In most ways, Ava Suntoke is like any other student in her Elementary Italian class. She does her homework every night and struggles with her limited vocabulary during class discussions. She studies for tests and quizzes and is disappointed when she does badly. But unlike her 18-year old classmates, Suntoke graduated from college three decades ago.
“It’s been a long time since I was a student,” Suntoke said. “[It’s hard] going back to all that and finding that you have to put more time into getting back into it. You still have to use your mind and focus and study and concentrate.”
Suntoke, who works in the Yale College Publications Office, is one of more than 100 members of the Yale community auditing an undergraduate class at Yale this semester. Faculty members, fellows, students, staff, alumni and their spouses are permitted to attend undergraduate courses for free or for a nominal fee. Auditors do not receive academic credit for their work, but graduate and undergraduate students can receive a record of the audit on their transcript.
Most auditors said they simply want to take advantage of the resources at Yale, explore a new topic, and participate, as one said, in the “rich academic life” of the college. Suntoke, who is going to Italy in December, said she and a friend decided to audit elementary Italian as an alternative to learning the language through recorded tapes.
Stan GRD ’63 and his wife Rochelle — who declined to give their last names because they have not completed the application process for auditing — are attending three classes this semester, they said, “just for the joy of it.” Although they said they only “sometimes” apply to audit officially through the auditing program at the Association of Yale Alumni, which requires potential auditors to submit an application and pay a fee of $420 for each class, Stan and Rochelle have audited several classes each semester at Yale for the last 10 years. Stan, now a retiree, said he enjoys auditing because it allows him to fully appreciate the joy of learning, which he thinks can be difficult for busy undergraduates.
“Can you imagine all the pleasure of school without chores?” he said. “No tests, no papers. We do all of the reading, we attend all of the courses, but we don’t do anything of the stressful stuff.”
Dean William Whobrey, director of the Yale Non-Degree Students Program, which is in charge of the auditing program for faculty members, fellows, staff and their spouses, said applying to be an auditor is a relatively simple process. Yale community members who apply to audit through the non-degree program, which is free, need only to fill out a sign-in sheet indicating an interest in auditing and get a signature on a “permission slip” from the instructor of the course they want to audit, he said.
One important factor in determining whether someone can audit a class is the permission of the instructor, Whobrey said, but he also emphasized that Yale College students enrolled for credit always get precedence over auditors if class size is limited. Art classes are particularly difficult to audit, he said, because they almost never have extra room, and labs and small seminars can also fill up quickly.
Professor Kelly Brownell, whose “Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food” class has about 330 registered Yale College students and a mix of graduate student, staff and alumni auditors, said that while it is sometimes difficult to accommodate auditors in smaller classes, there is “no downside” to having auditors in lecture courses provided there is enough room.
“The auditors are by definition very interested in the topic, and so they do not fall into the category of somebody just taking the class to get credit,” Brownell said. “Often auditors have good ideas and can contribute a lot.”
Some auditors said they only audit larger lectures — consistently popular ones include Donald Kagan’s “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” and Vincent Scully’s “Introduction to the History of Art” — where they can blend in with the crowd. Many auditors in large lectures said they try to remain as unobtrusive as possible and limit their participation to allow enrolled students first priority in class. Some said they keep up with the reading assigned by the professor, although others say it is difficult to find the time. Christina Roberto GRD ’12, who is auditing Brownell’s class, said she does the reading “here and there” but mostly just attends lecture.
In contrast, auditors in seminars are often encouraged to actively prepare and participate. The level of involvement varies between auditors and classes, but many people who have audited seminars said they do the same coursework as students enrolled in the class. Whobrey said it is up to the discretion of the instructor whether or not an auditor’s work is graded.
Haun Saussy, a professor in the Comparative Literature Department, said he teaches mostly seminars and welcomes auditors who are willing to participate actively. Some professors do not accept work done by auditors, but Saussy said he grades auditors’ papers just as he grades the rest of his students’ papers, although he will return them later if he is pressed for time. After the first week or two of classes, he said, he tends to forget who is auditing his classes and who is not.
“What I don’t want to have in an auditor is someone who is disengaged, because people can feel that disengagement, and it brings the temperature of the room down,” he said. “It’s not a matter of being a fly on the wall.”
Students who have attended classes with auditors said they mostly do not notice them, but some said they find it “annoying” when auditors are clearly not paying attention. One student said she is in a lecture with an auditor who regularly reads the newspaper during class, and students in language classes said auditors who do not complete the coursework are often at a lower level than the students who are officially enrolled in the class.
Erin York ’09, who has been in several classes with auditors, said that for the most part having them in class does not bother her, but she remembered one auditor in her Arabic section last year who always seemed unprepared.
“He was just kind of there,” she said “He didn’t really volunteer himself a lot, but whenever he was called on to respond, he would speak. I don’t think he did his homework, but it was not like he was holding us back and asking a lot of questions.”
Suntoke said she makes a point of always being prepared so she can get the most out of her auditing, even though she is not receiving credit for her work. She said the experience of attending a small seminar with undergraduate students reminds her in many ways of being back in college, but that while the students are very accepting of her presence in the classroom, her experience is very different from theirs.
“I mean, they’re talking about class and homework and professors and that kind of thing,” she said, “and still my world is work and home.”