Class starts with silence, and breath.
Fill the balloons that are your lungs, the professor says, then empty them completely.
“Thank yourself for making it to class,” she adds. “There’s nothing that happened in the past you can change at this time. There’s nothing you need to attend to right now that cannot wait one hour. What a joy, to be—for an hour—in one place.”
It’s a Wednesday in April, just past noon. A dozen or so students are gathered virtually in a Zoom room, inhaling and exhaling and summoning their attention for a brisk lunchtime lesson filled with music and poetry.
The course is called Transformations. It teaches the basics of critical thinking, research and academic writing. It’s designed for students new to the University of Virginia—but not entirely new to higher education. They’re all adults enrolled in the university’s online Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program. Each of them has already earned at least 45 college credits—equal to about three semesters—and desires to complete a degree.
Yet many of the students want more than that, too. They have goals for their careers, their families, their communities. They want to read and write and think.
Some worry whether they’re ready. Yet their professors believe in them. Year by year, these adults have gathered threads of wisdom, which the university now invites them to weave into the great tapestry of the liberal arts.
“These folks come with lots of experiences, whether it’s from jobs or family life, and maybe nobody’s taken the time to really hear their story yet,” says associate professor Charlotte Matthews, who teaches Transformations.
The syllabus is structured to inspire confidence and courage. During the semester, students read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” “The Secret Life of Bees” and “They Say/I Say.” They watch TED Talks. They practice polishing sentences. They write brief papers and give short oral reports, building skills and stamina they eventually will need to complete and present a capstone research project, their final assignment before they graduate.
Getting to that finish line starts here, in this hour carved out of a hectic week. After students practice breathing, they listen to a YouTube video of Yo-Yo Ma playing “Appalachia Waltz” on the cello. Then they read and discuss a poem, “What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade,” which starts like this:
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer.
She took questions on how not to feel lost in the dark
The professor explains the next assignment for the course. It’s a literature review, due several weeks from now on the last day of the semester. Students will need to craft a research question, read relevant sources and synthesize what they learn in a short paper.
The exercise aims to get students comfortable using the university library. So when one student says she plans to study the Bermuda Triangle, the professor recommends that she ask a librarian—maybe the one who talked to the class earlier in the semester—to help her curate a reading list of secondary sources.
“You don’t want to read 30 articles,” the professor says, “you want to read seven.”
As for primary sources, the professor suggests looking for a map, or a ship’s record, or a diary entry. A document that no one else has interpreted. Uncharted waters, ripe for exploration, where a student can sail as far and fast as she can, under her own flag—then record notes from her voyage for the next adventurer to find.
When it comes to research, the professor says, “We’re always entering into the conversation.”
The Bermuda Triangle. It’s a mystery that 40-year-old Ruth Cady Bell has wondered about since the fourth grade. That year, she had a teacher who used to be a sailor.
“He had sailed all the way up and down the East Coast. And he told us these vivid stories about the Bermuda Triangle,” Ruth Cady says. “I mean, he probably made them all up, but I specifically remember being in awe of this man.”
It’s not a topic Ruth Cady thought she’d ever be researching seriously. Especially not for a college course. Especially not one at the University of Virginia.
“I’ve always put UVa on a pedestal,” she says. “My entire family are graduates of UVa.”
At the all-girls boarding high school that Ruth Cady attended in a small Virginia town, she recalls being a middling student. Her family’s alma mater didn’t seem like an option for her. So she made plans to study dance and singing at East Carolina University—far enough away from home, but not too far away.
By March 2000, during her senior year of high school, Ruth Cady was chatting with her assigned freshman roommate. She was preparing to audition for a performing arts scholarship. She was feeling a little funny, so she took a pregnancy test.
It was positive.
Ruth Cady had been a dancer since she was three years old. It was the path she wanted to pursue—the only path. With her pregnancy progressing, though, she set that goal aside.
“That was the only dream that I knew,” she says. Releasing it made her question her identity. “Who am I gonna be without this? And then wait a minute, I’m gonna be a mom? I’m 18 and I’m going, ‘Wait, what the hell? What is happening?’”
After her daughter was born, Ruth Cady enrolled in two classes at a local community college: psychology and biology. They seemed like useful prerequisites for … something. To support herself and her child, she got a real estate license and worked for an attorney who specialized in property law. Then, between working and caring for her baby, Ruth Cady got too busy for school.
“Single motherhood and college don’t mix,” she says. “Well, at the time it didn’t—that was 22 years ago.”
A friend set Ruth Cady up on a blind date with a Marine. They clicked. They were married in a courthouse, hoping to have a bigger ceremony and a honeymoon later on. As a military spouse, Ruth Cady might have qualified for financial support for higher education, but her household income, though modest, was too high for scholarships. Besides, her new family moved around a lot, never long enough for Ruth Cady to pursue college in person.
“And then there were deployments, deployments, deployments, and that’s not conducive to going to school,” Ruth Cady says. When she worked as a liaison between the Marine Corps and families of deployed troops, she avoided reading news about what her husband’s battalion encountered abroad. “Afghanistan—the first time—was horrifying,” she says.
