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November 28, 2001
Vol. 28, No. 13



A Class Act: Informal Classes marks 30th anniversary

Director of Health & Safety says to exercise caution, but keep things in perspective

UT Press offers scholarly books about Middle East

UT and LULAC develop Austin Youth Leadership Academy

Advancements in disease research, mathematical theory take honors at Siemens competition

$7.2 million grant funds medical research

Marketing professor's research blends expertise in music industry, electronic commerce

New division to enhance teaching effectiveness, learning opportunities

Four teams to compete in MOOT CORP finals

Eckhardt continues to safeguard campus history six years after his death

Norma Cantú brings expertise into classroom

$2.15 NSF grant to improve production of oil, gas

Research team discovers mechanism regulating plant growth

Engineers harness "quantum dots" for neurological research

Orange Santa program makes season brighter

Readership Survey

Anti-terrorism expert calls for increased steps to combat terrorism

Arete: Jessica J. Summers

School of Social Work gets funding for substance abuse research

A salute to military veterans, POWs, MIAs




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A Class Act: Learning doesn't stop at 30--Informal Classes marks three decades of unique offerings aimed at enhancing personal growth, quality of life

By Nancy Neff

Some of the most unusual and lively classes in Austin — in fact it's entertaining just to read the catalog — are celebrating 30 years of teaching everything from kickboxing to finding your own guardian angel.

the yoga class is one of the most popular
Photo courtesy of the Texas Union
Along with the Horse Whisperer class, the yoga course is one of the most popular year to year. Informal Classes began as a summer program with a wine-tasting course as the anchor. Although the program originally had a university audience, now just 35 percent of Informal Class students are affiliated with the campus.

Established in 1971, The University of Texas at Austin Informal Classes provides a variety of short non-credit courses and workshops for the entire Austin community.

The classes, which are run by the Texas Union, are designed to give the most information in the least amount of time.

Want to learn how to write a modern mystery, buy a house, create your own funeral, start your own record label, do the South African Can and Gumboot dance, play the didgeridoo (ancient Aboriginal wind instrument), fight fair, hang glide, belly dance, make tamales, or perhaps learn how to be a shaman, a horse whisperer or a weatherman — Informal Classes will come to the rescue every time.

"It's important for our personal growth and our quality of life to continue learning, and we've got something for everyone," said Emily Speight, who has been program coordinator of Informal Classes since last January. "People enroll just because they're interested in a subject, and with a room full of students who feel this way, it turns out to be a wonderful experience for everyone."

Although Informal Classes was organized in the fall of 1971, the first catalog was printed in the spring of 1972, with 19 classes listed. Today, there are 2,400 different courses offered a year and five catalogs — two in the fall, two in the spring and one in the summer. About 25,000 people a year sign up for classes, which average $45 for a six-class course. In addition to Speight, Informal Classes has a staff of five full-time and 25 part-time employees. With an annual revenue of $500,000 to $750,000, the program breaks even financially without any subsidy from the university.

belly dancers
Photo courtesy of the Texas Union
Belly dancing was popular in the 1980s and continues to be so today.

The Texas Union has periodically sponsored classes — mainly duplicate bridge in the summer months — since the 1930s. There was no structured program until 1971, said Susan Clagett, associate vice president for university public affairs. Clagett worked for Texas Union Program Director Shirley Bird Perry during the 1970s, and later became program director herself.

Informal Classes began as a summer program with a wine-tasting course as the anchor. The wine-tasting class was held in the Alumni Center because the university couldn't serve alcohol anywhere else on campus. "It was so different and so new — who knew that so many people were interested in wines," Clagett said. "It was an instant hit."

In fact, the success of the program in the last 30 years has been phenomenal, Clagett said. "It is marvelous that Informal Classes has grown and flourished like it has. The university was truly at the front end around the country when it came to creating this kind of program."

The program reflected the times because people were interested in self-development and being more self-reliant. Among the first classes were astrology, bicycle repair, foreign car repair, organic gardening and the wine tasting course. "The program will never grow old if the people who are running it stay on top of current interests — and they obviously do," Clagett said.

juggling class
Photo courtesy of the Texas Union
Informal Classes enrollees practice their juggling in a 1979 class

Perry, who now is a vice chancellor for development and external relations for the UT System, said the Informal Classes program developed as a remarkable community outreach effort — both within the university and beyond. "The program grew because it was a superb model and responsive to new and innovative possibilities," she said. "The model was strengthened as individuals became increasingly focused on self development and lifelong learning. It was wonderful to hear an electrical engineer express enthusiasm and appreciation for a bread-baking class!

"The message was clear: I'm a serious student, but I'm multi-dimensional, and I want to bake a great loaf of bread. That philosophy is at the core of an extraordinary program that has grown and prospered for 30 years."

pottery class
Photo courtesy of the Texas Union
Instructor Susanne Whitmore shows students how to make pottery in this 1991 photo.

Speight said several courses that showed up in the beginning are still going strong, including photography, yoga and guitar. "Because Informal Classes has many repeat customers, about 30 new classes are included in each catalog," she said. "We want to keep things interesting."

Although the program originally had a university audience, now just 35 percent of Informal Class students are affiliated with the campus.

Although most classes are held at the Texas Union or other campus locations, several such as horseback riding, rowing, foal handling, cave exploring, skydiving, hang gliding, golf, scuba diving, Rollerblade skating and others are held off campus. All of the Informal Classes instructors are experts in their fields, Speight said. A women's triathlon clinic, for example, is taught by Lisa Lynam, a four-time Ironman finisher, and six-degree black belt master John Blankenship has taught self-defense workshops for nearly 20 years.

In the fall of 2000, Informal Classes began online classes in addition to the regular course format. Among the 100 online classes offered this fall are Creating Web Pages, Write Your Life Story, Speed Spanish, A to Z Grant Writing and Financial Management for Small Business. "Last month, we had 90 enrollees, so it's growing," Speight said.

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