Courtesy of Yale

In a seminar room in the Loria Center’s basement, William Quanrud ’83 opened his copy of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” with nervous excitement.

That day, Quanrud and roughly a dozen other Yale affiliates — all connected with the Directed Studies Program — pored over the text, explored its meaning and relived their time as students. For Quanrud, like others at the event, diving back into the world of eloquent academic discussion diverged from his daily routine as an engineer in Silicon Valley. Regardless of the attendees’ occupations, this year’s Festival of Seminars allowed alumni — some of whom hadn’t been in a Yale classroom for decades — a rare opportunity to return to famous works in the classical canon.

“When I saw this [event], I was thinking, ‘who am I kidding? I’m an engineer,’” said Quanrud, who attended the University before the Loria Center was built. He added, “I gained a lot of my confidence back.”

From Saturday morning to midday Sunday, Yale alumni, their guests and current students attended seminars taught by prominent University professors on a number of different topics. Sunday’s course selections included a discussion about time and ethics in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” and a brief review of “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” And on Saturday, along with a reception at the Union League Cafe, former and current Yale College students explored topics ranging from the poetry of Du Fu to the U.S. Constitution to Plato’s writings.

Humanities Program Chair Bryan Garsten said that the wide seminar selection resulted from how many faculty members agreed to volunteer over the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, he said he felt a “really positive vibe” from the attendees. Many of them have enjoyed successful careers after leaving the University, Garsten said.

“They’re not coming back to gain critical thinking skills,” he said. Rather, he clarified, returning to Yale and engaging with the humanities “helps them make sense of their lives.”

In interviews with the News, alumni said their trip back to New Haven shed light on what had changed since they had received their diplomas decades ago. Quanrud said he noticed more gentrified developments surrounding the University, and added that he was surprised at how safe partygoers felt on Saturday as they walked to the Pierson Inferno and the party at Toad’s Place.

Bill Robbins ’72, a retired lawyer from New York City whom Quanrud met in a Saturday seminar, said that unlike his first year at Yale, this weekend featured women in the classroom. The diversity of the University’s student body changed, and so too have the types of questions asked about the texts in the Directed Studies syllabus, he added. Now, works considered to be in the Western canon can be examined through different perspectives, including feminist lenses.

In recent years, former and current students have criticized the Directed Studies syllabus because it mostly features works written by white men. In 2017, at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of Directed Studies, alumni expressed support for a more diverse selection of authors. But to Robbins and Quanrud, students’ calls to change the proportion of white men represented in the Directed Studies syllabus do not seem necessary.

“The white male authors that Directed Studies deals with were the greatest thinkers of their age,” said Robbins. “Why should these students who want to be exposed to understanding the background and issues of the Western culture in which we live … not have an opportunity to address it through studying white male authors?”

While the curriculum has expanded, some key aspects of Directed Studies have stayed the same. According to Robbins, like his time as an undergraduate, he was unable to finish all the readings for the weekend.

About an hour after Quanrud sat down in that basement classroom with a team of Yale affiliates, Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor Kathryn Slanski wrapped up her seminar. But the discussion — which hopped from ancient Mesopotamia to cuneiform tablets — was interesting enough that the classmates wanted to continue.

“Do you want to go another five minutes?” Slanski asked her class. They nodded in approval.

Roughly 20 minutes later, the conversation finally died down.

According to the Humanities Program website, registration for the event cost $65 per person.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu