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Hamlet opens eyes and minds of all ages in new intergenerational course

April 10, 2013

To be or not to be? Shakespeare’s question for the ages is a fascinating enigma for students of any age. Now, a unique Arizona State University intergenerational seminar is proving it.

The Hamlet and Hermeneutics short course offered this spring by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at ASU guided a group of students – a mixture of high-performing young undergrads and more experienced students over age 50 – in tracing the arc of Hamlet’s tumultuous journey and sharing a lifespan of perspectives. Together, these students are bonding and demonstrating that the play penned more than 400 years ago raises issues still relevant in the 21st century to the young and young at heart.

“It is always my hope and it has been my experience that the key to the intergenerational aspects of the seminar I teach for Osher is that each group benefits the other,” said course instructor Ramsey Eric Ramsey, associate professor and associate dean of Barrett, the Honors College on ASU’s West campus. “For example, the enthusiasm for the future the Barrett students bring mixes nicely with the Osher students’ willingness to share their experiences.”
Ramsey’s course brought together undergraduates from Barrett, the Honors College with OLLI members in the combined honors class offered weekly from March 18 through April 8 on ASU’s West campus. During the class, the students used hermeneutics or textual interpretation as a medium to discuss and develop a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Hamlet tackles provocative issues that everyday people experience in their lives today – love, divorce, betrayal, revenge and death.  

“The classics in the Humanities – in this year’s class, Hamlet – are always rich enough to suffer the various perspectives shared each session,” Ramsey said. “It is truly amazing to watch how books say different things to us at different times in our lives. This wonderful occurrence comes through in these seminars.”

Housed within ASU’s College of Public Programs, OLLI at ASU offers a rich and evolving array of courses, lectures and special activities to enhance the lives of its members. OLLI instructors are distinguished current and emeritus faculty, scholars and experts from ASU and the community. Members come from all walks of life and bring a lifetime of experience to the classroom.

Raye Anna Kish, who returned to school later in life and graduated from ASU in 2008 with a master’s degree in secondary education, found that she missed the engagement and intellectual stimulation of being a student.

“I’m not one of those people to sit at home and rock in my rocking chair,” Kish said. “I like getting out and talking with people my own age and young people, too.”

Kish joined OLLI six months ago, and was keenly interested in the Hamlet course as an avenue for exploring her interest in studying Shakespeare and developing her skills in teaching the material when she has opportunities to work as a substitute teacher in her local school district.

“Some may think of lifelong learning courses as being restricted to older adults,” said Richard Knopf director of OLLI at ASU and a professor in ASU’s College of Public Programs. “The research clearly shows that intergenerational learning experiences fuel the passion, engagement and legacy-building desires of mature learners. The irony, from many perspectives, is that to best serve the learning ambitions of older adults is to connect them to intergenerational experiences,” Knopf said.

When Ramsey was invited to teach for OLLI, he enthusiastically accepted, but with one petition: “Might I bring some of my Barrett students to participate in the class?”

His request was received with equal enthusiasm.

“Hamlet is the perfect class in which to offer our students an intergenerational experience,” said Karla Burkhart, program manager with OLLI at ASU. “Dr. Ramsey frames his questions to invite reflective responses from the students, which can be most interesting coming from a lifespan of perspectives. Not many classes offer this type of interaction or introspection.”

Burkhart said she hoped that by sharing diverse and sometimes similar views and ideas, the students might narrow the generation gap that exists between them.

“I also think our OLLI students will remember the experience of sitting in a class with an ASU professor and his honor students and feeling connected to the university,” Burkhart said.

It was the title of course – Hamlet and Hermeneutics – that first attracted OLLI at ASU member Robert Pilskaln. Pilskaln, who worked as a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico before retiring to Phoenix eight years ago, said the opportunity to study with a younger generation of students was an added benefit.

“The Barrett students are bright and less reserved,” Pilskaln said. “I’ve enjoyed hearing their ideas.”

Holly Hitt, a freshman English major in Barrett, the Honors College, said her experience in the intergenerational course transformed her view and provided a different intellectual challenge than courses comprised only of her peers.

“I’ve always loved Shakespeare and enjoyed Hamlet. But, I’m realizing now that before, I’d just read the play. In this class, I was challenged to explore what it really means,” Hitt said. “Hearing the perspectives of the OLLI students helped me develop my ideas more fully and come to a deeper understanding.”