Opinion & Editorial

Spotlight on Summer School Classes

University College St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis has a trove of accolades to its credit. But the large research university also offers programs to benefit lifelong learners, working adults going back for a degree, undergraduate students who are staying for the summer, international students and more.

The variety of classes available through WashU during the summer range far and wide, from beer brewing, dance and history to required prerequisites. We spoke with director of summer school, Beth Landers, who received her PhD from Washington University in French literature and went on to teach French at the university level for over a decade. This is her second year in the summer school director role, which led her back to her alma mater.

Keep reading for our Q&A with Landers, in which we discuss the summer school experience on campus.

Tell me a little bit about your background and what interests you about your work.
This is my second year as director of summer school. I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and I’m actually a WashU alum. I received my PhD in French literature here, and then taught French for 10 years at UMSL, in their language department. I was the director of language programs there, and then I moved to Dominican University in Chicago, where I was the discipline director of French and ran their French program.

I was interested in WashU because of all the different populations it serves. I was attracted to the idea of working with students from high-school age on up, and professionals who are looking for evening classes and opportunities. There’s also an international component to our summer school—we have a lot of international students come for the summer, so working with foreign partners to recruit students interested me.

How do the elements that come together at WashU, particularly during the summer, really benefit students?
What’s great about the summer school in particular here is that it’s the most diverse time on campus. We have adults learners, visiting international students, undergraduates who are staying for the summer, high-school students—and sometimes they all wind up in the same class. As a human experience, it’s quite interesting to get to study in that kind of environment.

It’s not very often that you get to study with such a diverse range of classmates—people of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities; that’s a strong feature of our classes.

You’ve experienced a lot of different academic environments in your work. How is WashU—and the summer school, in particular—different from other academic environments that you’ve seen?
We bring in instructors from other WashU departments, graduate students and postdoctoral candidates to teach, which offers the community a chance to see our departments and the kind of work that’s being done. We also utilize the professional community in St. Louis, and specialists who aren’t necessarily faculty but are very active here in the region.

For instance, we’re offering a Science of Brewing and Beer course this summer, which is a hybrid class taught by Jim Ottolini, who is the head brewmaster at Brew Hub. We have an editing class in the summer taught by Jane Henderson, the book editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We’re also going to have a class on urban ecology with Katherine Warner, who is the director of sustainability for the City of St. Louis. We have a number of instructors who are doing interesting things here in the region, and we like to feature them as well as St. Louis, using it as a classroom. We have a class called The American City, which holds class time out in the city quite a bit. Students visit City Hall and a number of other landmarks, as the class uses St. Louis as a model for the American city.

You’re serving a number of students with different interests: some are undergraduate students, evening students—and some are taking classes for personal enrichment. How do you plan curriculum that caters to each type of student?
The summer classes allow for a much more experimental format. Things quiet down, which gives us the space and time to do different things. The Summer Writers Institute, for example, is definitely experimental in format. It’s a two-week course offered to adult learners and undergraduates, but it uses evening times and weekends to make it accessible to people who have full-time jobs or other things going on in their lives. It tests out what you can accomplish in an intense format.

In preparing the curriculum, there is generally a need for balance. We think about the different populations we serve and their needs, so there are enrichment classes as well prerequisites and requirements for degrees.

Drilling down a bit further, how did you organize the course selection for the Summer Writers Institute?
Personal narrative is always quite popular. This year, we’re offering two sections instead of one. It always fills up the most quickly. And then we have advanced personal narrative with Kathleen Finneran, because there are some people who keep working on their craft and are ready for an advanced level. So we have a lot of personal narrative classes, but also courses like Eileen’s G’Sell’s class on culture writing—and perennial favorites like poetry and fiction, or a short-form class on micro fiction.

The instruction is also incredible. All of the teachers are acclaimed working writers, and students have the opportunity to learn so much from them.
It’s an intimate format, so students get to know the instructors really well. And since we’re also making a strong commitment to our regional identity, they each have some sort of tie here. Kathleen Finneran, for example, is on faculty in the Creative Writing program here. Eileen G’Sell teaches here, and David Schuman—who teaches the micro fiction course—is the director of the creative writing Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. There’s a long literary history here in the creative writing department.

The MFA is a top-10 program. And the Summer Writers Institute is great for people who want to test out that intensive writing format. They get exposure to wonderful faculty and can determine if they want to continue with the craft or not.

We’ve also added one new visiting professor for the Summer Writers Institute this year who will teach a fiction course: Susan Perabo, who teaches creative writing at Dickinson College and is actually from St. Louis. She has published several books and short-story collections. We’re very excited to have her.

Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.