Home is Where the Humanities Seminars Program Is

February 9th, 2023

Whether it’s in the classroom, on the comfy chair at home, or on hotel Internet from anywhere in the world, Humanities Seminars students love their classes.


The vibrancy and quality of the University of Arizona’s premier lifelong learning program remains as strong as ever, but a major effort to extend the reach of the Humanities Seminars Program beyond campus is expanding opportunities for students, said Director Micah Lunsford.


“We’re featuring the strengths of the university as a whole, with world-class professors and a broad range of expertise, and making it available to more people than ever,” Lunsford said.


Adele Barker, Professor Emerita in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies, has not only taught seven Humanities Seminars, but has enrolled in several as a student herself, looking to rekindle some old passions that she set aside while teaching Russian literature and film for 35 years. 


“As a literature professor and a person who reads deeply and widely, one thing I’ve been wanting to do is go back and re-read some of the things I read a million years ago. Maybe it’s time for me to wet my feet again in Shakespeare,” she said. “There were always things that just hovered at the edges of my life I couldn’t devote my full attention to.”


Barker had taken cello for two years when she was younger, so she enrolled in courses taught by Theodore Buchholz of the Fred Fox School of Music, focusing on the cello and Bach’s suites. Growing up on a farm, Barker and her father shared a love of telescopes and astronomy, which she’s also gone back to studying at HSP, with University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy Chris Impey and his “Knowing the Universe” course. And so, like many students, she looks forward to new course announcements and deciding which of the opportunities she’ll pursue each semester.


“I feel like I’m walking in a candy store. Whenever new courses are advertised, I look at the catalog and something will pop out at me and I’ll know, this is it,” she said. “You’re learning from people who are at the top of their game and many are retired, but still want to engage. It’s something that really appeals to a lot of us. This is a terrific model.”


As both an instructor and a student, she’s been impressed by the breadth of knowledge and experience of HSP students.


“I’ve had people in my class who were devotees of Russian literature, others who hadn’t read anything of it. Or people who’ve traveled there, and people who never have. It’s everybody,” she said. “What attracts the everybody part is the quality of the teaching and the availability now through Zoom. Hybrid is huge. I took one class while I was in Scotland, so wherever I am, I know I can attend.”


Colleen Swain first started taking HSP courses online in summer 2020 because she was looking for something to do during the pandemic. She took a slate of courses that included James Joyce’s Ulysses, Love in the Time of Pandemic: Boccaccio’s Decameron, and The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci. She’s continued as a student every semester since, taking advantage of the hybrid classes mode on Zoom.


“It’s been a fantastic experience for me,” she said. “I can engage with the professor and other students, while sitting in my favorite chair. For someone with a disability, it’s been a godsend. I’m still enjoying life through learning.”


Caleb Simmons, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Executive Director of Arizona Online, said the hybrid model has a number of advantages. Since the Rubel Room was designed specifically for this functionality, instructors can lead a discussion that seamlessly includes people in the room and people on Zoom. And recording courses allows those who wind up missing a class for one reason or another to watch and not miss out.


“Hybrid is the best of both worlds and HSP is the program on campus doing it right. As an instructor, I can engage in real-time feedback from people on the screen and people in person. I have that interaction in the room, but at the same time people from all over can tune in. People in their homes can sit back with a cup of coffee or tea,” he said. “There was one student there every week in person, but on Zoom one week while he was on vacation and that’s amazing. People can use their time for travel and not be tethered to Tucson. They can continue with living life and go on vacation and keep up with the class.”


Simmons said he often finds HSP students to be more heavily invested in the course and engage with the material in a different way than undergraduates he teaches, some who might simply be fulfilling a requirement.


“All these people are so well educated and read and traveled. It’s edifying to be in a room with people, where even though you’re the expert on the subject, as far as life experience, you’re the one who is actually learning,” he said. “They’re engaging in a different way and ask questions that my undergraduate students never would, or that I’ve never even thought about. They can put the broader concepts in the scope of their experience and that’s enriching for me as an instructor.”


Kim Doran, who’s taken more than 70 HSP courses over the last six years, said the program is a part of her life now and the hybrid aspect makes it all possible for her. Not a typical snowbird, Doran travels back and forth regularly between Tucson and North Carolina and keeps up with sessions online. In fact, she regularly re-watches recorded sessions, finding that she picks up something new every time.


“The pandemic slowed people getting together, but it just opened up the world for me further. Because it’s online, I can recommend it to friends and family and we can take it together,” she said. “It’s a way to connect the education with the rest of your family.”


Doran grew up in a St. Louis suburb that changed from cornfields to track homes during the Baby Boom, went to the University of Missouri and retired in 2019 after a 45-year career in public relations. But curiosity for art, history, drama and literature never waned. After buying a house in Tucson, she happened to be living next door to Ted and Shirley Taubeneck, both active in HSP. One day, she talked to them about how to get connected with university classes.


“By noon that same day, he gave me the brochure and I was off and running. It’s been a journey finding my way back to the humanities, and I just love it,” she said. “You find out about the university and the world-class professors doing landmark research. These faculty bring their subjects to life and are so knowledgeable, but match that with the experience of the students and it’s golden. This is a truly hungry, enthusiastic and responsive audience.”


Now, Doran seeks out classes on all manner of topics, including things that are entirely new to her, for example, the films of Pedro Almodóvar.


“You take a class without any specific connection or reasons, but find yourself immersed in a new aspect of the world that you never knew existed. It’s very exciting to me,” she said. “Micah has pulled together the most diverse and interesting program of classes. It’s masterful when you look at how connected it all is. Every semester reaches back into the others. It’s an art how they’re put together to be timely and topical.”


Having sought out lifelong learning opportunities elsewhere, Doran said that she finds HSP to be without comparison.


“I can say unequivocally that there is nothing that offers the breadth and caliber of the Humanities Seminar experience. What a wonderful way for the university and the community to come together and showcase each other,” she said. “I would’ve done classes in bits and pieces, but to have it all pulled together for me, to have access to the entire University of Arizona at the push of a button, it’s just worth everything for the curious.”