynamics, for example, or For Whom the Bells Tolls.

Wilson started the MLA Program out of a desire to better understand himself and his goals. He discovered he was not alone in this motivation: his classes were filled with fellow students animated by intellectual curiosity and the spirit of self-discovery. “We all had a reason for being in the classroom,” Wilson explains. “When you have committed yourself to this kind of work, you want to give it everything—and we all wanted a shot at meta-cognitive self-reflection. While we didn’t always talk about the personal aspect, we did understand that our experience here would be life-changing, and that this is where we would contextualize the questions we had about ourselves.”

Wilson’s interest in a new career came into focus as he absorbed the extraordinary expertise of the MLA faculty. He dissected Hamlet with David Bevington, a world-renowned Shakespearean scholar and editor of the Bard’s complete works who has taught at the University of Chicago for over fifty years. He read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with Robert Perlman, an evolutionary biologist and medical researcher, in a seminar examining the role of disease in human history. With Paul Friedrich, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, he studied the novels of Ernest Hemingway. Friedrich’s Hemingway class in particular catalyzed Wilson’s MLA thesis project: developing an algorithm to analyze language patterns in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Learning from these scholars inspired Wilson: “The framework and the methodologies have served me more than they’ll know.” The specialized nature of their knowledge, the wisdom they gained from a lifetime of concentration in one field of study, left an indelible impression. For him, working with Bevington, Perlman and others was “so enriching and enveloping and powerful, it took me out of myself. All of these professors started me thinking about the essential framework of what I wanted to do with my intellectual life. They helped me realize that if I wanted to go deeper, I was going to need to do PhD work. ”

Wilson became convinced that his next step should be to specialize in one field himself, forging his own area of deep expertise. This realization, he remembers, “came about half-way through my time in MLA. I had been this wild-eyed, hard-charging entrepreneur, and the program gradually centered me, fueled me and made me focus.” He started searching among all the branches of study available at the Graham School, testing his enthusiasm for various disciplines, weighing his choices for future PhD programs.

To help him in his search, the MLA Program gave Wilson special permission to enroll in Experimental Economics, a Booth School of Business course taught by the economist John List. The class rekindled his love for pure mathematics and prepared him to make the leap into his current PhD program. “I hadn’t studied Calculus or Statistics in twenty years, but in List’s course I saw how easily I could get back into the math. It was not as intimidating as I expected it to be, and I realized I had a knack for it. I started thinking seriously about Engineering.”

The Graham School allowed Wilson to explore the structure of his own intellectual orientation, to examine the perspective of a range of disciplines, and to hone in on a path to a new professional future. He now conducts research at Purdue University’s Department of Engineering, developing and applying technologies that measure the physical signs of how students learn. “I study cognitive load theory, and I am a resident expert on the Purdue campus in eye tracking.” Wilson coordinates with psychologists and engineers to run experiments “identifying when a novice learner is on the brink of becoming an expert.” His work has implications for our understanding of how the mind masters information, and adds to a body of research devoted to helping future students with the task of acquiring knowledge.

“The MLA Program was an essential step in my becoming this kind of researcher in the sciences,” Wilson says. “The caliber of the offerings and the expertise commanded by the professors at the University of Chicago changed how I think about myself and about the whole project of learning. In a sense, the question that I look at now as a researcher—what does it take to go from being a novice to an expert in a given subject—is directly related to my having been trained and inspired by experts at the University of Chicago.”

The MLA Program left Wilson with many intellectual legacies, but he says two themes above all others continue to shape his thinking. He is committed to doing research that will make a difference in people’s lives: “I will always ask, ‘How can the work I am doing have a positive impact on the world around me?’” And, Wilson’s belief in the value of a Liberal Arts education is stronger than ever.

“I am now, as a scientist, a passionate advocate of the Humanities. Studying the Humanities matters. Engineering might show you the ‘How’ of something, but it will not show you the ‘Why.’ What I learned from the pre-eminent scholars in MLA is that the perspectives of both the arts and the sciences are crucial. Without the Humanities, you have only half the equation. You have only half the world.”