As classes resume at the college, locals hit the books

MIDDLEBURY — Carol Spooner audited her first class at Middlebury College in the late 1980s. She sat in on an eight-person seminar course in the Religion Department about the bible and the environment.
Spooner, who graduated from the college in 1950, called up Professor Robert Schine and got permission to take the class. Since then, Spooner, 90, has audited roughly one class per semester on subjects including music theory, Chinese film, the Middle East and environmental studies. After she married her husband, Reg, in 1999, they began to audit classes together.
Spooner’s favorite class was called “Farm Stories” with now-retired professor John Elder. The students built relationships with local farming families and learned about their lives and the local farming economy. Spooner recalls riding with her classmates in a children’s school bus all around Addison County to visit the farms.
“The best part was the families came at the end of it and they had a pot luck supper and the students presented a video presentation of their experience with that family,” Spooner said.
In the last decade, the college has also taken steps to formalize the program through which local residents can audit courses, which is first mentioned as an option in the college’s academic handbook in 2012.
Local residents in and around the town of Middlebury are allowed to audit courses once the professor and Dean of Curriculum Suzanne Gurland sign off. The only exception is high school students, who are not allowed to audit classes at the college.
According to Gurland, the program strengthens the relationship between the college and the town.
“The college is a great resource for the whole community,” she said. “Just as talks, screenings and performances are often open to community audiences beyond students, staff and faculty, opening our courses to community members, where possible, is another way of sharing what’s here and being a good neighbor.”
According to the Registrar’s Office, more than 100 local residents have participated in the audit program in the last six years across a wide range of academic departments. Among them is Chip Mayer, who has lived in Middlebury for 32 years. Mayer, a retired hypnotherapist, is fascinated with the study of religion and audited a number of religion and art history courses over the last 10 years.
Mayer said that she found professors and students welcoming, especially in small seminars where she has been able to form personal relationships with her classmates. She recommends auditing classes to other local residents, although she emphasized, that it’s important to understand the parameters for participation, which often depend on the professor.
“I am very sensitive about not taking up too much space when asked to participate, and I understand that in some classes I may be asked just to listen, which I appreciate as well,” Mayer said.
Two other retirees, Buzz and Angelika Brumbaugh, who audit a course every spring, said they do not usually participate in class. Rather, they sit quietly in the back and listen.
“Most teachers don’t want you to talk,” Angelika Brumbaugh said, adding that it does not bother her to be an observer.
Her husband noted that that the workload is lighter as an auditor, too.
“You don’t take exams and you don’t write papers,” Buzz Brumbaugh said. “But you get more out of it if you do the homework.”
They both named film and music classes as their favorites, although they have also taken courses in archeology and art history.
Schine, the religion professor, has taught many auditors over the years, and says they have been a welcome addition to his classes. He remembered several examples of auditors who lent a powerful perspective to his students, including one older woman in a course about modern Jewish life who as a child had belonged to a German synagogue his students were studying. The woman brought in old photos of the temple for the class to see.
Schine also feels that having post-collegiate adults in class, many of whom are retirees, sends a positive message to undergraduate students.
“I like the fact that the presence of someone way beyond college age in  the classroom implicitly conveys to everybody there that what’s going on here is important beyond the final exam,” he said. “These are things we’re hearing about and discussing for life.”
Spooner says she generally chooses which classes to take based on the professor. She said one of her favorite parts about auditing is the connections she and her husband form with the college students.
“In most all classes, by the end, we’ve become friends with the students. When we see them on campus we know their names and they know ours,” she said. “We really stay in touch with college, and that’s really, really important to us. For one thing it keeps us young, it keeps our minds going. And it helps us to be with young people, who we love.”
Asked if she had any advice for local residents interested in auditing classes in the future, Spooner gave the same advice as all the auditors: Go for it.
“This is very easy to do and it’s very beneficial,” she said. “More older people should do it.”  

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