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"Teach Us Something" The Improbable, Inspiring Story of Senior Seminars

June 10, 2022 -

“Teach Us Something”

The Improbable, Inspiring Story of Senior Seminars

Peter Filene

   This was hardly what I had expected in March 2020 when I moved into Carol Woods. Instead of Wednesday concerts, Thursday lectures, Friday afternoon sherry gatherings, Saturday movies, art classes and croquet matches, and spirited conversations in the dining room, I received a lukewarm dinner that arrived in a cardboard container outside my door. The coronavirus had invaded and, like fourteenth-century Europeans, the five hundred residents and I were quarantined. At best, I walked around campus waving at masked, white-haired strangers.

   Two months passed, enlivened—if one can call it that—by Zoom meetings with distant friends, by streamed Norwegian thrillers, and by unbearably dismal newscasts. Then Rebecca Brent, chair of the Newcomers Committee, sent out an invitation to me, my lady friend Stuart, and three other couples. “Would you like to get together on Zoom?” Who could have imagined that out of this little invitation would emerge, by some blend of ingenuity and doggedness, a curriculum of exciting, monthlong seminars of, by and for the residents!

   Our first get-together was awkward, like a blind date, a group blind date on little screens: Adams (with an S) Wofford and Sibyl Wagner; Dan and Susan Barco; Lois and Al Howlett; Stuart and me. But Rebecca’s questions and tireless smile smoothed the way toward a second date two weeks later, and then a third. Gradually we attached personalities to the eight tiny faces on the computer screen. We became The Newcomers Group.

   As winter thawed, we decided to gather outside—in person, lifesize. We sat on blankets on a patch of grass, six feet apart, and shouted exuberantly over the 2 traffic rumbling along Weaver Dairy Road. The following week, we brought lawn chairs. We were picnicking through the pandemic. But what if it rained? Stuart proposed a tent to the powers-that-be and, lo and behold, a huge white tent arose beside the pond. Oh, such glorious accommodations in our upscale retirement community.

   But what about those Senior Seminars? you ask.

   Here they come.

   One warm June afternoon in the tent, I mentioned how much I missed teaching retired adults at Duke’s OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).

   “Teach us something,” Al said.

   I laughed. But he wasn’t kidding.

   “Teach us something at our next meeting,” Al repeated in a kind but firm tone. “Fifteen minutes.”

   “I’d love to, but…..” Sheepishly I scanned the circle of my new friends, who were nodding yes, yes.

   “Well,” I said recklessly, “okay.”

   What topic would appeal to this happenstance “class”? In our pre-retired lives, we would never have been sitting together. We were a psychiatrist and a social worker, a medical manager for Aetna, a documentary filmmaker, a World Bank veteran, a yoga instructor, a facilitator of engineering faculty workshops, a political scientist and me, an historian.

   Afterwards, I would realize the topic mattered less than the experience. Beforehand, I fretted and finally made an educated—or really, a desperate— choice: the 1932 election. American voters back then, like us in 2020, faced a desperate national crisis. The candidates were almost comparable: an incumbent Republican (Hoover and Trump) running against a liberal Democrat (Roosevelt and eventually Biden) and a Socialist (Norman Thomas and Bernie Sanders). 3 Maybe history would offer us insight, even hope. I prepared scripts of the three candidates’ positions. As we gathered under the tent, I sketched the Great Depression, and Al, Rebecca and Stuart impersonated Hoover, FDR and Thomas. After a spirited discussion, we elected Thomas by a resounding margin over Roosevelt. In fifteen minutes.

   My friends applauded and sang “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Alas, that proved no truer for Americans in the 1930s than the 2020s. But this makeshift mini-course was less about history than about our personal plight and needs—the nine of us and the five hundred residents. If we were hungry for serious in-person conversation, surely they were famished after months of isolation. We began to muse about creating something more ambitious, more structured. Suppose we recruited volunteers to teach short classes on topics of their choosing, our downhome OLLI. Let’s call them Senior Seminars.

   It was a vision, or perhaps a mirage. Regardless, in the midst of a merciless pandemic and poisonous politics, we longed to do some good. We would be creating something from scratch, a something that should contain pedagogical integrity as well as popular appeal. Heady aspirations indeed. But we were blessed with exceptionally rich resources, because Carol Woods not only is animated by scores of high school teachers and college professors; it thrives on resident-run committees and projects.

   Three of us volunteered to lead the way.

   Rebecca was in charge of overall strategy. Having lived three years in Carol Woods, she was familiar with potential instructors, navigated the bureaucracy, drafted publicity, and created a web page. Her Southern warmth also helped.

