Wine, superheroes and forgotten gods: UMN program offers unique classes

The program is a chance for community members to partake in University of Minnesota academics.

Caitlin Anderson

Physics of superheroes, the forgotten gods of Scandinavia and obscure red wines are among the curriculum for some unique University of Minnesota classes.

The LearningLife program in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies offers a range of unique topics to students and community members throughout the year in an effort to engage community members with the University. The courses and discussion panels are taught by faculty who have special interests beyond their field.

Anastasia Faunce, the program director for LearningLife, said the program’s goal is to engage the community by highlighting “the knowledge, resources and everything that goes on in the University.” 

The program offers a various courses, seminars and one-day immersions for participants to partake in, with fees varying from course to course. 

LearningLife is an outgrowth of a previous program at the University that began in the 1980s, Faunce said. 

“It’s just fun, you get a different level of questions; you get some different levels of engagement,” said James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University who taught a seminar on superheroes in October. Kakalios was approached by the University to teach a LearningLife course because of his book the “Physics of Superheroes.”

The short courses usually consist of several meetings, while seminars last for a couple hours. One-day immersions — like a course on cemeteries in Minneapolis and their residents that took place in October — often involve outings to places around Minnesota.

“There’s so much [at the University], it’s like a microcosm of the world,” Faunce said. “There are so many people doing so many different things that we’ve got a wealth of research and scholars at our disposal.”

Most participants are community members, and some people are regulars in the program. “The demographic for LearningLife skews a bit older; it’s not traditional degree-seeking student age,” Faunce said. 

One of the regular participants, 68-year-old Cynthia White, said she utilizes the program because it gives her access to a broad range of professionals from the University. 

“Being able to take classes at the University of Minnesota, both known for its research as well as its academics, has been just a tremendous opportunity for me,” White said. 

Faunce said that increasingly often, members attend courses and bring their young children or grandchildren. Occasionally, graduate students attend as well. 

In addition to the courses, LearningLife also holds current-event discussion forums called “Headliners,” as well as “Encore Transitions,” an annual series of courses for post-career help. 

Headliners usually involve University professors and researchers speaking on a panel discussion about a popular topic in the news. The panel draws the largest audience of all the program’s offerings, Faunce said. 

“[I’ve] been able to get to almost every single one of them,” White said. She started attending these events almost 12 years ago. 

LearningLife offers over 70 programs and events, which are shared in a bimonthly newsletter. The courses vary every year.  

“We really just try to do a full breadth of topics, and that way we’re kind of feeding most people’s needs,” Faunce said.