Retired profs offer alumni classes

For six weeks in a small downstairs room of the Rose Alumni House, retired English professor Traugott Lawler has led a weekly discussion with an enthusiastic group of Yale alumni and their family members on “The Canterbury Tales.”

Lawler, a professor emeritus of the English Department, is one of a handful of retired professors who are teaching a pilot series of non-credit courses as part of the Association of Yale Alumni’s new Alumni College program. Alumni and their family members can gather for weekly seminar-style courses in New Haven and New York City, discussing topics such as literature and the current state of higher education. The program will officially wrap up its first six-week semester this week, and so far participating professors and alumni have praised the program for its intellectual and social opportunities.

“It’s an evolving concept [that] outperformed our expectations,” said Marv Berenblum ’56, the coordinator of the program and an AYA board member. “It’s not just a class — it’s developing a community.”

Berenblum said the idea for an alumni college initially developed from the desire to create a “lifetime learning center” for alumni in New Haven. After completing a comparative analysis of other universities’ approaches to continuing alumni education and surveying thousands of alumni, he said, the AYA decided to design six courses — three based in New Haven and three at the Yale Club of New York City — each with roughly 10 to 25 students. Though the original intent was to offer classes only in New Haven, Berenblum said, the survey revealed that many Yale alumni living in the metropolitan areas of New York were also interested in participating in courses. Professors emeriti John W. Cook, Frank William Kenneth Firk, Michael Holquist, Alan Trachtenberg and Annabel Patterson also taught alumni courses for the pilot semester, and each course costs $300 to enroll, in addition to a $100 membership fee.

Due to the success of the pilot semester, he said, the AYA expects to roll out a “full-blown” program next fall with more courses. He added that the AYA has received interest from Yale alumni groups in cities across the country, which could lead to the expansion of the program on a national scale.

“We expect that at some point we’ll open it to the larger community,” he said.

For their last meeting of the six-week semester, some of the courses have planned social activities for their faculty and students, Berenblum said. Additionally, he said that there are currently plans for program-wide social events, such as an architectural boat trip around Manhattan.

Trachtenberg, who teaches a course on Walt Whitman at the Yale Club, said he has a close relationship with many of the 26 alumni and family members in his class. The classroom has been a “wonderful experience,” he said, because his students are well-educated and pose challenging discussion questions.

“It’s wonderful for these people to undertake a serious academic class — not quite a class on the Yale College model, but they do the reading and they’re prepared,” Trachtenberg said, adding that all the reports he has heard from other classes have been completely positive.

Most Yale graduates, often with busy lives and full-time careers, do not have the time to revisit classroom education. But Lawler said his students are always active and enthusiastic.

“It’s the same as undergraduate discussion,” Lawler said of his class, which has a total enrollment of 10 students. “I’m enjoying myself. Everybody does the reading and has a lot of interesting things to say.”

All six professors emeriti involved in the program teach topics that have been of academic interest to them in the past. Lawler previously taught Chaucer as part of the English 125 poetry course while at Yale.

The four other classes offered this semester are “Paradise Lost,” “The Age of Einstein,” “A History of Christian Architecture” and “Is There a Crisis in Higher Education?”

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