View from the back row: community auditors reflect on classroom experiences| Apr 24, 2019
Each semester, about 175 University classes open to adult community members through the University’s Community Auditing Program (CAP). For $175, an auditor may sit, usually silently, in the back of a classroom for an entire semester. Usually, more than 600–700 people audit University courses.
“The community auditing program is in many ways one of the most significant contributions the University makes to the community. Inviting auditors into the classroom shares what is distinctive about Princeton – the focus on excellent teaching, cutting edge research, and the pursuit of knowledge,” wrote Kristin Appelget, the director of University Community and Regional Affairs, in an email to The Daily Princetonian.
The program was founded in 1999 in order to “better manage the growing interest by community members to attend classes at Princeton,” wrote Appelget.
Auditors, mostly retirees from the greater Princeton area, do not complete any assignments and take, quite literally, the back seat during lectures, usually remaining unknown to University students.
The ‘Prince’ spoke to some auditors to learn about their experiences.
Diana Gengos is auditing POL 307: The Just Society. She emphasized how much she has appreciated the three courses she has audited thus far.
“There are so many people, retirees mainly, that are just so interested in continuing learning, so it’s fabulous that the University offers this,” she said.
Gengos, a resident of Skillman, N.J., retired from her job as a business analyst for a pharmaceutical company in 2017 after 35 years of working. She began auditing University classes last year.
“Even though I had no desire to work, I wanted to make sure I continue to learn,” she said.
Gengos reflected that her experience as an adult learning in a college setting without credit is very different from her experience of pursuing an undergraduate business degree.
“I did enjoy college, particularly undergrad,” she said. “But I think at that stage of my life, if I look back, I don’t think I was driven by a thirst for knowledge or ‘I just want to learn,’ which is more what’s driving me now to reach out and take courses or just explore different avenues. Back then it was just ‘I want a degree, I want a job,’ and so forth.”
Jim Floyd ’69 is a Princeton native who started auditing soon after he retired from a career as an administrator in New Jersey clinical psychology in 2004. He said he finds auditing more enjoyable than his own undergraduate classes.
“Having been a Princeton student, it’s much more fun to be in a class that you don’t have to take notes for, you don’t have to take exams for,” he said.
Floyd is now auditing CLA 218: The Roman Republic and EGR 498: Special Topics in Social Entrepreneurship: Rethinking Social Profit Organizations, although Floyd says his most engaging professor has been Cornel West.
Overall, Floyd said that CAP is “a valuable community resource program, and I don’t really see any detriment to the teaching of Princeton students by having auditors in the room.”
“I’ve heard professors say that it’s sometimes helpful to have older people in the room who might be able to share additional perspectives, if the professors invite them to do that,” Floyd added.
In his social entrepreneurship course, Floyd said the professor “likes us to give some commentary on what the kids are learning ... because some of us have worked in areas that apply to the sorts of things he is presenting to them.”
Because of this, Floyd believes that auditors can actually add to the undergraduate experience.
Tony Singleton, a Lawrenceville resident who retired from international finance in 2010 and is also auditing the social entrepreneurship class, echoed Floyd’s sentiment.
“Hopefully some auditors have the chance to give to students the piece that they can’t really get ... experience that they can’t get otherwise,” he said.
“This community is really rich in many factors, but particularly in experience,” Singleton added. “The Princeton area has a lot of people that have done amazing things. It’s a pretty highly educated community, but it’s also a diverse community ... I don’t know of many other Ivy League schools that have outreach like this to the community.”
Gengos agreed with Singleton’s regard for the University.
“It’s a magnificent campus, of course. And just the quality of the professors, the course materials, the access to such a huge variety of courses that one can audit is really just fantastic,” she said. “It’s about not a huge time commitment at all, but just a continuing way to learn, completely different things from what I was working on.”
“I’m sort of detoxing from working so many years and so many hours,” she added.
Gengos’ only complaint about the program is that in her International Economics lecture in McCosh Hall last semester, she could not always hear the insightful professor because she was seated in the back of the hall.
The rules for auditors are strict, including the requirement that they sit in the back of the classroom. Floyd, however, said that sometimes students have taken up all of the back seats by the time he has gotten to class.
“Auditors are to be as unobtrusive as possible in the classroom,” according to the CAP website, and are therefore not allowed to interact with students or professors.
According to the CAP website, the auditors may not “participate in class. They may not attend precepts, seminars, field trips, language labs or science labs,” or they will face the prospect of not being allowed to participate in the program.
Sumner Brinkley ’21 said that she does not interact with the auditors in two of her classes “beyond saying ‘hi’ coming in and out of the class.”
John De Heus, another auditor in The Just Society agreed that auditors and students coexist just fine in class, but do not share much interaction.
“The students in the class have accepted us. Because of the large population of students, they have had to sit back with us. There’s been no problems or anything,” De Heus said.
“It’s kind of funny because we’re way in the back — we can actually see what some of these students are doing. Like, they got their laptops open and they’re doing stuff. They’re really not supposed to be doing that I guess. But other than that, they’re taking notes,” he added.
Though they don’t interact much with the students, auditors do have a chance to get to know one another, both in class and at an annual reception, which will be held on May 3 this year.
“I have definitely connected with people as I’ve audited,” noted Singleton.
“The auditors chat and it helps you understand which courses are great and interesting, what to do for the next semester,” Gengos explained.
It can be tricky for auditors to get the classes they want because some have few spots, and there are restrictions on when they can register.
According to CAP’s website, the registration process gives preference to those with University affiliations.
“Day 1 is for residents of Princeton and others affiliated with Princeton University only,” reads the CAP website. De Heus explained that on the second day, anyone is welcome to sign up for one class, and afterwards everyone can sign up for any additional available classes they are interested in.
“Princeton’s program is special as we are open to all in the community, and not just to individuals with a current or prior University affiliation,” Appelget explained. Only 40 percent of auditors actually live in the town of Princeton, according to Appelget.
The program also offers a series of auditor-only events, which allows auditors exclusive insight into various aspects of the Princeton community. For example, this year featured a three-class auditor-only series focusing on The Niceties, an Eleanor Burgess play staged at the McCarter Theatre where they went behind the scenes and spoke to the playwright.
In looking towards the future of CAP, Appelget said, “The retirement age population in Princeton and in the surrounding area continues to grow, so we expect that interest and participation in the program will remain high.”