Anyone can teach at FURL

Published: June 30, 2022

The Free University of River Landing (FURL) is a lifelong learning program that makes it possible for residents to learn about a wide range of different subjects from a rather surprising group of experts — each other.

The majority of FURL classes are taught by fellow residents, drawing on the richly diverse backgrounds and interests of the people who make up the River Landing at Sandy Ridge community.

“The residents here are so interesting and knowledgeable,” says Jim Killacky, a resident who brought the idea of FURL to campus and, along with a work group of several other residents, helps develop a slate of courses for fall and spring.

“(FURL) works because it is a healthy way for residents to be involved, respond to that innate human curiosity and share what we know,” Jim says.

Since starting in 2019, the classes have been a big success, covering a variety of fascinating subjects. This past spring, for example, FURL included a dozen different courses on topics, such as: the era of big band music; the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland in 1914; Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns; the U.S. in World War I; an introduction to genealogy; computer basics; creative writing; and even a course on the history of the land on which River Landing was built.

“We’ve had no duds so far,” Jim adds. “The residents who come forward to teach really know their stuff.”

The classes vary in the number of sessions depending on the amount of material the resident leading the session plans to cover, from one to as many as six sessions that meet once a week for about an hour. Some courses are more like discussions, where participants form small groups. Other sessions are more hands on, while some are more traditional lectures with time for questions at the end.

FURL has been so successful that many residents sign up for multiple courses. The courses are even open to future residents. However, registration in advance is required for all participants. That way, the session leaders know how much space and materials they may need. “If a course is over-subscribed, often we can add another session,” explains Jim.

FURL was developed by Jim and other residents at the community in 2019 to provide more robust and diverse opportunities for learning. According to Jim, the resident-led approach makes the sessions less academic and more approachable.

Jim formed a work group to help guide the process of coming up with class subjects based on suggestions and ideas from other residents. Once they have a list of classes, the work group then assigns a liaison to reach out and work with the resident or residents who have the knowledge and desire to lead a class in a specific subject. Resident services staff members Brian Stroud and Sydney Spering help make sure the residents have the technology they need for the sessions. “They do a fabulous job,” Jim adds. 

And if anyone has an idea for a class, they can always suggest it and collaborate with the FURL work group to make it happen.

If the idea behind this free university sounds familiar, you’re right. Jim points out that the idea is based on the notion that “anyone can teach. And anyone can learn.” Jim helped establish this same approach to learning in the 1970s throughout the rural communities of Kansas while he was Director of Outreach at Kansas State University. Jim later wrote his dissertation at Harvard University on the subject.

“I never anticipated that (decades later) I’d be doing this here,” he says. “It’s such a privilege to have a hand in creating this… for all residents it lets you know that you are a contributor and what you have to say is important.”

A list of FURL courses for fall 2022 will appear in an upcoming issue of the community’s EnCompass newsletter, along with times, locations and how to register.

Jim retired from Appalachian State University in June 2013 before moving to Greensboro, having dedicated much of his career to community and higher education. “Helen and I were married the following September and have been living happily ever after,” he says. The couple moved to River Landing in March 2018. “We don’t have a day go by without thinking about how thankful we are to be at River Landing.”

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