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Spring 2003

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In praise of intergenerational learning

by Catherine Golden

In many years of teaching at Skidmore, I cannot recall having a more rewarding experience in the classroom than I did this past fall in an honors course on the Victorian illustrated book. It was not the course material—though it is dear to my heart—or the small class size—though that likely helped. It was a rare combination of traditional undergraduates and mature learners that made the experience so unforgettable.
     My students’ ages ranged from their teens to their seventies, but each viewed the others as bright individuals with much to offer. Although the mature students were only auditors, they wrote the required papers, met in peer writing groups with the enrolled students, and took an active part in preparing a library exhibition entitled “The Country and the City in Victorian Illustration.” The exhibition ran incredibly smoothly. The papers were among the best I’ve ever read for this course. Attendance was nearly perfect all semester. And each class was a delight.

     From the traditional students’ perspective, the auditors had a wealth of life learning to share with them. For the exhibit, the auditors brought in accessories from their homes to add to the library cases—china cups and figurines, a small replica of a Victorian home, lace doilies. One student remarked that the older auditors and I together created a full spectrum of life experience; I bridged the age gap between the auditors and the traditional-age students. All recognized that the auditors’s enthusiasm—about the Victorian period and about being in college—was infectious.

     The auditors recognized that the Skidmore students had far more experience with academics than they did, and they valued their insights on writing and revising academic papers. One auditor, who hadn’t written a paper in nearly forty years, received invaluable tips from her critique partner, a member of the Skidmore News staff. The auditors also gained access to the mindset of the age cohort of their children or grandchildren and took away insights that benefited them outside the classroom.
     We began the course as students with very different life experiences; we ended as a close-knit group. Midway through the term, as we were reading Alice in Wonderland, I invited the class to my Victorian home in Saratoga for our own version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Jam-making is one of my hobbies, and an auditor offered to make scones. Everyone dressed up for the occasion and came prepared to share a favorite passage from Alice. It was a memorable afternoon. Our intimacy grew as we gathered on a Sunday afternoon for the opening of our exhibition. And it deepened on our final class outing, when we visited the Historical Society museum in the former Canfield Casino and lunched at the Gideon Putnam Hotel.

     There was a bittersweet feeling that last afternoon. We enjoyed our outing and marveled over the exhibit catalogue that I distributed that afternoon. But we knew we were ending a remarkably rich educational experience. We had learned about Victorian book illustration, rare books, preparing an exhibition, and the writing process. More importantly, however, we had learned about each other as learners, respecting each class member’s strengths and interests.

     I will never forget this class of intergenerational learners, who truly connected through their passion for things Victorian. I encourage other mature students to enroll in Skidmore classes as active learners. In the meantime, my class is already planning a reunion and a presentation on their class exhibit at Academic Festival in May.

Catherine Golden is a professor of English who specializes in Victorian literature and culture.


© 2003 Skidmore College