While walking around a Barnes and Noble store in 2004, James Abels ’00 was struck by two thoughts: first, a twist of nostalgia for his days at Lafayette, when time allowed him to read more, and second, a curiosity about how he could spread some of the knowledge in all the wonderful books around him to those who were as time challenged as he was.
“I miss the opportunity to explore ideas just for the sake of it — having all the time in the world to read something and then correlate its ideas with all of the other things you or those around you are reading,” he says.
Abels, a government and law graduate, knew he wanted a piece of that experience back in his life, but didn’t know how to go about getting it.
“I started with what I could figure out, which was some concrete ideas of how we could use the internet to connect people,” he says. “I’m not a teacher, so I didn’t know what to do with the material, but I knew exactly whom to turn to for that part — one of the best teachers I have ever had, Professor Ian Smith.”
After contacting Smith, whom Abels describes as immediately interested, he turned to the North Jersey Alumni, Parents, and Friends chapter of the Alumni Association for help in whom to target.
“The alumni were who I had the most access to,” he says. “It was a predefined group that I knew contained at least some people with similar interests, and so was a logical starting point.”
An online distance-learning concept resulted from various people’s input. Abels has since facilitated two courses, the most recent last April. That six-week class focused on Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Smith, associate professor and associate head of English, was the instructor. It was open to all alumni and parents of students, with participants interacting via an online message board.
“As usual, Professor Smith encouraged participants to understand some of the underlying complexities of Shakespeare,” says Abels. “It’s easy to read Shakespeare and not understand the nuance or social meaning within it, and Professor Smith is very good at making it apparent. He did a great job of framing our discussion and illuminating the text via written mini-lectures. The posts were thought-provoking and really did help dig into what Professor Smith provided.”
A live class concluded the program. Participant Ed McNally ’65 hosted the group at the office of his company, Grammar & Co.
“Professor Smith came and led what was essentially a college class for about an hour and a half,” says Abels. “We provided dinner and dessert and about half of us were able to attend. During it, we summarized and concluded many of the themes that had developed during the class. It was a lively discussion, and reminded almost all of us of being Lafayette students again.”
What Abels found most noteworthy about this achievement is that his experience in developing it was contiguous with his college experiences.
“I was the editor of the college newspaper. We were allowed to handle it on our own. Lafayette is so good about making avenues for you to get involved in any way you can dream up. While I was at the paper they never bothered us. They may not have liked what we wrote, but they still didn’t bother us,” he says. “And yet they would help with anything if asked. That encouragement to dream up ideas, the support to enact them, and the freedom to learn and experience independence is the best of what Lafayette offers.”
Abels was delighted that the College showed him the same spirit when he brought up the distance-learning idea. He is quick to point out that although the initial idea was his, the fruition of the concept must be credited to many people’s efforts – all of whom embraced his idea for no other reason than he presented it to them with a desire to do something.
“The North Jersey chapter of the Alumni Association, particularly Jay Fowler ’73, president and treasurer, deserves a lot of credit for supporting and sponsoring the program,” he says. “The same goes to the Office of Alumni Affairs, particularly [Associate Director] Mary Pat Staats, who worked hard to help us publicize this, and to the [Office of Public Information] for designing our brochure. And of course, Professor Smith deserves the largest credit here. He went far out of his way to make things intellectually stimulating, and he did so for no other gain than his own interest and satisfaction.”