All the exhilaration of Yale classes — stress-free — at Yale Alumni College
Although she just celebrated her 45th Yale reunion, Laurie Treuhaft ’73 B.A. remembers her Yale College classes so distinctly that she can still recall her professors’ words and conjure the emotions of those heady days. Treuhaft was part of the inaugural class of women first-years admitted to Yale and studied French, eventually designing a major that included French literature, history, art, and philosophy.
Recently, Treuhaft says, she was listening to the radio when the opera “La Traviata” came on and transported her back to her college days. “I pictured my professor, Jacques Guicharnaud, in the lecture hall, acting out bits of ‘La Dame aux Camélias,’ the play that inspired ‘La Traviata.’” She remembers the feedback of Professor Georges May who encouraged her to “think things through” to write more clearly, and an art history class by Vincent Scully that was “so transporting” she left the lecture hall in tears.
So when Treuhaft learned about Yale Alumni College, an opportunity to take classes from Yale professors or degree holders in select cities, she immediately signed up. “What I always loved at Yale was that feeling of exhilaration walking out of a class — or even out of the campus post office — after a great discussion,” Treuhaft says. “I’ve never taken for granted the chance to be lost in a world of ideas.”
Her first class was “Shakespeare & Verdi,” led by Professor Judith Malafronte, an award-winning mezzo-soprano who teaches voice at Yale School of Music. Treuhaft had a career as a translator at the United Nations and says: “As someone who works between languages, I was interested in the process of translation between mediums — how you preserve the story and emotions and convey it all in a different context.” Just before the 2014 course began, her husband, an opera lover, suddenly passed away. Treuhaft struggled over whether to attend, but decided, in the end, to participate in his honor. “It was comforting through my grief,” she says, “to take a class my husband would have loved.”
Since Yale Alumni College was launched by the Yale Alumni Association (YAA) eight years ago, it has expanded considerably. The upcoming spring session will be held in seven cities: New Haven, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Atlanta, and Princeton. The subject matter is diverse, ranging from Jane Austen, to social justice in Latin America, to British cinema. Most classes meet one night a week for six weeks in a seminar format.
“It’s a change from everyday life,” says Sharon Small, senior administrative assistant for YAA Lifelong Learning and Travel. “What we hear from reviews is: ‘This is what I needed. I wanted to dive back in to the rigor of a Yale classroom.’”
Many are repeat students, drawn to specific professors, like emeritus professor of English Traugott Lawler who will lead a course on the Middle English alliterative poem “Piers Plowman” this coming spring.
Lawler, who retired from teaching 14 years ago, says he relishes the opportunity to “teach things that are outside of my field of expertise.” He crowdsources ideas among his regular students about which subjects they would like, and has taught courses on Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and other topics. “The students all have life experiences, they do all the reading, and they come to class eager to talk about what they read,” Lawler says. He describes covering all but two of Jane Austen’s novels in one six-week session. The class was so enthusiastic to discuss the complete collection that one student hosted two additional classes at her home.
Author and former Yale professor Priscilla Gilman will be teaching courses on Jane Austen and British Romanticism in March. When Treuhaft saw Gilman listed among the instructors last fall, she wondered if there was a connection to an “unforgettable” professor she’d had in her undergraduate years — Richard Gilman, a former professor at Yale School of Drama. She learned Priscilla is his daughter and says her class on “Jane Eyre” and “Great Expectations” was so engrossing that “I was counting the seconds until I could get back into the classroom every Monday. Priscilla really opened doors for us and generated the most fascinating discussions.”
Many of these classes feature an outing to a related cultural site or event — an aspect of Yale Alumni College that organizers are looking to expand. This coming spring, they are offering a summer weekend of opera and theater at the Glimmerglass Festival, to be led by Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the festival and former adjunct professor at Yale. Small says they envision more ambitious trips to complement future classes.
Treuhaft says she’s looking forward to learning more. “There’s no stress, and no requirement to turn in papers; you are there for the pleasure of learning and sharing ideas.”