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I miss being challenged intellectually.
May 26, 2014 6:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my early 30s and a good portion of my friends are heading back to grad school. I was always a Hermione type and now I'm envious of the classes and intellectual discussion that they are going to be a part of. Since grad school isn't financially feasible for me, is there a way for me to find the intellectual, curious, mind-expanding discussions that I miss from college classes?

I graduated about a decade ago with a BFA and I'm now working for a small, arts non-profit. My job is challenging in many ways, but not intellectually stimulating. I feel satisfaction in writing grants, but what I'm really feeling jealous about with my friends is all the mind-expanding lectures and conversations that they are going to be part of.

I have tried book groups and some online classes, but I felt that everything was surface level and didn't fulfill me. I am currently looking at continuing education classes (I'm in Miami, Fl), but everything seems either focused on professional development or for seniors. What other opportunities are there for me to interact with new world views and engage in intellectual discussion?
posted by JustKeepSwimming to Education (18 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Debating society?
Really focused book club (as opposed to a drink wine and complain about husbands book club)?
Sign up to take classes at a university as a non-degree student?
A humanist league that has a discussion forum?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:34 PM on May 26

Why isn't grad school financially feasible for you? Any reputable PhD program will be fully funded and will also pay you a stipend that's enough to live on.
posted by killdevil at 6:37 PM on May 26 [3 favorites]

Our science museum has a fantastic evening lecture series that is aimed at non-professionals but definitely aimed at adults rather than kids (i.e. not incredibly dumbed down, but also not pitched so that only an astronomy PhD can follow it). Obviously this does not have the discussion aspect, but I find it a great way to feel like I'm using my brain. I am sort of anti-social when it comes to meeting new people, but I bet it would also be a great place to meet folks to set up a more 'intellectual' book club if one were so inclined. So, you might check out various local museums and see if they have ongoing lectures that you could try to attend.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:40 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

I went to Grad school, including a few years of a PhD and did not find the level of intelligence and intellectualism any different from my core group of friends, who did not go on to post-secondary school, or who did not even complete high school. My personal opinion is that much of what determines who goes on to Grad school (as opposed to no school or a trade college) is access to funds. So my first suggestion is you will find stimulating and worthy discussion in any general way you would normally make and meet friends. Of the most witty and wise people I know three did not finish high school, one barely survived trade school, and one is a brilliant lawyer. It's a mixed bag.

My second and more specific suggestion - I think Metafilter is a great place to absorb a wide range of perspectives from highly intelligent people. Like Grad school, you can choose to participate in the discussion, or just follow quietly and allow the new ideas to marinate and develop in your mind for a while. Now, you obviously know this since you are here already, which leads to my third suggestion.

My third suggestion - there are plenty of free lectures to attend on university campuses which are open to the public (but usually poorly advertised to the public). You can stroll about the university and check out the public notice boards, ask you Grad school friends what events are happening in their departments, or visit the university website and check out the homepages of departments that are of interest to you. The quality of these lectures tend to be high. The ones I attended as a Grad student were mainly composed of non-students with a genuine interest in the subject matter, and a significant minority of hungry people there for free food. Even if you are not close to a university, local community centres and libraries may also have interesting guest speakers that do not charge attendees. Bookstores are fantastic ways to find out about local events - a specialty bookstore that carries a lot of gender studies material is an excellent place to look for posters on upcoming debates and events. Similarly, if you are interested in spiritual matters, religious bookstores and spiritual supply shops are great places to check out for information and advice. Some comic shops will advertise meetings or "game nights" for people to discuss their favorite artistic mediums. You can also look online for meetup groups that gather to enjoy conversation with new people, or debate specific matters (just avoid the ones that are obviously intended for finding dates).

My next suggestion links back to my first, and it is to interact genuinely with people who at first glance may not strike you as the studious or intellectual type. By chatting with people of all backgrounds and perspectives you will learn so many things about life that no school can teach you. Some people feel you have to go out and travel to experience this, but honestly all the experiences and cultures are right there in your community and easy to access if you have a respectful interest.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 7:19 PM on May 26 [5 favorites]

When I was in grad school, I did feel like I was getting the kind of challenge, stimulation, and perhaps intellectual validation that you're looking for, but in retrospect, it was pretty shallow. The validation especially felt great at the time. It was also the least useful to me in the long run, and if that's what you really want from engaging with others, I recommend against it.

