Staff Q&A/Christopher Pastore

Christopher Pastore, program director of the Master of Liberal Arts, LPS Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Every year, thousands of students pass through Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies. Their backgrounds vary widely: Some are full-time students seeking degrees, others are part-timers who take night classes, some are Penn employees or their family members.

But they all have one thing in common: A thirst for knowledge and love of learning.

“We have a real exciting bunch of people who bring a high level of intellectualism to the classroom,” says Christopher Pastore, program director of the Master of Liberal Arts program. “They know at LPS, they’re going to grow.”

Pastore, who earned his Ph.D. from Penn in 2003 and a master’s degree from the University in 1995, has a passion for both the place and the program. From the moment prospective students step on campus, he helps them craft a path, no matter their ultimate goal. “I see myself as a sounding board, a person who tries to help them crystallize their thinking about their program of study,” he says.

The Current talked with Pastore about the LPS program and his role at the University.

Q. Let’s start with a brief overview of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies.
We are a division of the School of Arts and Sciences. We are essentially the continuing education division. We offer a variety of degree programs, and we also have certificate programs and post-baccalaureate programs. A lot of our students are in part-time degree programs, taking night and evening classes. I would say we probably have 5,000 to 6,000 students at any given time. There are a lot of people in the larger Penn community, employees, family members, lots of people from the Philly area and the adjacent region.

Q. Why do they want to study here?
I think the main reason anyone would choose Penn and LPS is the level of intellectual rigor and inquiry in a course. What we’re asking you to do in a classroom is different if you want to get the most out of your hard-earned dollars and your time for a night course. Penn is the best intellectual value. We have vibrant classrooms with the brightest students in the metropolitan area. You’re going to have more fun, you’re going to grow. If you’re choosing to spend your extra time in the classroom, you’re self motivated, and if you’re self motivated, you want to get the most for your dollar.

Q. What are some of the unique degrees you offer?
We have some really strong post-baccalaureate programs in pre-health and science. Lots of students come here pursuing undergraduate course work in preparation for medical school, dental school, nursing school, veterinary school. They want to take advanced upper level courses to make themselves a much more solid candidate for medical school.
Students interested in classical studies, in upper level graduate degrees or museum work will come and do advanced level Latin and Greek and make sure they have the most solid foundation in the language and general content area if they’re going to pursue a Ph.D.
We also offer some really wonderful degree programs, among them the Master of Applied Positive Psychology. It talks a lot about the application of current theories in psychology. We also offer a Master of Environmental Studies degree because of the rise and interest in sustainability. The green economy and green jobs are very hot right now. It’s a wonderful degree that prepares people to be active players in the practical and more commercial green economy.

Q. What about the Master of Liberal Arts degree?
We are going on our 14th year with the Master of Liberal Arts. It’s a degree program where students can pursue a full- or part-time liberal arts degree with an eye toward a unique concentration that they use to help them write a final Capstone Project.
It is a nine-course unit that is basically a place for people to jump back into the classroom at the highest level of graduate studies. They can design their own program, basically. If someone is interested in both literature and law, they can take English comparative lit, and they might pursue one or two courses at the Law School. They can develop a concentration where they can better understand the important role played by law in classic novels.
It’s also a program for people who miss the classroom and want to sink their teeth into something with a goal. They aren’t ready to commit to going to school full-time, or they’re working professionally, they can chose to investigate something that they always have had a passion for. It can really help them grow their understanding of that discipline. We’ve had people who have been working as technical engineers, but they have a deep passion for medieval history. It’s hard for them to leave a lucrative career, but they can come through the MLA and expose themselves to graduate-level course work.

Q. What is the value of a liberal arts degree at the master’s level?
You learn problem solving, you learn ways of using different methodologies. You become a person who learns how to learn how to apply new models to old questions and old models to new questions.
There are transferrable skills that clearly are powerful in any workplace. Argumentative writing, figuring out how to identify an appropriate research topic, how to determine where to get your information. You’re going to learn how to think critically, how to collect material, digest that material, figure out how to structure that information as part of your argument.
Most people are here for intellectual growth, but they discover that the way they grow is understanding English literature or the culture of the Internet or film studies. Those are all ways they’re going to better understand how to approach a meeting with coworkers, or the CEO, or consultants.
We’ve had a number of students who have changed careers and find themselves more professionally and intellectually rewarded primarily because they recognized some of the limitations they may have placed on themselves start to fall away when they do graduate work at Penn.
Growing in intellectual self-confidence and recognizing that you are the student capable of becoming a high-level member of the intellectual discourse, you start to realize that the people you meet in the classroom are the people you encounter at your job, and you realize that you’re operating as a powerful thinker.

Q. What is your role?
I help construct the rosters for our MLA program. I am the chief liaison to make sure that our students get the kinds of courses they need.
I also am the chief academic advisor. I meet with them early when they first apply, and after they’re admitted to help them refine their interests. I try to steer them toward those graduate groups and courses that they’re going to need.
I’m their sounding board. I nudge them in the right direction and help them define what their Capstone is going to be. I try to make them tell me where they see themselves 10 years from now, so we know together as a student and advisor what they want to get out of the program. Then we can try and structure the right steps.

Q. Why do you find it such a satisfying place to work?
I have my Ph.D. from Penn in art history. I did my dissertation on Venetian culture in the Renaissance. I’m interdisciplinary by nature, and running the MLA project is fun because I talk to students who are trying to do something different every hour.
My dissertation advisor said I was a butterfly. I like to fly around and draw from many different sources. This program allows me to keep that hat on and keep that persona.
I also enjoy interacting with self-motivated students. They miss the classroom, they miss the library, they miss grabbing something and shaking it and figuring out what makes things tick. That’s a fun way to spend a good part of one’s day.
I also get to keep teaching in my discipline, art history, both on the undergraduate and graduate level. It allows me to keep my hand in and keep myself growing as a scholar and to give back to my discipline.

Q. Has the economy affected your school in any way?
I think we’ve definitely seen an impact on how and why people apply. I have students that have come through the door saying the economy isn’t working out for me, so I’m going to take this opportunity to jump back in the classroom and do something I really want to do. A couple other people probably have made the decision not to come because they don’t feel they have the extra money to put toward something they might think of as a luxury. A lot see furthering their education as the best way they can make themselves into high-earning and richly rewarded citizens of the world. People are being more careful in their decisions. They’re more prone to think hard about what this degree might do for them.
We’ve also hit what we think of as the [enrollment] targets, so I think one of the things that’s telling me is Penn is a really attractive product. It’s a brand that says if you want to come back into the classroom and learn more about Jane Austen and the politics surrounding her, this is the place to do it. You’re going to get value for your dollar. You’ll be pushed, you’ll be met with a similar level of intellectual excitement by your fellow students. You can make your own determination about your ultimate reward, but your ultimate reward is to learn more.

Originally published on May 7, 2009