MUCH LIKE THE FEEDING FRENZY ASSOCIATED WITH buying concert tickets, the minute that online registration opens for a new semester at Renesan Institute for Lifelong Learning, students rush to their computers in the hopes of securing a spot on one of the field trips to historical and cultural sites. They have to click fast because trips fill up quickly. After the first rush, as their pulses slow, students can take a more leisurely stroll through the course catalog. Shakespeare’s Prosody, Contemporary Icelandic Literature, Roles of American Women in World War II, Introduction to Amateur Astronomy — the list of choices is lengthy and impressive. At around $15 per individual session, Renesan classes are quite affordable for a number of people, and there are no tests to take, research papers to write, or grades to worry about.
Renesan classes, lectures, book groups, and current-event discussions are held at St. John’s United Methodist Church (1200 Old Pecos Trail), on the corner of Old Pecos Trail and Cordova Road. Renesan was established in 1995, when a group of Santa Fe residents decided to arrange academic classes for retired people. An Elderhostel program, located at what was then the College of Santa Fe, offered a destination learning experience for traveling retirees, so the Renesan group — which stands for “Retire and Renew in Santa Fe” — searched their mailing list for local zip codes in order to get the word out. For a time, Renesan was loosely affiliated with Elderhostel and held classes at the college, but they have rented space on the church grounds since 2003. In the first years, just a few courses were available, but by 1999, the organization had 300 students attending 16 classes, five lectures, and a night walk at Bandelier National Monument. Though numbers slightly fluctuate from semester to semester, the program has seen regular annual growth. In fall 2016, Renesan had 62 offerings, to which they sold 2,269 spots — many of which were filled by people taking more than one class at a time.
Santa Fe may be home to five colleges, but it is not known as a college town. Students at St. John’s College, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe Community College, and Southwestern College may not have a hopping late-night bar scene, but they do have one another. Thus, they make their own fun — or they eventually leave for greener pastures, sometimes grumbling that Santa Fe is for old people and that there’s nothing to do. That view is fair enough, although nighttime entertainment options are improving, but what if Santa Fe is actually a great college town — maybe not for twenty-one-year-olds, but for seventy-one-year-olds?
“It’s an ideal situation for teaching and learning, from my point of view,” said Lois Rudnick, a Renesan faculty member whose husband, Steven, is president of the nonprofit group’s board of directors. Before moving to Santa Fe in 2009, Rudnick was a professor for many years in the American Studies department at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “I’d never taught retired adults before. It’s a delight to be in the classroom with people who do all the reading without having to be asked more than once. I hesitate to call them students, because they’re my peers. Many of us came of age at the same time, in the ’60s and ’70s. That shared generational experience and knowledge base often allows class discussions to go as deep as they did in the graduate-level courses I’ve taught.”
Renesan teachers are retired academics as well as experts in fields like political science, law, and psychology. They wind up teaching for Renesan when a member of the curriculum committee extends an invitation after meeting them at a social gathering, seeing them present a lecture elsewhere, or reading about them in Pasatiempo. “We keep up with what’s happening in town,” said Margie McGregor, vicepresident of the Renesan board. “There was one head of the curriculum committee who used to travel to Chicago frequently, and she met people in line at the airport who wound up teaching for us.”
Barry Goldfarb, a retired professor from St. John’s College, took his first Renesan class five years ago and now enrolls nearly every semester. “A friend took me to a class that was on a book I’d read, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. I was very impressed with the quality of the lecture and the discussion,” he said. He explained that at St. John’s, all professors (who are referred to as “tutors”) teach across the curriculum, meaning that someone whose academic background is in science must also teach literature, French, and other subjects. “Renesan is much more traditional than St. John’s — and it turns out that it’s nice to hear someone who is truly comfortable with the material they’re presenting. The discussion can be very rich — though that depends strongly on the people who are in the class. The other thing that’s different from St. John’s is that everyone in Renesan classes has a history. Everyone has done interesting things. It’s not the same as classes full of undergraduates.”
Kay Burdette is a retired second-grade teacher and curriculum specialist from Ohio. She and her husband, Robert, a retired physician, moved to Santa Fe in 2000 and found Renesan in 2011. “We’ve taken some classes together and some separately. He’s more interested in science, while I like literature and history. I took a class with Lois Rudnick that compared and contrasted F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — that was fantastic. This semester, I’m taking her class on immigration in literature and film,” she said.
McGregor said that friendships blossom among the students, as classroom discussion follows them to coffee dates and other get-togethers. Literature classes lend themselves to easy conversation, as do the wealth of history and political science classes, many of which concentrate on urgently important topics, such as the spring 2017 offerings, “Conservatism From Its Beginnings to Today,” led by Donald Gluck, and “The Islamic World,” led by Elizabeth Manak, as well as a science course with Steven Rudnick, “Global Warming: Current and Predicted Effects, Adaptation, and Mitigation.” Bill Stewart, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and journalist, teaches a recurring class on alternate Tuesday afternoons called “Hot Spots: Where in the World?” that covers a wide range of global historical and political events. Classes and lectures are held in fall and spring semesters; spring 2017 classes begin Monday, Jan. 30. Registration is open online at www.renesan.org or in person at the Renesan office at St. John’s United Methodist Church. Some, but not all, sections are already filled. Thursday afternoon lectures, however, do not require pre-registration.
Mere days before classes started, Goldfarb still wasn’t sure what he wanted to enroll in this semester. “I’m pretty sure there’s a course on Taming of the Shrew, which I will certainly take. I think there’s one on Joseph Conrad — but maybe I want to take a history class? Once in a while I take a social science class. Once, I took a class on food and culture that was amazingly good, about caloric intake and changes in different societies. Sometimes the classes are off-thewall but incredible. I have to go scour the catalog.”