LLI Spotlight:  Avi Bernstein, Director, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI) at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. 

By Peter Spiers

BOLLI at Brandeis University was founded in 2000 by Dr. Bernard Reisman, then a professor emeritus at Brandeis, as the Brandeis Adult Learning Institute.  Conceived from the beginning as “a small liberal arts college within a research university,” the Institute grew quickly and applied for and received an Osher endowment grant in 2006.  BOLLI is one of four programs that make up Brandeis’s Raab School of Continuing Studies, which also offers online Master’s Degree, Summer School, and Continuing Studies programs to non-traditional students.  Membership fluctuates seasonally between 500 and 600, and members choose from five membership levels, ranging in cost from $675 for the “Annual Comprehensive” plan to $265 for the “Snowbird” plan.  All members receive free parking, access to a distinguished lunch and learn speakers series, special interest groups, an exercise class, and discounted tickets to Brandeis faculty led intensive seminars.  BOLLI is managed by a full-time staff of three—a director, an assistant director, and a program coordinator—and governed informally by an Advisory Council comprised of standing committee chairs and member liaisons.  About a quarter of members have an affiliation with Brandeis, as alumni, retired faculty or staff, or the parent or grandparent of a current Brandeis student.  Avi Bernstein, in his sixth year as Director, says that during his tenure he’s watched the organization “explode in terms of diversity,” an accomplishment he’s very proud of.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at BOLLI?  My primary focus is on building a high-capacity organization, and I include both paid staff and volunteers in that undertaking.  We work hard to make volunteerism attractive, and that means creating serious, meaningful roles for serious, competent people.  Second is serving as the champion of the program within the University community and to outside audiences and constituencies.  Third is solving a myriad of problems that arise and might derail the satisfaction of members, prospective members, or study group leaders. 

How does curriculum development work at BOLLI?  What are some favorite courses you offer?  Our curriculum committee produces about a hundred courses a year; the committee does the heavy lifting and they make the curriculum decisions.  They find new course ideas by listening carefully to members, by keeping an eye out for potential new study leaders in the member ranks, and working closely with veteran study leaders who are invested in maintaining a strong curriculum.  A Coordinating Group, made up of Chairs and former Chairs of the Curriculum and Study Group Support Committees, and me, conduct member focus group to discover new study group leaders.   We also work closely with Brandeis graduate students, who receive a small honorarium and gain teaching experience by serving as study group leaders or by augmenting other courses with guest lectures on their topic of expertise.  We will likely have a course on genetics in the spring, for example, in which a graduate student will teach on the neuroscience of decision-making.  Graduate students tell us that teaching at BOLLI is often more rewarding than teaching undergraduates!

We have many study group leaders who have real followings.  Our resident art historian has taught several courses on the history of modern art—her course this fall is “The Birth of Modernism in Bohemian Paris.”  Another popular course takes participants into Sanders Theater at Harvard—via an edX MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) taught by Michael Sandel—in a course called “What’s the Right Thing to Do?  What is Just?”  Film courses at BOLLI—we call them “Reel Literature”—are so popular we sometimes devote a double class period to them.  We use a lottery system to fill classes so members don’t feel pressure to sign up in the first minutes registration is open.  Current events also drive our curriculum, and we strive to be edgy and relevant without being overly controversial.  Current political concerns are getting a thorough airing in a course this term called “Resistance and Resilience in Politics—and in Life.” 

We don’t formally train new study group leaders, but our Study Group Support Committee runs frequent workshops where leaders can discuss pedagogy and the psychological and emotional aspects of teaching.  We’re fortunate to have many, many experienced educators in our ranks with a wealth of experience and knowledge and an eagerness to support each other.  We review course evaluations very carefully and make sure group leaders learn from them.  Only rarely have study group leaders not been invited back because of poor evaluations.

The focus of our study groups is the liberal arts curriculum.  Extra-curricular activities also have a healthy place at BOLLI, however.  Our Special Interest Groups bring together members with a shared passion for photography, fiction writing, and theater outings, for example.  And many of our members enjoy coming together informally at BOLLI to enjoy the latest short story from The New Yorker.

 What’s a feature or aspect of BOLLI you consider special or unique?  Our members are a very intellectually curious crowd, and they’re attracted to BOLLI for all the reasons that make Brandeis itself a special place.  The University has a progressive view of history and a social change orientation that encourages the entire university community to thoughtfully engage with history, culture, and current events.  Jewish traditions, part of the historical background of the institution, teach a reverence for learning and a delight in interpreting texts.  These values undergird a program that welcomes everyone and elevates the entire community’s learning.

What developments do you see in the future for your LLI or for the lifelong learning movement more broadly?  We see more and more integration of technology into the classroom or, in some cases, the “flipped classroom” where participants, for example, might view an online lecture on their own time and use classroom time for discussion.  The “Justice” course using a Harvard MOOC is an example of this.  Our objective is to use technology as a tool without eclipsing face-to-face communication, and to succeed we’ll need to develop resources such as a Help Desk to help our members successfully navigate this environment.

What did you do before you came to BOLLI?  I have a doctorate in Philosophy and Religion from Stanford University and, before coming to BOLLI in 2012, I served in various administrative and faculty roles at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass.  The adult learning model there was financially unsustainable, but provided me with an object lesson in how to create a sustainable one:  I was attracted to BOLLI’s model of peer learning and meaningful volunteerism in this connection.  Our members possess incredible expertise in topics ranging from non-profit governance to workflow.  They’re really wonderful.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?  I’m leading a course this fall called “Crime and Punishment and Moral Turmoil in the 21st Century.”  I’m interested in places presented in intriguing ways in literature, so naturally St. Petersburg in Russia is at the top of my list right now.

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others?  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky of course!  Against the nihilism of the 1860s, Dostoevsky grapples with the question of whether there are universal human ideals.  It’s still fresh.