As Professor Rob Schorman looks over his prepared slides, students begin filing into the crowded auditorium, and even more join the Webex session to attend virtually. His pupils eagerly await his lecture, excited to gain a new perspective on the decade of their childhood — but this isn’t a Miami Plan course, and the decade isn’t the 2000s.
It’s a class in the Institute for Learning in Retirement about the 1950s.
Miami University’s Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) is a nonprofit, educational organization that offers a broad range of classes and special events for anyone over the age of 50. There are no tests, homework or grades — just the pure enjoyment of learning.
Students pay a semester fee and are eligible to take as many classes as they want. In the spring of 1997, when the program first launched, it had 10 courses, all located in Oxford. Twenty-seven years later, the ILR offers between 60 and 70 courses per semester on average — some in Oxford, some in West Chester and others online.
In addition to semester classes, the ILR also offers special events like bus trips, special lectures and walking tours, all of which are open to non-members but may include an additional cost.
Learning (and teaching) for life
Sue Bartow is a retired professor who earned her Ph.D. at Miami and taught at Thomas More College. She heard about the ILR from friends and began taking classes two years ago.
“The topics are really important and interesting and fun,” Bartow said. “There’s no homework or tests; you’re just taking them because you’re interested in them.”
Some classes, like “Reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’” and “Paris: 2,000 Years of Planned Beauty” are for fun, learning and keeping the mind sharp. Others, however, are geared toward skills needed in retirement age — from learning how to digitize photographs, to health care advice, to financial estate planning.
Bartow said the civics and modern politics courses have been the most valuable to her because they encourage discussion between those of different viewpoints. She said the staff at the ILR makes enrolling in and attending courses headache-free.
Rob Schorman is a retired history professor at Miami’s Middletown campus. He’s an instructor at the ILR, volunteers as a tech lead and even takes a couple courses each semester.
This fall, Schorman is teaching “2008: The Hinge of History.” The course will dive into the major events of that year and how they continue to affect our politics, economy and society today.
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Schorman said he enjoys teaching at the ILR because he gets to do the enjoyable parts of teaching without the less enjoyable ones like grading, plagiarism and so forth.
“When you’re teaching a traditional college class, you have to worry about assessments and a bunch of other administrative things,” Schorman said. “But in terms of the content, and trying to figure out what’s really important about a subject and then figuring out the best way to explain that, it’s the same process.”
Mindfulness in the ILR
Katherine Abbott, a professor of gerontology and executive director of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami, has been teaching in the ILR on-and-off for the past decade. One of her favorite courses to teach is “Introduction to Zentangle,” an artistic process of creating images by drawing repetitive patterns. Abbott likes that her course can draw students in for a variety of reasons and offer several different benefits.
“Some people do it as an artistic outlet. Some people may use it to practice mindfulness because you’re paying attention on purpose in the current moment,” Abbott said. “What I hear [ILR students] say is that they like learning new things, so this engages them in ways they haven’t been engaged in before.”
Additionally, Zentangle can be easily modified to make it a more accessible activity. Abbott said they adapt the course materials for students who have challenges with their fine motor skills to make sure they can participate.
ILR instructors volunteer their time to teach these courses, and the ILR pays for supplies and for special events. The students bring the enthusiasm.
“One of the cool things about being a human is that we have the privilege of life-long learning,” Abbott said. “It allows us to recreate ourselves over and over again.”
Bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic
Like most organizations, the ILR had its own difficulties rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond having a less technologically advanced student body, it also had to grapple with having more vulnerable and immunocompromised individuals who didn’t feel comfortable returning in-person even as restrictions were lifted. Judy Macke, the program manager of ILR, said the people in the program were unfamiliar with Zoom and couldn’t switch like the regular student body did.
The ILR lost the spring 2020 semester, but Macke and her team worked all summer to make sure they could offer online courses in the fall, teaching instructors and members how to join meetings, use chat rooms and share screens.
Despite the pandemic’s momentary setback, Macke sees a silver lining: the expanded geographical reach of the ILR. The online offerings have allowed Miami alumni to participate from locations spanning across the coasts of the U.S. and even to Italy. Macke said local retirees who may not be able to make it in-person every day also benefit from the expanded modalities.
Macke said the ILR is unique in that it brings so much life and background into one room.
“We're reintroducing students to the classroom environment, including those who might never have experienced a college classroom before,” Macke said. “After all of that life that was lived, and all those careers that were worked, now they get to do in retirement what they truly find joyful.”
Registration for the fall 2023 semester opens on Sept. 5. Information about classes and memberships can be found on the ILR website.