Friday, April 07, 2006

The dream class

More than halfway through this semester with the film criticism class I'm teaching now, I've decided I've found the perfect group of students. Not once has anyone come in late or not done the assignments. They say smart, insightful things about the films we're studying (some Hitchcock, some Altman, with Casablanca thrown in for good measure), always anticipating where the discussion should go next. Each 90-minute session flies by in a whirl of opinions, arguments, film clips and hearty laughs. I can't wait to see them every week.

On the second day of the term, I got to the classroom early to set up the video/DVD equipment. As I opened the door, I saw almost every seat filled and thought I'd accidentally walked in on the end of a previous class. No, as it turned out, my group of 55 enrollees were almost all there 30 minutes early, eager and ready to go. They introduced themselves and told me how excited they were to get into the course. Nobody goes to sleep on the back row during this class. Nobody leaves early. They keep the discussions going all the way to the parking lot.

So what's going on? Who are these Stepford students? Ah, here's the secret to this perfect college class: Not one of them is under 60 years old.

In a program for "lifelong learners," retirees and senior citizens pay a fee and sign up for a wide range of classes each semester. They can learn languages or study literature, film, theater and music. They take courses in philosophy and physics, photography and poetry. Many of the instructors are retired, too -- or, like me, were retired involuntarily by other institutions. We're there because we like teaching. And the money's not bad either.

The classes are held on the school's west campus in a comfortably appointed building with lots of brightly lit rooms and a huge student lounge. The air-conditioning hasn't broken down once. And the soda machines have Coke Zero, which is a bonus.

Such energy these students have! Maybe it's Geritol, maybe it's beta-blockers and high fiber diets, but these folks are wide awake and ready to rumble every single day. Nobody drags in complaining about a roommate stealing their ADD drugs or how they're hung over from happy hour at Primo's. And hands down, these students are the best-dressed, cleanest, most polite and well-spoken I've ever encountered. Not a "tramp stamp" tattoo or navel ring among them--or at least they're not showing them off in public. (Hey, some of these gals are they say, 70 is the new 50.)

The best part of it for me is not having to explain who's who in the films and what the cultural references are. I have yet to meet a 19-year-old who gets what Altman was doing in Nashville or can find the Freudian symbols in Psycho-- or even knows what "Freudian" means. As I told my class the other day, this is the first time I've taught Casablanca to a group who didn't need me to spend 10 minutes going into the history of the Vichy government.

Even better, they bring a wealth of life experiences to the table. When I asked last week what makes films like Casablanca hold up over six decades, I got wonderful answers. "They show us what love should look and feel like," said one student. And, said another, "You can see that a woman can love two very different men (Bogie's Rick and Paul Henreid's Victor Lazslo) for very good reasons." Then for a few minutes we talked about the benefits of a Rick over a Victor Lazslo, and vice versa. I sense that some of them have experienced great love and great loss in their long lives. Typical undergrads wouldn't even go to that place in the conversation.

When you teach a class of senior adults, you get students who want to be there and who wouldn't dream of skipping a minute of it. They're eating life in great big bites, these guys.

OK, I get some complaints when I walk to the back of the room while I'm talking and the hearing aid wearers on the front row can't pick up my voice. I turn the AV equipment up a little louder than I would for younger students. There aren't any Ashleys or Brads in this group, but I do have five Barbaras and seven Bobs, which perhaps are the Ashley/Brad equivalents for another generation.

Teach older students like these and rest assured you'll never have a helicopter mommy calling to complain about grades or exam schedules. With the over-60 crowd, hey, for the most part their parents are dead.


Anonymous KSR said...

Oh Prof,

That's fabulous. As I read through the end of the second paragraph, I said to myself, "must be a Leisure Learning Class."

Sure enough, it was even better. "Leisure Learning For Seniors."

Congratulations. You finally get to teach a group of motivated, intelligent, thoughtful students.

And I'm delighted for you that it doesn't pay too badly, either.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How dare kids who's taken up to 12-16 years of school in a row not look forward to another semester with complete vigor.

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Tabitha Grimalkin said...

This is such a great post! Thanks!

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the anonymous response three above mine: maybe the little darlings should take some time off to work at Burger King or Radio Shack -- then they'd enjoy school.

Sounds like the grandkids could learn yet another thing from the grandparents.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Morgaine said...

When I was in college, I loved taking classes with the older students. I tended to take late classes - 3 pm to 9 pm - so I was often one of the youngest people in a class made up primarily of working adults, or older people studying because they wanted to learn for their own purposes. I've also taken a few adult ed. art classes with seniors - they're great, because they really want to be there.

