All the joys of learning — without the tests and grades

It was the first day of classes as I pedaled by buildings on the Southern Oregon University campus. Arriving with plenty of time to spare, I nervously entered the classroom and sat far enough back to be anonymous. 

I heard “How was your summer?” as students greeted old friends. My summer had been hectic, highlighted by a move to Ashland after living near Yosemite for 24 years. No familiar faces for me, for I was a first-year. I smiled and greeted a guy who sat next to me.

The instructor talked about recommended readings, but not a word about tests. No papers. No grading scale.

In some ways, it felt like 1970, when I was a UC Santa Barbara freshman. But, it was 44 years later and it was the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program for 50-plus-year-oldsters at SOU.

For $125 a year, I can take as many OLLI (pronounced like Stan Laurel’s sidekick) classes as I want. Plus, OLLI is nearly stress-free. Besides no tests and no grades, there are no general education requirements. Classes are offered in Medford too.

When I left my first OLLI class after a lecture about philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, I knew it was going to be a tough class. I studied the instructor’s handout when I got home, but I did it because I wanted to, not because I had to.

That philosophy class turned out to be a challenge. Taught by a brilliant retired professor, it motivated me to think critically and do some research out of class. I managed to learn plenty, but I am afraid I did not master Kant.

A class about the music of the ragtime era was also outside my comfort zone, but I enjoyed it. The instructor, a retired educator with impressive knowledge, shared some wonderful music every week.

In a class about ethics, compassion and the Dalai Lama, our group of 15 students felt like a family at the end. The instructor led us through a series of discussions and activities that made me consider personal ethics like I had never done. In that class, I met a member of the OLLI council who told me, “You should teach a class.” She assured me it didn’t matter that I was new to town.

So, I offered a course about long-distance trekking last winter. I wondered if many would be interested. Or, if I would be confronted by students more experienced in trekking than myself.

No worries. There were some in the class with more trekking experience, but they contributed in ways that made the class better. The class was full and the students were so appreciative that I was willing to volunteer my time to lead a class.

That’s OLLI.

About 1,600 students are taking or will be taking 115 courses during the fall 2015 term that began Sept. 14. The classes are all led by volunteer instructors.

What will I take? "Exotic Travel Experiences" sounds interesting. "Introduction to Digital Photography"? Hmmm .…

"What Everyone Should Know About Muhammad and Islam." Now, that is timely. "Fishing and the Quest for Meaning." Now, what is that about?

"Transform Your Anxiety into Excitement." Ah, I took that class last year and it was great. I could take it again.

It is tough to narrow it down to a manageable number.

One thing I know: I will climb on my bicycle and once again head to the first day of classes. I won’t be quite as nervous because I am a second-year and there will be familiar faces and greetings. Even a “How was your summer?”

You see, I am now a career student. I plan on being with OLLI for the rest of my life.

A late registration period for classes with available space continues throughout the fall term, which began Sept. 14 and continues through Nov. 20. For more information, go to www.sou.edu/olli or call 541-552-6048.

Reg Spittle is an Ashland resident, OLLI student and instructor. He is also a member of the OLLI Curriculum Committee.

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