UA Humanities Seminars are top-flight return to learning

Retired pediatrician Marilyn Heins serves on the board of the University of Arizona Humanities Seminar Program. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Lifelong learning is often touted as an essential ingredient for aging gracefully, but for some Jewish Tucsonans the appeal goes far beyond that notion. The University of Arizona Humanities Seminars Program has filled a need “for something that gets into my brain and grabs me,” says Marilyn Heins, 80, a retired pediatrician, former vice dean of the UA College of Medicine and parenting columnist. “Every time I take a course I’m making correlations, thinking about what I want to read next. When I talk to people who don’t know about the seminars I’m startled.”

For the past 27 years, top-notch UA professors have offered four- or 10-week courses, many relating to Jewish history and culture such as “The History of Anti-Semitism,” “Such a Story I Could Tell You … Modern Jewish Literature,” and “Islam, Israel, and the West: How We Got to Where We are Today.”

The 10-week courses this fall span the arts, letters and science, and will include “Dancing: Body and Soul,” “Fall of the Roman Republic,” “The Religion of Islam,” “The Classics of ‘The Gothic’: From Fiction to Film,” and “Travels in Consciousness.” One four-week class, “Climate Change: Natural and Otherwise,” will be experimental, says Kerstin Miller, coordinator of the program. It will have a later start date than typical seminars, and be held on four subsequent Wednesday afternoons instead of on mornings.

Heins, who serves on the seminar board, which is comprised of UA faculty and Tucson community members, and is on the 2013 program committee, notes that the committee seeks proposals from UA professors who are known for their stellar teaching abilities.

The UA seminars are modeled on a program founded at the University of Chicago by Dorothy Rubel in the 1980s. Richard Kinkaid, then dean of the UA College of Humanities, approached UA classics professor David Soren about starting a similar program here. Soren, who is Regent Professor of Anthropology and Classics, is retiring this year as program director.

Soren recalls that maybe 15 people would show up when the seminars first began 27 years ago. Now, around 1,000 people participate annually, he says, with ages generally ranging from the mid-50s into the 80s. Around six years ago, funds were raised to construct the Dorothy Rubel Room at the Helen S. Schaefer Building/UA Poetry Center, where all the classes are held.

Heins heard friends talking about the seminars after she retired from the UA in 1991. She later attended a lecture by independent scholar Hester Oberman at the Harvard Club of Tucson. When Oberman was scheduled to teach a humanities seminar on religion and violence in fall 2006, Heins signed up. “I was blown away by how much I learned,” she says. “I’m not a religious person. I knew I was Jewish but had no religious background at all.”

When Heins’ husband was sick she needed something to divert her attention. “Going to those classes was like a mini-vacation from my troubles at home,” she says. “I thought maybe it’s what kept me sane.”

Heins, who still works 20 to 25 hours a week responding to parenting questions on her website www.Parent and presents workshops to parents, grandparents and teachers, says that “at some point when I really retire I’d like to take all the classes.”

Participants often tell Soren that the courses are more than a learning experience; they also provide a social network for people of a similar age. Rita Pollak, a retired divorce attorney, is attending “Exploring the Universe Within: Mind and Brain,” a four-week course that began on June 8. She and her husband, Sanford Seltzer, a retired rabbi, moved from Brookline, Mass., to Tucson in January. “We wanted an intellectual, academic component,” she says. “A lot of the reason we moved here is because of the university.”

On June 8, Lee Ryan, an associate professor of psychology, told the mind and brain seminar capacity audience of 85, “there are more neurons in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way,” provoking murmurs of interest from the crowd. Ryan went on to deliver a lively lecture, “Moving through Space: The Motor Brain.” She included physical examples of how we anticipate movements, explanations of Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, and a provocative short video of Michael J. Fox discussing his battle with Parkinson’s. Participants peppered Ryan with questions.

Maybe after full professional lives in other fields, people are enthusiastic about coming back to the humanities, says Heins, who majored in biology as an undergraduate at Harvard University. “Maybe people missed the humanities in college. Maybe they want something more in retirement than golf.”

People sign up for the seminars for various reasons. One frequent traveler, who took a seminar on the Holy Land, “recently told me,” says Soren, “‘now I’m beginning to understand it, not just from a tourist perspective.’”

Doris and Larry Chapman both retired from active careers in education in New York and Boston prior to moving to Tucson in 2004. “But we’ve never retired from learning,” Doris told the AJP after the mind and brain seminar.

Although the seminars have suggested reading lists, there are no exams or grades. Still, as an academic program, “we’re interested in developing techniques that help people learn and broaden themselves, which makes you a better person,” says Soren. “People say ‘since I took these courses I’ve become more interesting to other people — and even to myself.’”

For more information, contact Kerstin Miller at 626-7845 or