Now, at the risk of sounding Philistine, can you please tell me what is so great about Robert Altman? Every time I see one of his films I want to kick his ass.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous highschoolkid07 said...

anony1 - good one! Haha!

anony2 - not so good. :P

anony3 - You don't get it, do you? I believe when students are forced to learn for so long, how can you possibly expect them to take such strong interest? Especially when the class seems irrelevant to them. I agree that kids should work, though. Even if it is just mopping floors.

11:35 PM  
Blogger StyleyGeek said...

Hey, Anonymous Grammar Nazi:

"class" is morphologically singular, so "class who has..." = "class who's" is actually correct in the world of prescriptive grammar textbooks, and "class who have" = "class who've" is just plain wrong.

So if you're going to go round anonymously hassling bloggers about their grammar, you might want to improve the standard of your own first.

Great post, Phantom, as always.

1:13 AM  
Blogger StyleyGeek said...

Oh damn. Now I've embarrassed myself. I thought anonymous was commenting on Phantom Prof's "This is a class who's...", but rereading the comment thread I realise they probably meant the other anonymous's "kids who's taken..".

In which case, mea culpa.


1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"some of these gals are gorgeous"
I'm 55, any of these hot chicks looking for a younger man?

the same holds true in the work force. older employees are more productive and loyal but my company of 25 years just released me.

1:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps an answer to the question that arises from your post: why are the non-traditional students far more emphatic about education than the traditional college students?

I'm not sure, because I can't speak for all who compose my demographic (18-23 year old college students), but the definitive reason that non-traditional students proceed in their education with much more enthusiasm results from the fact that they are non-traditional students. By this I mean, those who shuffle from work shifts or those who pry themselves from the comforts of retirement have an inherent self-motivation unlike most fresh from high school students. Those who venture into classes despite a lack of possible economic improvements or gains of honor acting as incentives are in those classes for reasons of personal improvement. Therefore, a strong motivation propels them to the furthering of their education, personal need. Its safe to say that many non-traditional students feel a dire need to seek education beyond the mechanics of capitalism and survival, searching for a more substantial meaning past the fact and figure reality provided by the need to pay bill, feed children, etc.

I also believe that its safe to say that many traditional college students fail to recognize to true value of education due to a lack of experience in the 9 to 5 world, which provides fulfillment only in the form of safety. A college degree, may my age (19) feel, serves only as a pole-vault into a better tax bracket. They, excuse me, we don't know the immense value of higher education because we don't feel the void caused by its absence. Us inexperienced pre-adults divert our attention away from the actual lessons poured upon us in college in order to gawk at the future. Also, once again due to a lack of experience, traditional college students employ their newly found freedom from parents to experience the appealing party scene, which most have been kept from.

Result? The traditional students throw themselves into an ocean of new events. While the older, non-traditional students focus on class because, to use a T-shirt phrase, they've "been there, done that."

Just a thought.

4:45 AM  
Blogger SuperHolmie said...

I am so jealous. I would give anything to be in one of your classes. Are you teaching anything for people who are 32 during summer school?

I've always enjoyed being around older people, too. My best friend is 56 and I love that she's devoid of the bullshit my other friends seem to have acres of. I'll bet you are having a really good time and I'm so glad. Seriously, are you teaching summer school?

8:08 PM  
Blogger liz said...

I'm doing a report for my Communications class using Casablanca to demonstrate leadership qualities.

I'm twice as old as most of the other students in the class and expecting to have to explain why Casablanca is a classic.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably my best friend in school right now is a single mom who's going to school full time. We have the same major, so I've had several classes with her. She's a wonderful person to be around during class, because most of the time, she's totally relieved to be there. The classroom is her haven from the rest of the stresses of life, while for most other people my age (I'm 20), it's just a waiting room until you can get out for the day.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Clancy said...

Older students are the BEST. They raise the bar for the whole class, if you have them in a regular non-continuing-ed college class.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mum started college when she was 41 (we were at the same campus) and routinely got top marks in all her subjects as she wanted to be there and it wasn't just a continuation of high school like it was with me.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The nice thing with non-traditional students is that they have made a deliberate choice to go to college. They've thought about it. They're not just doing it because it's expected of them. They usually want to be there. They also tend to be aware that they need to put the work into the course.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Celeste said...

The difference in one word:


Takes me back to Edward James Olmos in, "Stand and Deliver", a CLASSIC.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 37 and in my first semester at UMass Amherst in the Masters of Planning Program. So far I've been offered liquir in the computer lab, witnessed binge drinking on the weekends, and general rowdy and negative behavior at school bordering on out of control. I am so incredibly disappointed. Its taken so much to get here; hopefully my graduate school experience will get better.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

I'm a bit fortunate to have classes similar to yours...and no, they're not seniors. Perhaps, it's because the majority of the students in our university aren't well-off so they give great importance to education. It's their only hope for a better future.

8:11 AM  
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