Purely for the challenge and stimulation of it, I wish I had done in grad school more of what I do now: independent projects, pursued solely because I think they're interesting, not because they're intellectually fashionable or what my advisors like. It's not really that hard to find things to do that no one has done. You just have to dork around with something you really like long enough to spot them and then be weird enough to do them. And when you report back on that stuff, then maybe--maybe--you're the one stimulating other folks.

Simply posting to MeFi can have that quality. For example, I took a syllabus on the history of feminist video art (among other things), watched a ton of videos, and turned it into a front-page post. It generated almost no discussion, nor did finding Christmas videos to illustrate relevant rituals and pageantry for nearly every country in the world. I don't think breaking those things up would have yielded more discussion/validation/whatnot: when your arts/culture topic is niche enough, it's just not going to connect with many people for understandable reasons. But personally, I loved that stuff, loved curating it a little, learned so much from it, and have a reasonable expectation that others might have too.

If you do this kind of stuff on your own blog, you have more freedom to come up with original observations and whatnot, but validation may be even more scarce there. My blog gets very little traffic, but it got posted to MeFi by someone I didn't know, eventually leading to a bunch of stuff that would sound validating, but it wasn't really. Fortunately, the joy of it really comes just from doing it, and for most things, that's probably available anywhere.

If it has to be something academic, start with googling for "site:edu syllabus 2014 [topic you care about]" to get a current reading list. Or ask your friends for their syllabuses and copies of articles they're reading. Take note of what hasn't been discussed much on the web at large and publish your comments--someone will find them, even if they don't tell you. Use social media to let your grad-school-bound friends see what you've done, and maybe they'll engage with it. Follow the breadcrumbs they leave for you. Maybe try to attend the biggest conference in your discipline for even more. Etc., etc. Generally speaking, the ideas are easy to get access to, and the sense of success needs to come from within.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:47 PM on May 26 [13 favorites]

How about taking on a volunteer position in an area that you're interested in, but don't know much about? For instance, find a local group that's working on education or environmental issues in your area, or get involved in political activism related to some issue you care about. I do a lot of volunteer work with a local nonprofit and have found it to be a great way to meet like-minded people who are very thoughtful about the issues facing our community.
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:08 PM on May 26

I've occasionally longed to join a Great Books discussion group. There are probably some online Great Books groups as well - it's been a while since I looked, but if that sort of thing sounds interesting, "Great Books" would be a good starting search term.
posted by kristi at 8:18 PM on May 26 [1 favorite], also MIT has online free classes I believe?

You could also get syllabi for college courses and visit your local library to read the books assigned. You could keep a blog where you write about and review the books you are reading.
posted by bearette at 8:22 PM on May 26

Meetup might have things of interest to you. And you could check out university extension courses. You could even try to start up a Plato Society modeled on the one in LA.
posted by Dansaman at 9:38 PM on May 26


Make your own art. Make that the center of everything.

Make yourself better at making your own art. Read everything you can. Attend relevant lectures and classes. Get out and meet other people who work in the same media. Get workshop space somewhere, preferably where you are mixing with other artists.

Show your art. Actual art in actual art shows. Put the pressure on yourself to complete your pieces and be great.


Make yourself an expert. Choose a subject you love and decide that you are going to be the local expert in this subject. How to do something, create something, eliminate something, recognize something, raise something, improve something.

Focus your area of expertise as you expand your geography. You don't know about every whatever in the world, but you are an absolute expert on a particular kind of whatever. Eventually you are recognized by others in the field as the top expert on whatever in Miami, and then in the state of Florida, and so on. There may not be much call for knowledge of whatever in the state of Florida, but when someone does need to know about whatever, when a reporter needs a quote about whatever, when a news show needs a talking head about whatever, everyone says you are the only person to call.

