A Senior’s Life in University

Denis Gendron | Contributor

So, what does one do in retirement?

Go back to school, naturally.

Well not really. I heard recently on a PBS documentary that the brain, much like a muscle, needed to be stretched and strengthened or it would go into decline; as the old adage goes, “use it or lose it.” So how does one stretch and strengthen their mind, delaying the onset of dementia and senility? Attending classes would definitely do it. Since my daughter is attending UNBC and mentioned one of her courses was Astronomy, I thought why not share an experience with her? I eagerly signed up, anticipating my first classes in over 20 years.

I walk into my first class and look around the room. It is half the size of my grade ten class 45 years ago. Has it really been that long? I guess that dates me. Kids are chatting away until the professor arrives. He is junior to me by ten to fifteen years, or so it seems. My fellow students, who were a few minutes early to class and were loud and boisterous, suddenly become silent. There is a crackling anticipation in the air.

The class is spent mostly listening to the rules of the game and a synopsis of what’s to come. No one seems too excited, but everyone endures the routine well. Our hesitant yet jovial leader scans his timepiece frequently, as if lacking in time. Rather, it seems he has too much time on his hands. “Any questions?” he asks repeatedly, as if to spur us out of our cosiness; but no one bites, at least not until the end of the hour long introductory class when someone asks “What’s the username and password to the course web page?” He had unfortunately forgotten to include the precious tidbit in our syllabus. Apologetically, he writes on the chalkboard, the chalk dust floating down to the holder at its base. There is no SmartBoard in use here, no complicated application of technology. It brings back memories.

Day two eased us into a set of presentation slides and some mathematics on the chalkboard. I thought to myself that it wasn’t so bad, it was only twenty five years since I last sat in a room with like minded people. Mind you, most of those present in the classroom were a third my age and to my surprise, a majority of them are texting and working on their phones, tablets, and laptops. I lean over my left and see my neighbour is playing some game on their iPad, and to my right another is avidly reading and texting, with the odd look up to see where the lecture is at, then switching apps suddenly and drawing a manga figure. I am flabbergasted by what my fellow students are doing around me. How can they be learning anything this way? The teacher seems to be taking this in stride, still asking every now and then if there were any questions, and still no takers.

Day three, I am a bit confused by now, no mention of star charts or constellations, even local galaxies and gas clouds have failed to be acknowledged. Thus far my brain has not been too taxed yet by the old names like Eratosthenes, Tyco Brea, Kepler, Hubble, and the likes. The math is getting slightly more complicated, reminiscent of Pythagoras, algebra and geometry, but still within the realm of my knowledge. The pop quiz has yet to materialize, and the assignment as well, both of which were so pointedly indicated in the syllabus. Not that I am complaining at this point.

Week two brings more talk about the history of how this science came to be, from early astronomers believing the Earth was the centre of the universe to the discovery that, no, not everything was centred around us, then eventually to the realization that the third rock from the Sun was nothing more than a dust mote in the universe. There’s still no talk of star charts or of the cosmos in general. There is, however, more mention of physics, which is far less enticing than what I anticipated, but still I take it in stride.

We got our first pop quiz that day. It was beyond easy, but as we end the quiz the professor states that, well this is what they will be like, and this was just a practice run.

Why, what a cruel world.

Then he began spewing words about light and wavelength, frequency and photons (compact little packets that carry both wavelength and frequency), electromagnetic fields and magnetic fields.

Wait a minute. Back the truck up.

What have I gotten myself into here?! What happened to talking about those bright spots in the sky, and the comets? Instead, we are talking about light years, Doppler effects, telescope resolution, air distortion, the whole gamut of wavelengths from far infrared to x-rays and the likes, gamma radiation…

Yikes! This is physics, not just astronomy! The math had seemingly leaped forward in complication, and then it seemed that Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory began dropping information like the electron-jumping Balmer emissions, and the laws of Stefan-Boltzmann and Wein. I’ve never heard of their precedent-setting court cases…

The real pop quizzes come and go with great success, and assignments one and two follow close on their heels. They’ll only take an hour or so, the professor claimed. Four hours later and I was still trying to slog my way through the questions. I was beginning to wonder if my mind really does need all this strengthening and stretching after all.

The following week is the reading break, but what kind of a break is it if all I can do is cram the spare time I have with studies and preparation for the midterm, which is to be thrust upon us immediately upon our return? My daughter seems unfazed by this, chatting with her friends or playing video games most of the time. Perhaps seniors were not meant for higher education.

I will let you know how I fared after I have fended off the midterms and we begin the final stretch towards the end of the term. I fear for these young ones’ sakes, for if I struggle with this first year course, I cannot fathom how my fellow students can juggle four or five courses at a time. Perhaps, with more mind stretching, I could attain that level of intellectual prowess.