Local History for Seniors

It is hard to admit failure, but I have to confess to something less than success in a history class.

I have started taking classes in local history presented to seniors by a department of the regional university. It is called Elder College and it has all sorts of affordable courses presented both in-person and online. “Perfect,” I thought. I have a pretty good academic record and I am old and I have lots of time and I know nothing about local history. This is clearly my kind of thing.

The course I am taking is presented in a classroom within the local museum, which is fairly close to where I live. As such, I chose to walk there but overestimated how long that would take, so I arrived early and waited a while on a bench outside until I ultimately decided to get to class awkwardly early.

As it turned out, three other people were more awkwardly early than myself. I think that has more to say about elders’ intellectual prowess and desire for knowledge than it says about their abundance of time or their imperfect time-management skills. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

I sat in the back row which is my defensive go-to position in rooms full of strangers. I learned it from mafia movies. If you sit in a back corner you can watch everyone and see who comes in and goes out. It is also my way of signalling that I am not a “keener” who sits in the front row. That row is for the kids who actually want to answer the teacher’s questions.

Sitting in row three (out of five) was a chatty fellow who seemed very friendly and who commented about the students who chose to sit in the front and back rows. I had been busted! In an effort to soften the effect, I commented to the other woman in the back row that, clearly, we were the trouble-makers. She agreed.

Image from Telegraph.UK

It turned out that the chatty fellow was the course’s instructor and he had chosen to sit in the row behind the computer and projector so that he could be on hand to operate them. My first thought was that perhaps Elder College needed someone to teach a course in PowerPoint and the use of remote controls. I had no second thought. The idea persisted as he taught with his back to me and everyone else beyond the first two rows.

He introduced himself by explaining that he was not an historian but was an enthusiastic amateur. I have enjoyed many presentations from amateurs in various fields of interest, and so this was not a deterrent for me. As it has turned out, though, enthusiasm does not always suffice.

As the class progressed, I felt overwhelmed by names, dates, and places that were all unfamiliar to me. That’s probably “par for the course,” so to speak, but I was silently begging for more maps, diagrams, and images of any kind. Seated at the back, I was dismayed by slides full of text that I could not read. I would have loved to introduce our instructor to a course in Communications, but that would have been rude.

Image from Telegraph.UK

To add to my dilemma, the instructor had a speaking style that leaned heavily on his sense of humour, and had a tendency to wander off into anecdotes. Sometimes the stories were relevant to the topic under discussion, and sometimes not. Occasionally he would stop himself mid-sentence and then get back on track. At one point, when he was discussing Captain Cook’s death, I asked him how Captain Cook had died, and he told me that because it didn’t happen locally, it wasn’t in the course curriculum. OK then. Lesson learned.

I had taken written notes with question marks beside the items I needed to know more about, and top of my agenda was Captain Cook’s demise. I went home feeling better informed but more stupid than I used to be.


  1. Don’t give up on these courses- some of them are wonderful. I’m currently taking an online course from Third Age Learning Guelph. I’ve taken several from them over the years both in person and online. This one is called “Our Food: a System in Distress?” – talks about trends, problems and possible solutions in Canada and around the world. The University of Guelph is a leader in agricultural research. Very interesting. Last year I took an online course in Aging and Cognition – something like that – given by a group in Mississauga. Lectures by a researcher in the field at the Bayview Centre. Also very interesting. There are all kinds of online lecture series open to everybody. I’m also in an in person discussion group this term at the local seniors centre on Russia and Eastern Europe -11 participants. I’ve been involved with these Peer Learning discussions ever since I came to Guelph. I don’t know what I would do without them.

  2. I worked in public schools for twenty-five years (as a social worker) and realized teaching is a skill I didn’t learn. It is a skill, not necessarily assumed because someone has information that they can teach. Spewing information is not the same as teaching!

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