While her family was stationed outside of San Diego in Oceanside, California, Ruth Cady tried community college again. It was around the same time that she and her husband were trying to have another child, and their doctors weren’t optimistic.
Yet at the beginning of 2014, Ruth Cady became pregnant. She and her husband went in for an ultrasound. During the scan, the doctor remarked, “Well, that’s interesting.”
“So he starts counting heartbeats,” Ruth Cady recalls. “I will never forget. He starts counting heartbeats, and I was like, ‘Why does my baby have four hearts?’ And he was like, ‘No, you have four babies.’”
Ruth Cady’s quadruplets were born 16 weeks early. They spent five months at the hospital in intensive care. Ruth Cady spent much of that time living nearby in a Ronald McDonald House while her mother took care of her older daughter, then age 13.
Three of the babies survived. They needed many visits to therapists and doctors spread out all across California. Ruth Cady set college aside, again.
“It just wasn’t gonna happen,” she says. “And honestly, I don’t even know where the time went.”
Ruth Cady spent a lot of time waiting in medical office parking lots, watching other moms who were there for the same reason. One day, Ruth Cady had an idea. What if moms didn’t have to schlep and wait, schlep and wait, just to care for their kids who have special needs? What if there were a school that offered comprehensive care at one location?
What if Ruth Cady opened that school?
Ruth Cady had another daughter. Her family moved back to Virginia. And then her sister told her about an opportunity. She had heard that the University of Virginia offered a bachelor’s degree program designed for adults.
“I looked into it,” Ruth Cady says, “and I went, ‘Oh my God, I could actually go to UVa.’”
She learned that the program was entirely online, which meant Ruth Cady could take classes from home and still drive her kids to school and to their appointments. But it wasn’t just any online college program. It was at the university that meant so much to her family. The kind of brand-name institution that could prepare her to open the school of her dreams—and boost her reputation.
“I’m gonna have to have people invest or just work with me, and in order to convince them to come work with me, I at least have to have that education under my belt. And it’s gonna be that much more credible coming from UVa,” she says. “I wanted to go to a school that people had heard of.”
It was also a program that promised to feed Ruth Cady’s curiosity, where she could put into practice the advice she had given her oldest daughter about how to make the most of college: “Take astronomy and basket-weaving and the study of turtles—take it all.”
Ruth Cady filled out an application form online. She talked to admissions counselors. They answered her questions—even the ones she worried were dumb. They helped her round up the community college credits she had earned over two decades.
“I felt so intimidated talking to them: ‘I’m almost 40, about to restart school, please help me,’” Ruth Cady recalls. “They were so helpful and kind about the entire thing.”
This spring, Ruth Cady enrolled in her first two UVa courses. She drops her kids off at their school at 8:30 a.m., then comes home to dive into her own studies, completing modules for her childhood development class at her own pace. At noon on Mondays and Wednesdays, she logs in to Transformations.
For Ruth Cady’s literature review, she researches an enduring mystery. Unlike at community college, where she ran into digital paywalls when she looked for academic journals, she now has access to all the resources she can find. The librarian who presented to her class said that the university will even mail students books—with return postage so they can mail them back.
“And it kind of made me laugh, ’cause he said, ‘You can’t check out more than, like, 400 books at a time,’” Ruth Cady says. “Who’s gonna check out 400 books?”
As her Transformations professor recommended, she emailed a librarian to ask for support. Within 24 hours, one wrote back and helped her to identify resources. She found a map of Bermuda, some journal articles and stories published on History.com.
As Ruth Cady sits down to write, she thinks about her professor’s advice: Write your draft like you’re talking to someone in a bar. Don’t use a thesaurus for every word. Don’t overdo it.
“In hushed tones,” Ruth Cady starts, “sailors whisper tales of inexplicable occurrences within the area known as the Bermuda Triangle…”
Class starts with silence, and imagery.
Picture a white swan floating safely on a lake, the professor says. An elderly, beloved labrador dog resting on her bed. The way it feels on a February morning, when you wake up to a crisp, pristine snow and the world is ever so quiet.
It’s an exercise in rousing focus and discarding distraction. It’s how associate professor Charlotte Matthews starts class, having learned the importance of such moments over 18 years of teaching adults at the University of Virginia. Her students often call in from their jobs at the university hospital, or from homes filled with kids and pets. Many of them keep their cameras turned off so their classmates can’t peer into their habitats.
Charlotte wishes she could see her students’ faces. Nevertheless, she makes sure each of them participates. She calls them by name to answer questions. She tracks how many times each student speaks up. She coaches some to express their ideas with more confidence and others to practice better listening.
She tells students at the start of the semester that hers is “a gentle class, a calm class.” When she calls on them with a question, she doesn’t mind if they answer, “I don’t know.” She grants each student two “life happens” tokens in case they need to skip assignments, on days when, say, a child has a fever or a work shift gets rescheduled.
“They don’t have the spaciousness that your regular matriculating undergraduate has to set aside four years for their undergraduate education,” Charlotte says. “They could be driving for FedEx and doing homework at 5 a.m.”
