Special Edition: Living Writers Provides Students and Faculty With One-of-a-Kind Interface with Authors

Nearly 40 years into its existence, Living Writers has long been one of Colgate’s signature academic programs. Currently led by Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice, the class explores the work of ten authors, poets and artists each fall semester. 

With weekly author visits by both up-and-coming and well-known artists, students read one book per week and engage in lively book discussions with contemporary writers, just days after finishing their work.

But unlike the typical Colgate course featuring one professor and a group of students, Living Writers offers a unique digital presence that allows alumni, parents and community members the opportunity to take the class as well. Through the use of ColgateX, an online learning platform connected to edX, Living Writers features weekly videos, podcasts, livestreams and interviews for all who wish to take part in Colgate courses. Since it is a noncredit online course, members are not expected to complete exams or participate in every class, but new course material is available each week and online discussions allow for interaction between students in and out of the classroom.

“I’m crazy about this model because it makes the conversations with the writers more exciting and robust. Some of the parents, alumni and community members who take the course are college professors themselves, while others are businesspeople and chemists looking to fall in love with reading again,” Brice said.

Last semester, 500 people signed up for the ColgateX version of the course with some even making the trip to campus to hear the in-person author talks.

Initiated by Professor Fred Busch in the early 1980’s and led by Professor Jane Pinchin for over a decade, the course is a coveted jewel of the English department with only three professors taking the reins throughout its existence. Though Brice co-taught Living Writers with Pinchin from 2009 to 2014, she is now the sole leader of the program and co-leads with different colleagues from a variety of departments based on the topic of that week’s book.

While the course is offered as part of the English department, typically over half of the students in Living Writers are not English majors. With students from every educational background and class year, the variety of book genres covered in class reflects the interdisciplinary course.

First-year Glynnis Harvey thoroughly enjoyed her experience in the program, noting the one-of-a-kind opportunity the course presents to those who want to interface with the authors of their favorite works.

“I took Living Writers during my first semester here at Colgate and it was a great introduction to the unique learning experiences and opportunities only Colgate students get,” Harvey said. “After reading any book, especially one you enjoyed, you are often left with a few inquiries. It was incredible to have the opportunity to meet the author and ask them questions each week.”

The program has brought a number of renowned authors to Colgate over the years, including the likes of Chimamanda Adichie, Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders as well as Colgate’s own Peter Balakian and Penny Lane. With budgetary concerns to deal with and a limited semester schedule, much debate and consideration goes into choosing the curriculum.

“It’s a bit like flower arranging; you pick one very famous author who will get people excited and then you look for gender balance, ethnic and racial diversity and people who are in different stages of their career,” Brice said. “It’s fun to get someone who just published their first book as well as some more renowned authors with many books to choose from.”

The expansiveness and success of the Living Writers community is reflected in the loyalty of its participants. Each year at Colgate reunions a Living Writers tent holds gatherings to reunite former classes and continue discussions. Former students are even occasionally the parents of current Living Writers students, while others attempt to make it more of a family affair.

The class is being offered again next semester with the hopes of reaching an even larger online audience. As massive online courses become more prominent in the world of higher education, the unique learning experience that Living Writers offers is expected to turn even more heads.

“Living Writers is like a book group on steroids,” Brice said. “The future of alumni engagement and continuing education lies in programs like Living Writers. People form communities around reading.”