Whatever could be stained glass, a certain hummingbird, deciding when and where to open a restaurant, Fiat 126 restoration, famous local landmark, famous local person, etc. Get so you can write scholarly papers for relevant journals and lighter articles for newspapers. You may not know much about most things, but you know more than literally everyone else in the world about whatever.
posted by pracowity at 12:11 AM on May 27 [5 favorites]

bearette has it. What you're looking for is a MOOC -- a massive open online course. Go check out Coursera, EdX, Udacity ... and many more. The good ones are very challenging indeed, with vigorous communities of students who discuss the material and assignments together (and interact with the faculty).
posted by dontjumplarry at 5:26 AM on May 27

Have you searched for meet ups in your area? (Or start your own!)
posted by oceano at 5:47 AM on May 27

Unless you're in a small town, there are likely plenty of others in your exact situation. If the book clubs you've tried weren't what you want, you should try to start your own through word of mouth, meetup, Craigslist, etc.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:22 AM on May 27

Without knowing what you tried in terms of online courses, I would be surprised if there wasn't something out there that wasn't deep enough. As someone mentioned, you can get courses online from MIT, and other top schools. Resources include Coursera, Udacity, iTunes U, and more.

To help reinforce your learning and do something useful with it, you could perhaps expand or edit Wikipedia entries on the topics you become expert in?
posted by StrawberryPie at 7:17 AM on May 27

I am in a similar situation - In London I have found that there are some more intellectual Reading Groups that are attached to Universities. Mostly for students but they seem open to outsiders and that has provided me with more deep discussion groups than friends who often don't have the same academic interests.

I have also tried a variety of MOOCs and Online courses but found them as you say very shallow and unfulfilling. I'm considering doing an MA just as a way back into more academic arenas.

In London there are a lot of academic conferences on Philosophy, Critical Theory, etc that I keep track of though you should be able to search by Miami on there.

I am slowly finding little niches around in London of courses and reading groups that cover more literary pursuits but it has taken some time. Reading groups can lead to other things and if you try the Events pages of any nearby universities - they usually have RSS feeds that can help.
posted by mary8nne at 7:22 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

If you're like me, MOOCs and the like are only engaging up to a point because there's no in-person element. I like going to lectures, panels, readings, and other public events.

TedX can be rather self-promote-y (it's not heavily curated and invite-only like Ted Talks are) but it looks like there's one in Miami and the recent featured speaker is a scientist:

And this Miami Herald event calendar has some gems mixed in with kids' events. The Miami New Times might also do lecture/book listings.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 8:14 AM on May 27

For what it's worth, I don't remember a lot of mind-expanding discussions in grad school. Granted, I was doing a professional program and going part-time. But still. I think a lot of the deep discussions people have in undergrad have less to do with the academic setting than they have to do with 1) having vast amounts of unscheduled time and 2) being all up in each other's business all the time (I still have those types of conversations with the people I spend the most time with).

I actually probably had more awesome discussions at occasional and rare professional workshops I attended, so maybe see if there are any workshops you're interested in (if they're local and related to your job, maybe you can even get time off work to attend).

I would also encourage you to volunteer somewhere with an educational mission - museums are great, or maybe TEACH one of those continuing ed classes, or whatever. You get to interact with people (the museum visitors/students) who are interested in what you're teaching, and the other volunteers and staff are also often really interesting people. I worked and volunteered at a science museum for many years (including while I was in grad school) and it forced me to do a lot of thinking out loud that was incredibly stimulating for me.

I've also had some great, stimulating discussions talking to friends of friends, at a feminist knitting group, at drinks after a movie meet-up...
posted by mskyle at 9:40 AM on May 27

Wait, all your friends are going back to graduate school and you're beating the bushes for good intellectual discussion? Why aren't your friends bringing home ideas worth discussing when you get together? Either they're not that into what they're studying or they should be bumping into things that are fun to chew over -- if it's the former, then you shouldn't feel too left out, and if it's the latter, you just need to find the right questions to get them off and running.

Smart friends that you already have, for the win!!
posted by acm at 10:03 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

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