Hogback aims to put ‘community’ in college

BRISTOL — The Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, Vermont Community College and Vermont Adult Learning will see a fourth adult learning center joining their ranks in the near future.
But the Hogback Community College, based in the forests of the Five-Town region around Bristol, is not like other continuing education centers. For one thing, it has no building.
And students enrolled in the Hogback Community College won’t be receiving grades or even credit for the courses they take.
But according to founders David Brynn and John Elder, the idea is simple: neighbors teaching neighbors.
“We’ve been chatting about this idea of his for several years,” Elder said. “We wanted to have a college that would be focused on the Five-Town area and integrated with the forest, and the teachers and students would be people who live here. The courses would combine things that are like the liberal arts education of Middlebury College and we’d offer courses for things like auto repair and home insulation and applied arts — anything that might be useful and enjoyable for members of this forest community.”
The concept behind the Hogback Community College came from a series of conversations between Brynn and Elder over the last few years.
“John and I are running partners and we stumbled onto this notion about two-and-a-half years ago and we’ve just been kind of kicking it around ever since,” Brynn said.
The college is an offshoot of Vermont Family Forests, an organization founded by Brynn, a Bristol resident. The nonprofit family forest conservation organization aims to protect ecosystems along with communities, which is where the college ties in.
According to Brynn, the goal of the program “is to found a true community college — one that celebrates and sustains our community by offering a diverse, changing array of useful and attractive courses.”
The college will offer courses on a wide range of topics from Robert Frost’s poetry to tractor repair, organic farming and more. While courses will not be eligible for credit, each will be assigned a number of hours, mimicking the structure at a regular college.
“We don’t have delusions of grandeur — no infrastructure or highfalutin faculty,” Brynn said.
“We hope to have local people with local skills and expertise to be involved and we envision that one week you might be a mentor and teacher, and the next week you might be a student.”
Brynn also hopes to keep tuition costs at a minimum in order to make the program as accessible as possible.
Elder will teach the college’s first course, “Frost in Forest.” The 10-person class will meet for two successive evening seminars at Elder’s Bristol home starting Feb. 17, and then venture out into the woods for a Saturday class for a total of 12 “credit” hours. The course will focus on Robert Frost as both a poet and a naturalist.
“Those two evenings will be seminars where we try to delve into the poetry,” said Elder, who recently retired from Middlebury College, where he taught English for 37 years. “Saturday we’ll be out in the woods, take bag lunches and be talking about poetry, but also looking at some of the natural phenomenon.”
Elder is basing the course on lectures and walks that he has hosted annually at the summer Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, though “Frost in the Forest” students will explore more poems in a more in-depth manner than the Bread Loaf participants.
“Robert Frost is one of the most important poets of the 20th century and one that I really love,” Elder said. “And he was a very fine naturalist. He was well versed in Darwinian life sciences, a great walker and always going out and studying what was happening in the world around him. He was very acute of the trees and flowers and principals of succession, as well as the ways in which the water table moved through the cycles.”
For this reason, sitting in a room and reading poetry is not the best way to access Frost’s work — going out into the woods is essential, Elder explained.
“I believe that to really appreciate Robert Frost, you have to be attentive,” he said. “He’s not decorative or random, but extremely precise. Frost spent a lot of his time in Northern New England and most of it in Addison County. It’s a great way to connect to our place. If you live in the place where a great poet or artist worked, you are blessed with artistic expressions that allow you to see more deeply into that place. In this way, we’re going to both try to see a little more deeply in poems and perceive more sharply the place where we live.”
Elder’s course will serve as a prototype for those that follow, Brynn said.
“Now we’re scrambling to get the templates for the sign-up and the website together and just figure it out,” he said. “John was kind enough to allow us to use his course to figure out the basics and help turn vision and vapor to reality.”
Though Brynn is excited to see the Hogback Community College grow and take shape, he does not envision it gaining any more infrastructure than it already has.
“We want it to have a community-based flavor and see where it goes,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it very simple, straightforward and accessible, and hopefully won’t grow into something that’s too difficult to manage.”
Elder, who also serves on the Vermont Family Forests board and on the Bristol Planning Commission, is thrilled to be a part of such a project.
“Very excited about this. It’s a fun idea,” he said. “It reminds me of the local currency movement — it will keep energy circulating for the benefit of the community members and reinforce a deepening of their bonds.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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