Taking the Classroom Out of the Academy

Volume 3, Issue 2, Spring 2013

 By Safia Latifi

On a chilly evening in late November, 12 students gathered in a Union Square seminar room to consider the works of Franz Kafka in the context of critiques from Max Brod and Walter Benjamin. Cookies, wine, and beer were at the center of the table to stimulate cerebral conversation.

The group at the Center for Jewish History were game for the debate. The twenty-, thirty-, forty-, and fifty-somethings easily spoke one after the other, and the instructor redirected off-topic conversations smoothly and posed new lines of inquiry to the group. For two hours, the group never ran out of anything to talk about, and there was only one student who dozed off a few times. As far as seminars go, this seemed ideal.

Started by a Columbia Ph.D. candidate, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research is in its second year, offering a rigorous liberal arts curriculum at a fee to anyone in the city. The result? A university-like learning environment without competition among students, who receive no promise of a grade, degree, or job for taking the classes.

“I cannot believe the level of participation,” said founder Ajay Chaudhary, M.A. ’07, M.Phil. ’08, and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society through the Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies. “There is an eagerness to continue the conversation after class is over, and that is the kind of reaction undergrads don’t always have the opportunity to give.”

Chaudhary came up with the idea in November 2011. He was a preceptor for Contemporary Civilization, one of Columbia’s Core Curriculum classes for undergraduates. In the class, students read some of the best-known works of Western philosophy.

“Undergraduate liberal arts indicates a special phase of a young person’s life,” he said. “When I told people about teaching the Core, they would often say, ‘I wish I could take something like that.’”

He connected with a few other instructors to gauge interest. He found bars in Brooklyn to host classes. Chaudhary taught the Institute’s first two courses: “Politics of the City,” which focused on Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, and “Shocks and Phantasmagoria: Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project.”

The Institute rapidly received media attention: writeups in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and Capital New York all ran during the initial term of courses. Participation in the Institute’s classes has grown every semester, and they now teach four classes on a rolling schedule, including the Institute’s first mathematics course and courses taught in partnership with other academic and cultural institutions in the city.

“We put together a microcosm of a university without a university,” Chaudhary said.

A Counterpoint to Digital

The Institute runs as a strong countercurrent to the massive open online course (MOOC) movement, where open education online allows students anywhere in the world to access course material without paying a cent. MOOCs offer a different learning experience, too—mediated by screens and with little personal interaction with other students.

“I don’t think what we do is technically feasible online,” he said. “I think online education is great for certain kinds of subjects, but I don’t think it’s a magical panacea for all the problems in the academy. What we’re trying to do in our classes is closer to the formalized, rigorous, but engaged and communicative style of an academic seminar.”

He added: “We try to leverage technology in the opposite direction, to help build in-person classroom and social environments for scholarly conversation and exchange.”

Core Institute faculty member Abby Kluchin, Ph.D. ’12, Religion, agreed.

“No one has figured out the humanities online yet. It can't just be a professor lecturing at a video camera, because then you lose the sense of engagement and excitement—and the ability to create a genuine intellectual community,” she said. “That's only possible in the context of an in-person classroom experience.”

Indeed, many MOOC models steer clear from humanities courses because of the difficulty in interpreting material and facilitating meaningful conversation when students can log in and out as they choose. Udacity, Coursera, and EdX seem so far to have refrained from offering courses with heavy reading material and discussion groups.

Students attracted to the Institute seem to agree that it offers something online classes can’t.

“I'm just not convinced that I can get the same intellectual energy from an online course,” said Rachel Sugar, 27, a writer who took the Kafka, Brod, and Benjamin course. “I wasn't taking the class to learn a specific skill—I was looking for a sort of highly structured reading group. My goal wasn't to ‘learn Kafka’ but to talk about and think about a bunch of texts and ideas with people who also wanted to do that, and while I can imagine all kinds of possible online discussion boards and email lists to do that, I'm not sure it engenders the same kind of community or rigor.”

The digital education boom has arrived at a moment when many universities, particularly public institutions funded by state governments, are encountering economic pressures and an emphasis on outcomes—an emphasis that privileges certain courses, especially those in the STEM fields, which teach students “real-world” skills that can advance their careers.

