Community members dive into College curriculum through auditing

When I walked into Griffin 5 for my first English class of the semester, I was surprised to find that, in addition to the professor, there was another adult sitting around the table. My confusion was soon cleared up when I discovered that this adult was in fact Dave Wilson ’65, an alum and member of the Williamstown community who would be auditing the class for the semester. Since meeting Wilson, I’ve become aware of many other auditors at the College that I had not previously noticed. With this new knowledge, I decided to seek out some unique members of College’s thriving auditing scene and learn about their experiences.

Wilson retired and returned to Williamstown in 1999 and has been auditing classes at the College since then. “As a former teacher and a perpetual student, I’m one of those unusual people who really enjoys learning and using his mind,” he said. “There were so many areas that I wanted to explore, especially art history and English.”

Wilson has enjoyed the many opportunities that auditing has provided. “I’ve kept what’s left of my mind functioning, I’ve made friends with many of the faculty, and I’ve added to my store of useless information (good for Jeopardy though), and have done a lot of interesting reading,” he said. He added that the classroom experience at the College has improved since he was a student. “My favorite part of auditing is to see smart students being taught by wonderful teachers. Both are considerably better than when I went to Williams from ’61 to ’65,” he said. “I enjoy talking with students – it keeps me young (at least mentally somewhat).”

Another alum, Phil McKnight ’65, returned to Williamstown in 2005 to teach at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and at the College during Winter Study, specializing in environmental law and environmental history. McKnight, a former environmental attorney, has audited many classes at the College, particularly in the history and political science departments.

Oftentimes, professors ask McKnight to give guest lectures. “In many classes, the teachers ask me to take a class and teach that particular class if it comes up as something that might be law-related or [tied to] international environmental protection, that sort of thing,” he said. “In [Lecturer in Humanities and Chair of Justice and Law Studies] Alan Hirsch’s class, until he changed the format, I would actually do two full classes. In both of them, I would ask the students to review Supreme Court cases in environmental protection areas, and then we would discuss how the Court got the case and how they decided.”

Even when he’s not guest lecturing, McKnight has found unique ways to become involved in the classes he’s audited. Oftentimes, this manifests itself in participation in classroom discussions. “[Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of Leadership Studies Program] Justin Crowe [’03] is particularly good about calling on me to have a point of view on something he’s said. He’s one of the best teachers that we have here at Williams, and I think he welcomes another viewpoint from someone who’s had a career in the law,” McKnight said. Other times, McKnight has participated in less traditional ways. “[Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in Leadership Studies and Religion] Magnus Bernhardsson and [Professor of Leadership Studies] Susan Dunn have asked me to be the judge in contested matters before the class, and I always don a judicial robe, try to find one of those white wigs from the English system, bring my gavel and conduct the class as if it were in fact a courtroom,” he said.

Auditing has also helped McKnight improve his own teaching. “Many times I’ll take classes that will further what I am doing,” he said. He also welcomes auditors into his own Winter Study courses at the College and appreciates their unique perspectives. “I think the life experience of the older folks can be enormously useful. For instance, a couple years ago two auditors had spent their entire careers at Mobil, which is now ExxonMobil, and when we dealt with the use of fossil fuels with respect to climate change and sustainability, they had a very definite point of view that was different than that many of the students’,” he said. “That was good because the students got the chance to have their views tested by those who had been in the marketplace for 40 or 50 years of their careers. You can’t get that unless you have those auditors in the class.”

Hattie George Schapiro is a different kind of auditor than Wilson and McKnight. Schapiro left Smith College after the fall with the intention of transferring to the College, but because the College doesn’t accept spring transfer students, she decided to audit classes here for the semester. “I wanted to get to know the school and didn’t want to stay at Smith, so I looked at the auditing policy, which is free for community members. So I moved here and rented an apartment,” she said.

Auditing classes has helped Schapiro to get to know the College community. “I’m getting to know the professors well. I feel very involved. [I’m also getting to know] other students – the reason I wanted to come here [to audit] was that I wanted to see what the other students would be like,” she said. “Mostly in my discussion classes – two of my classes are lectures, so that’s a little bit more challenging – but I definitely get a good sense of the community from being in classes, which is really nice.” She was nervous at first about joining the close-knit community of the College. “Williams is a very insular place, and everyone told me that before I came – my friends who I talked to who’ve graduated from here were like, ‘good luck with that. Jumping in halfway through is going to be a challenge.’ There aren’t that many transfer students. But I definitely feel like I’m working my way through,” she said.

Auditing has also been a new and interesting way for Schapiro to learn. Professors have been great about helping her improve individually despite her auditing status. “I write papers for ‘Religion and American Environmental Imagination,’ which I love. [Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Anthropology and Sociology Nicolas] Howe’s been so wonderful at reading all my work. It’s a seminar, so I definitely need to be involved. He was like, ‘you can only take this class if you do all the readings,” and I was like, ‘please sign me up. This is exactly what I want,’” she said. The lack of graded assignments has also been a positive factor for Schapiro. “Grades have always been really irrelevant to me. So this is really nice because I feel like I get to do college without that added structure that never really made sense to me anyway. This semester shows up nowhere for me – there’s no record of anything that I’ve done – so I’m super conscious of what I’m getting out of this. I kind of get to do college the way I want to do it, and that’s really, really great,” she said.

The auditors with whom I spoke all raved about the generous auditing policy that the College offers. “The College is enormously welcoming to those who would like to audit courses,” McKnight said. “There’s no charge. You don’t have to get the permission of the Registrar. All you need is the permission of the teacher.” Schapiro is also very thankful for the opportunity to audit. “It’s a really wonderful policy that I was able to use,” she said. She emphasized that without the policy, she would have stayed at Smith and not gotten the opportunity to experience the College this semester.

Although auditors at the College vary in age, experience and intention, those I spoke to seem to have two things in common: an appreciation for the unique opportunity that auditing provides and a genuinely enriching experience with it at the College.

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