Anyone may study with us who wishes to learn and who has the basic skills necessary for serious reading and conversation. Our conversations are open-ended and not guided toward particular conclusions. Our students, or readers, are understood to be motivated by their own questions. No one’s inability to pay or inability to travel ought to be an obstacle to their opportunities to learn.
We read books of richness, depth, and lasting value that bear repeated re-readings. Such books teach readers at all levels of preparation, and they level the distance between the teacher and the learner so as to encourage collaboration. With a book as a teacher, each reader develops the ability to inquire in depth and to evaluate evidence by his or her own lights.
Last summer, I read Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz. I’m not sure of the exact path I took, but somehow I ended up discovering The Catherine Project, a learning community Hitz began two years ago. I’ve been assuming it was mentioned in the book, but I don’t see it anywhere; I must’ve run across it while researching the author. In any case, it was a fortuitous find. I just completed my first Reading Group, as well as a one-off Seminar, and attended a Town Hall. Let me tell you about it…
When I looked at the list of Fall 2022 offerings, I was overwhelmed: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Chaucer, Flannery O’Connor, Dickens, TS Eliot, Njals Saga, Foucault, Shakespeare, Zhuangzi, Greek and Latin… I wanted to take them all! Small-group tutorials with required homework; less rigorous reading groups involving discussion of the text at hand; subject classes for concentrated study. All free, all online! I thought I was hallucinating. I’ve been pretty disenchanted with moocs for a while now, as they focus on selling certificates for job skills and move away from humanities and basic sciences, and leave behind the community of the cohort for a more drop-in-any-time approach. But now, here was thousands of years of literature and philosophy at my fingertips!
I decided to play it safe: for my first venture, I’d take the eight-week-long Short Stories reading group meeting for 90 minutes on Tuesday evenings using The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. I knew I’d be reading BASS at the same time, but I figured I could slow that down if necessary.
The details arrived a few weeks before the group started. We’d be reading two stories a week, with Prof. Andrew Piper of McGill University as our facilitator. I’d only read two of them before, so I was looking forward to fleshing out my short story background.
I was a little nervous. I can write up a storm, but I have trouble speaking, often lapsing into near-incoherence when my brain thinks faster than my mouth gets the words out, or, in the other direction, I suddenly have no idea where I am and my train of thought comes to an abrupt stop. I was also a bit concerned about Zoom: I’d already been kicked out of one library-based reading group because I don’t have a functional webcam (though by the time I put on my headlamp to light the book, my headset to hear and be heard, my hat to keep warm, and wrap myself up in what might charitably be called loungewear, it isn’t like anyone would recognize me anyway). Would this be a problem? As it turned out, no one seemed to mind on either account.
The desire to learn for its own sake is the primary engine of our work. Accordingly, we prize amateurism. Tutors learn along with our readers and therefore often teach outside of their fields of specialty.
We find that conversation is the best way to cultivate free and independent learners. Conversation and reading are the primary vehicles of the learning we offer: writing assignments are subsidiary. Essays help the reader to think and help to focus the conversations that result from it.
Our courses help readers to develop as free inquirers. We seek to support independent learners, but we also seek to nurture autodidacts: self-directed, courageous, and honest pursuers of learning in all walks of life.
The group started out with about twelve readers, though that dwindled a bit to six or eight core members over time. In the first session we gave brief introductions. Some readers were students or had a literary background, others were more casual readers. I was one of the older readers but there was a wide range.
We’d spend half the session on one story, then move on to the next at the 45 minute mark. Prof. Piper would start by asking what people thought of the story under consideration, and we’d go where that took us. He’d put in comments here and there, adding to our impressions and giving us approaches that could be used for other stories:
- How is the author directing our attention, and to what?
- Who’s telling the story, and why; who is the main character, is it the narrator?
- How is time – narrative time, elapsed time – used in the story, where does it speed up or slow down?
- Are expectations met or thwarted? How do we as readers react to ambiguity?
- And a question that still stays with me – why are so many stories about suffering? Is it a matter of selection – they’re seen as serious, so they get anthologized – or is it intrinsic to storytelling?
I greatly enjoyed having real-time feedback on stories I didn’t quite grasp; it’s a lot different from me blogging BASS here and Jake blogging it over there, then comparing notes. Of course, the tradeoff is that I wasn’t as assertive about my reading as I can be when I blog. Sometimes various readers would have very different views of what was happening in the story, what a character was thinking at some point, why they took this action instead of that one; this, too, was very helpful. And it was very nice to find out that sometimes other readers were perplexed by a story. I’ve been feeling quite stupid during this year’s reading of BASS, but maybe they’re just ambiguous stories.
The mood was quite relaxed and flexible. At one point, I asked Prof. Piper about an image on the wall behind him; it turned out to be something he’d used in his first book as a visual epigraph, a squiggle from Tristram Shandy. When the stories took a very dark turn, he changed the syllabus to include a story with a bit more humor in the next week.
At the end of the class, we all brought in book suggestions, which was fun; I’m going to get to Ursula LeGuin, I promise, and Richard Powers, though probably not The Overstory at first. Prof. Piper also provided a list of his book suggestions, which, to my delight, included Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai – not only one of my favorite reads, but the book I recommended in that very session.
In light of our commitment to simplicity, egalitarianism, and intellectual focus, readers do not choose tutors, tutors do not choose readers, and members of reading groups do not choose one another. Readers choose a book to read or a course of study.
We go after the deepest and most difficult questions and ask the same of our readers. We do not “dumb down” material. Flexibility
We seek to meet the human need for serious inquiry with as few arbitrary constraints as possible.
While this group was running, a one-session seminar was announced on Montaigne’s essay “Of Pedantry.” This is the sort of reading that intimidates me, so I was glad to have some guidance. It was a much larger group, and went a lot faster. The essay is a sort of warning to acquire knowledge in order to gain wisdom, not just to memorize facts. I thought, somewhat incongruously, of the Jeopardy! book I read recently, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob Harris described how he started out memorizing facts to win the game but ended up genuinely interested in knowing more about places and events and people he was memorizing.
The Catherine Project also held a Town Meeting one evening, aimed at providing more information about the organization, answering questions, and fund-raising. One of the questions finally clued me in on a piece of trivia that I hadn’t been able to track down: Who is Catherine? I combed the website early in this journey and couldn’t find it. I’d assumed it was Catherine of Siena, but you know what happens when you assume. It turns out there are two Catherines: Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of philosophy students, and Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House, the Catholic community where Zena Hitz spent some time recovering from academia. Hence the focus on simplicity: a desire to learn without the administrative and bureaucratic burdens formal university study imposes on both students and teachers.
I’m looking forward to finding out what groups will be offered this Winter. Maybe I’ll be more adventurous and go outside my comfort zone. Ancient Greek? Foucault? Chinese philosophy, Norse sagas? The tutorials and subject groups have very limited enrollment, so they may not be available; the Reading Groups are larger, but still have a cap. But I’m sure I can find something that will grab my attention.