“Liberal arts is kind of being dismantled and people are dissuaded from taking those classes and into choosing more ‘applicable’ fields,” Chaudhary said. “Liberal arts is not a double for humanities, and it includes sciences and social sciences. What it helps you do is to discern information. If you don’t have that, you don’t have the skill to qualitatively deal with those issues.”

Pedagogical Freedom

One significant characteristic of Institute classes is the presence of older students. While the Institute’s classes don’t require any previous knowledge of the material, knowing that some students may have had exposure in the past means the material can take new turns in discussion.

“You’re hard pressed to create a sense of wonder for 35-year-olds,” Kluchin said. “At 30, 40, 50, you’ve read more books, and you’ve acquired different knowledge sets. A lot of the sessions may include the same questions and conversations, but everyone’s approaching it from a different perspective.”

These are not appreciation classes or free-form discussions, Kluchin said. Classes often push people out of comfort zones, and her job is to help guide this conversation and share key insights. She taught a class on Freud and made it clear to students that they were not attending a six-week therapy session. “People stay on task because they want to,” she said.

Chaudhary added: “People rise to the occasion. We’ve had students come without prerequisites or any educational background on the subject, and it’s also still fruitful for those who want to add to what they’ve already learned.”

It’s been a diverse group so far, instructors said, with students from many class, racial, and educational backgrounds, including students who didn’t attend college. The Institute also has several repeat students who bring their friends and spread the word about classes.

“The Institute has a remarkable feeling of camaraderie,” Sugar said. “Everyone's doing it for the pleasure of doing it, because there's no prize at the end—there's no grade, there's no degree, there's no job, etc. There's nothing to compete for.”

Kluchin mentioned comments from a Columbia graduate student who took a class at the Institute.

“She said, ‘We don’t have to perform here,’” Kluchin recalled. “It’s less about having to prove your intelligence and more about open discussion and learning.”

The Institute also provides adjunct instructors with the opportunity to design their own course.

“You get to be a student again, and it’s very freeing,” Kluchin said. “We give TAs and adjuncts this opportunity . . . take a paper and think of how you want to add to it and pitch it as a class. This is not artisanal education, or DIY. This is just a response to the perception that the opportunities for what we all want to do are vanishing.”

Chaudhary added: “We’re presenting ourselves as a self-sustaining alternative place where scholarship can be done.”

There is also the potential for instructors to earn serious side income, an important consideration as traditional, tenure-track opportunities shrink.

Eighty percent of a course’s tuition goes to that instructor, a far greater return than lecturers can make teaching within the University, according to Chaudhary. Most classes last six weeks, cost around $300, and are capped at 20 students.

Wayne Proudfoot, professor of religion, praises the model.

“It is . . . perhaps a response to questions that good graduate students often have as to how they can do something with their research and teaching in addition to the work they do in the academy,” he said. “These questions are becoming a bit more pressing now with fewer job opportunities available, especially in the humanities, but they don't arise only from that.”

While there’s no certificate to receive at the end—a deliberate move to control the scope of the project—the Institute’s founders believe that having accredited, expert teachers in the room lends credibility to the entire operation.

“When you work for six or seven years as a Ph.D. student, one of the things we are trained to do is facilitate discussion,” Kluchin said. “We think there’s a certain skills and knowledge base that we’ve learned. And we care about teaching.”

This year, the Institute is partnering with the Goethe-Institut, the Center for Jewish History, and the Barnard Center for Research on Women to co-host classes. 

“It seemed like a good way to get feminist theory to a new audience and to bring a new audience to feminist theory,” said Janet Jakobsen, chair of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

She added: “Courses like these are for people who find learning to be life enriching—not just for its product but for its process.”

And while the course material isn’t online, the Institute still takes advantage of technology to spread their mission. They shoot video trailers to promote their classes, record a regular podcast, and are undertaking a huge archiving project to digitize hundreds of hard-to-find, out-of-print texts for others to use.

“There is a crisis in the academy. What we do is in danger of being lost or unrecognizable,” Chaudhary said. “What is an absolute myth is that people, particularly Americans, are anti-intellectual. That’s complete BS. That is just a reaction to what we’re presented with in the current system.”

“We wanted to maintain all the good things we like about the academy, and we can help demonstrate that it isn’t just crazy-old institutions that can do this,” he said.