   Al handled logistics. Deploying twenty years of administrative experience, he was canny and tireless as he anticipated needs and broke through obstacles. I imagine his days as a set of bullet points.

    • Reserve class times in the tent

    • Get 16 chairs from Housekeeping

    • Erase distracting noise by arranging for fountain in pond to be turned off

    • Draft instructions for registration

    • Tack six-foot strips of blue tape on the tent floor to mark social distance

    • Etcetera

    • Etcetera

    • And tenaciously so forth.

    I was curricular liaison, negotiating with potential instructors about how they might best teach 15 students for 75 minutes four times during September, under the tent, with masks and hand sanitizer, and without power for PowerPoint. To a couple of teachers, I suggested they dramatize their abstractions with case studies. I encouraged others to leaven lecturing with small group discussions.

   Two months later, to our amazement, five residents had signed up to teach subjects ranging far and wide.

   Bob Hellwig, What Your Grandchildren Know of DNA and the Genetic Code after High School Biology

   George Lensing, Four Political Poets of Modernism

   Cynthia Dessen, What Can the Ancient Greeks and Romans Teach Us about Our Lives Today?

   Andy Dobelstein, American Governance and Our Laborious Plodding toward Social Equity

   Peter Filene, Coming of Age in the 1950s and 60s 

   After all this work, how many residents would apply? Not to worry. Within a few hours after registration opened, all but one seminar had filled up and several had a waiting list. One filled up within a minute-and-a-half of the opening of registration. When the “semester” began, sixty residents had taken seats, while seventeen applicants sighed in disappointment. Four weeks later, students and teachers marked the evaluation forms with emphatic applause and called for more courses, new topics.

   Al, Rebecca and I needed no coaxing. If Senior Seminars had succeeded once, we could succeed even better a second time, spreading our pedagogical wings. And circumstances in the spring of 2021 obliged. Covid relented, the dining room reopened, old friends got together again. Happier days were here. If residents could eat together, they could learn together and instructors could teach in a classroom rather than a tent, with electricity for PowerPoint. We organized a second, more expansive session of seminars in March, and an even larger one in October 2021. That fifteen-minute class had spawned an established curriculum.

   Let’s not pretend it happened without problems. Despite Al’s meticulous scheduling, for example, staff meetings sometimes collided with seminars, requiring delicate negotiations over allocating space. Meanwhile, students with profound hearing problems demanded T-coil, the electronic installation that connects to hearing aids. Al performed detective work to make sure it was functioning in the classroom. Alas, one seminar failed to attract enough applicants.

   More basically, there was a procedural quandary: how best to select applicants? We began with a first-come, first-serve procedure. Email Al at noon on such-and-such day and we’ll admit you according to the time marked by the computer. In theory, this seemed fair. In practice, it proved irksome. “I hit ‘send’ at 12:00:24,” a resident complained, “and I got closed out of the poetry course.” Indeed, several elderly residents can’t use computers at all. Eventually, after 6 growing complaint, we adopted a lottery process, enrolling applicants with a randomizing app in Rebecca’s laptop.

   I’m writing in March 2022. We’ve just launched our fourth and largest semester: 105 residents in eight seminars. Providentially, Covid cases have declined enough in North Carolina that we can take off our masks and enjoy fullface conversation. The world at large remains grim, but within our little community happier days are here again.

   Here are the seminars of the last three semesters.

Spring 2021

Peter Filene, The 1920s: Americans Divided

Bob Healy, Protecting Nature in a World of People

Seven facilitators, Fulfilling Myself and Others: Moving out of Covid and Into the CW Community

Andy Dobelstein, America’s Safety Net: Dream or Reality?

Ed Yoder—a Brief History of Storytelling

Helen “Sunny” Ladd—Making good Education Policy

Stuart Rosenfeld, Rural America Today: Red, White, and Poor

Fall 2021

Filene, American Photography

George Lensing—Robert Frost

Stuart Rosenfeld—Rural America in 2021: Red, White and Poor

Wayne Christiansen, Life in the Universe

Jean O’Barr, Women Imagine Change

Rebecca Brent, Becoming a Better Writer

Spring 2022

Helen “Sunny” Ladd, School Choice 7

Karl Jensen, Follow the Science

Collins Kilburn, Sheroes: Pauli Murray and Fannie Lou Hamer

John Riddle, Plants That Changed History

Peter Filene, The 1960s: America Fracturing

Jean O’Barr and Carol Clark, Overlooked and Undercounted: Names, Numbers and Narratives

Will Brooks, Russian History through Literature

Norm Budnitz, Introduction to Birds and Birding