Monday, July 15, 2024

Say you’re bored by your 9-to-5. You’re intellectually understimulated and you want a challenge beyond your book club, which, it turns out, is just you and your friends gossiping around a lukewarm charcuterie board.

What are your options? You could apply to graduate school, if you have the ambition, money and time. Or you could start smaller and enroll in a class at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR).

The Brooklyn Institute is a nonprofit education center that offers evening and weekend courses for adults, catering to those who want the rigor of a liberal arts seminar but at a more modest commitment. The unaccredited classes are held for three hours each week for a month and are led by lecturers with advanced degrees. Though adult learners can enroll in massive open online courses or extension school programs, the institute differentiates itself with more niche and left-field topics: the novels of Clarice Lispector, the history of trauma and transgender Marxism.

And the best part? No grades.

Andres Begue, 32, discovered the organization earlier this year after casually searching for continuing education opportunities online. “It’s nice to be able to go into something that I have no context for and learn something new,” said Mr. Begue, who works in technology support at a software company. He was intrigued by a course about the 20th-century Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard.

On an evening in October, Mr. Begue joined 17 other students around a long wooden table at BISR’s white-brick office space in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo. The group read texts like “Woodcutters” and “Heldenplatz,” while snacking on corn chips and sipping boxed wine. Lauren K. Wolfe, an associate faculty member who specializes in Austrian and German literature, guided discussions of the writer’s hectoring prose and disdain for Austrian culture as the group engaged with larger questions about literary critique, political memory and translation.

“At our core is the conviction that the idea that people are anti-intellectual is false,” Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the institute’s executive director, said. “The idea that people don’t want to critically engage, that they just want five-minute sound bites, is false.”

Founded in 2012, the Brooklyn Institute began modestly, with a dozen or so people discussing Plato’s “Republic” over cheap pints at a bistro in the brownstone-filled neighborhood of Boerum Hill. Mr. Chaudhary, then a graduate student at Columbia University, had dreamed of an alternative to traditional academia while preparing to teach Columbia’s Core curriculum. He was at a local bar and noticed interest from nearby patrons.

“People have always been like, ‘Oh, what’s that? I always wish I got a chance to study, you know, Aristotle or Plato,’” Mr. Chaudhary said.

The institute now has about 60 faculty members, five of them full-time, and offers around 20 courses a month, both virtually and in person. Instructors earn approximately 70 percent of revenue from what they teach, or about $3,500 per course — often a better deal than what they would make as adjunct professors.

“There is a structural problem in higher education,” said Nara Roberta Silva, a Brazilian sociologist who previously lectured at Lehman College. In addition to teaching courses on social movements and postcolonial theory, she heads the institute’s “praxis program,” which provides workshops to labor unions, nonprofits and other public-interest organizations. “I feel I’m a much better scholar because of this stability,” she said.

Particularly devoted learners can sign up for more bespoke services at a higher premium. Last year, the institute created a certificate program that’s essentially a yearlong master’s degree and also established yearlong intensive language courses in ancient Greek and Sanskrit (Arabic, Hebrew and Latin classes are in development for 2024).

Having hosted courses in London, Philadelphia and the Midwest, the institute expanded this month to Chicago, offering an introductory seminar on the Frankfurt School, a cohort of 20th-century German Marxist intellectuals associated with the organization’s namesake, the Institute for Social Research.

Hank Vandenburgh, 78, used to travel four to five hours from Palatine Bridge, N.Y., to attend classes on subjects like sadomasochism and the philosophy and politics of love.

“Because of the unusual specific topics the Brooklyn Institute has, I don’t think I’d be able to get those at a university around here,” said Mr. Vandenburgh, a retired professor. Since the institute introduced digital instruction in 2020, Mr. Vandenburgh has taken courses remotely, including one starting this week on the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Though the change has diversified the institute’s pool, bringing in students and instructors from countries as far as China and Mozambique, the clientele skews white-collar and college-educated.

BISR, whose classes cost $335, provides a limited amount of pay-what-you-want scholarships. But even at a discount, some students may find it more cost effective to join more casual reading groups elsewhere in New York City: Wendy’s Subway, a nonprofit library, which accepts sliding-scale payments, or Woodbine, a volunteer-run experimental hub, which is free.

Swathi Manchikanti, 35, who took two urban design courses — one on 19th- and 20th-century architectural experiments and the other on the New York City subway — said it could benefit the institute to advertise more widely.

“We’re reading all of these papers from all of these philosophers or architects who are talking about what the working class deserved, but I felt like we’d never really had a representative voice of a working class member,” she said.

Still, Ms. Manchikanti appreciated how these courses opened up her thinking as a climate-adaptation and health expert at a United Nations agency.

“We don’t necessarily talk about how air pollution is determined sometimes by which side of a highway we live on. We don’t necessarily think in terms of physicality,” she said. “I think BISR courses have helped round out those theoretical points.”

When asked whether she would take another class, she replied: “Oh, definitely.”

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