At many University lectures, one can often find attendees who don’t seem to fit the stereotype of the Princeton student. They usually sit at the back, and they don’t need to attend precepts. They also don’t write papers or take exams.
These people, of course, are community auditors. Through Princeton’s Community Auditing Program, members of the community age 18 and above can sit in on a class for $125 per course. They are told to sit toward the back and to avoid interacting with professors. Rather, the focus is to simply learn something new without the pressures of deadlines and schoolwork.
On average, 200 classes are available for auditing each semester, providing many different choices for members of the community. Though the program allows people over the age of 18 to sit in on classes, many of the auditors are older members of the community who have children or are retired.
Auditors have many positive things to say about Princeton’s CAP. Retired English teacher Ruth Mellk called Eldar Shafir’s WWS 312: Psychology of Decision Making and Judgment and Jan Gross’s HIS 341: Between Resistance and Collaboration: The Second World War in Europe courses “extraordinary” and noted that she feels privileged to learn from them.
“As a lifetime learner, I always want to grow and expand my horizons,” Jim Bash, who audited CHV 310: Practical Ethics, said. “And as a longtime Princeton resident, it really helps me feel connected to the University and better appreciate what’s going on there.”
Bash explained that he learned about the program from an article in the local Town Topics newspaper.
“The fact that it’s convenient and affordably priced really makes it possible,” he added. “I’m grateful to live in Princeton where a program like this exists.”
Having audited classes since fall 2010, Sandy Reider has taken classes in sociology, mythology, political psychology, molecular biology and the Wilson School. She is currently enrolled in Practical Ethics, which is her favorite course.
“I find Dr. Singer’s lectures fascinating,” she explained. “The subject matter is, of course, timely and important. However, I particularly appreciate the way Dr. Singer shares his thought process. He takes us step by step through the material and issues, making it clear how he reaches his conclusions. He also allows — encourages — differences of opinion as long as you can support that opinion.”
The reputation of the program reaches far and wide, Mellk said. Mellk has taken courses regularly since her retirement from a local high school almost 10 years ago.
“I’ve met people who travel as much as an hour to participate,” she said.
Meanwhile, Nancy McCarthy said she remembers lining up early in the morning at a campus building several years ago to increase her chances of getting a spot in an interesting class.
McCarthy, who first audited a course four years ago, has taken three classes: a class in 20th Century American literature, ENG 220: Crime, Fiction and Film taught by Michael Wood and currently CHV 310: Practical Ethics. She said that her favorite of these was Michael Wood’s course.
“For me, there’s nothing more entertaining that getting immersed in a Raymond Chandler mystery novel or rewatching an Alfred Hitchcock suspense movie,” she said. “But to be doing it as part of a class at Princeton University is especially satisfying. It gives a somewhat guilty pleasure academic stature.”
“I experience the same intellectual thrill I did as an undergraduate 50 years ago whenever I learn something new and meaningful,” she said. “Plus, it’s a privilege to be in a class with young, incredibly bright students at Princeton taught by a distinguished professor.”
For Trudy Sykes, part of the joy of being a community auditor comes from having the choice of what to read from the course reading list and what not to read.
“I poke around the reading list and read what is of greatest interest to me,” she said. “The only downside for me is missing being part of the precepts. I would love to have the opportunity to be part of precepts, which I understand are quite engaging discussions.”
Despite the many benefits of the program, some auditors expressed interest in interacting with students and professors beyond simply sitting in lectures.
“I wish it could be otherwise,” Bash said. “I feel we older classmates would have a lot to offer to the conversation — but at the same time I understand why the requirements are what they are.”
But Mellk noted that auditors are still made to feel welcome in the classroom.
“Although any personal contact initiated by the auditor is now expressly forbidden, early on auditors were instructed to introduce ourselves to the professor at the start of the course. In some instances, this engendered a personal relationship,” she said, adding that auditors have sometimes shown their appreciation by inviting professors to lunch.
She also said that interactions with students, while limited, are always cordial and “sometimes extremely thoughtful.”
“I can remember an instance of a student lingering in the room of a cancelled class for the express purpose of telling the arriving auditors of the cancellation,” she said.
And interactions with peers provide other benefits to auditing beyond just intellectual stimulation, Mellk said.
“I’ve met many interesting people among the auditors, all retired from a wide variety of successful professional careers, some of whom have become friends,” she explained.