The professor sees herself as a kind of hiking guide. She knows how far her students need to go to make it to the next campsite. She carries some food and water for them, to support their trek. But each student also bears a heavy backpack of his or her own, she says. They’re all going to get blisters along the way. She can’t carry them, nor do they need her to.
“I try to debunk that I know more, or have hierarchy,” Charlotte says.
After the imagery exercise, this Monday class session opens with a little wayfinding. Charlotte reminds her students that they have until this evening to post their chosen topics for their literature reviews on the class discussion board.
Then she offers examples of what it looks like to infuse research with passion. She shares how reading books and articles made her fascinated by Helen Keller’s life, so much so that she wrote a poem inspired by one of Keller’s brothers. She plays a folk song with lyrics based on research about the Mann Gulch fire, a blaze that killed a dozen smokejumpers in Montana in 1949.
She’s trying to show them her teaching philosophy, she explains. It comes from a quote attributed to French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Her students are thinking a little more practically, though. They ask to see an example paper. Should their essays have a thesis statement? Can they go over the instructions one more time? In breakout rooms, small groups talk about word counts and deadlines and how to correctly cite sources.
When students gather back in the main Zoom room, they share the progress they’ve made in selecting ideas. Maybe they’ll write about investing in the stock market, or shipping routes in the Chesapeake Bay, or gene editing, or the spirituality of cats, or a fungus that destroys black cherry trees.
“Fascinating,” Charlotte says.
She encourages them to lean on librarians for help. She reminds them to take a quiz by mid-afternoon. She promises to share an example essay soon.
“Thank you all for coming to class,” she says. “Namaste.”
On the first floor of the Clemons Library at the University of Virginia, there are stacks of bookshelves that expand and contract. If you crank the handle at the end of a row, the shelves start to move, revealing hidden aisles of hundreds of books.
That’s where Todd Burks goes to get a little lost.
“I have a call number and I go into the stacks to find a book, but then I see all these other things there, right? There are things above it and below it, and things that are off the topic but look very cool,” he says. “If I didn’t have to go back up to my desk and do something else, I would probably be there all day, looking up more stuff. Oh, look, this book over here! And this book is talking about that book, and I’ll go look for that. Never come out.”
Todd is not a librarian, exactly. But he does work in a library. And for two decades, he’s taught college students how to navigate the vast academic resources of a research university.
Todd is the one who showed the Transformations students how to set up their library accounts. He warned them about the book check-out limit—it’s actually capped at 500 books. He’s on call to answer questions like the one Ruth Cady asked about sources on the Bermuda Triangle.
Todd likes to help with that kind of request: how to cite an author’s work published inside an edited book, how to find a website with resources about any given topic. Years ago, a colleague gave him a nickname: Info Man. He turned that into an email address that students can use to reach him: email@example.com.
“I’m a natural know-it-all,” he says. “It helps in my job.”
When Todd talks to Transformations students, he does more than simply explain how to look up information. He teaches them about the ecosystem of academic research.
“It’s something that’s a little bit hidden from us unless we’ve gone to college,” he says.
He explains that some people’s daily work revolves around research. That they devote days, years, lifetimes to understanding a sliver of biology, physics, history. That they are connected to other researchers around the world who are asking similar questions.
“They’re all communicating with each other. They’re all trying to understand what each other is doing,” Todd says. “They’re building on each other’s work, or maybe they’re arguing with each other.”
Todd explains how students can start to add their threads to this web of knowledge. He invites them to transform from students into scholars.
“They have the option to participate in this bigger world of scholarship,” he says. “That’s the sense I try to give them: You’re not just writing a paper to get a grade, A or B. You’re also part of this big thing, this human endeavor—that’s kind of cool.”
Todd is not a librarian, technically, because he doesn’t have a degree in library science. He doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree in anything—yet.
Todd, too, is enrolled in the University of Virginia’s program for adult learners. He started out in Transformations.
He had tried higher education before, back in 1980, when he was fresh out of high school. He had no idea at the time that he could get loans to pay for his studies, so he worked to get enough money to pay course by course at a community college in Oregon. He “wandered off” without earning a degree.
In 1998, Todd got a job at the University of Virginia’s bookstore. Then in 2000, he took a position as an administrative assistant at Clemons.
“Working in the library is just a dream,” he says. “I could never have imagined I could work in a library. My 18-year-old self would be like, ‘Really, you do that? That’s cool.’”
In 2008, Todd enrolled again in community college, taking one course at a time. He paid for those credits with tuition-assistance funds that the University of Virginia gives its employees. That financial support “made all the difference,” Todd says, enabling him to earn an associate degree and enough credits to enroll in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program.
Earning a college degree is a personal goal for Todd, whose wife teaches clinical psychology at the university. Not so much for the career opportunities the credential might create; Todd says he’s at the age where he sees retirement on the horizon. It’s because he loves to learn. And people seem to expect it of him, he says, since he’s always dropping references to facts he has learned in books and documentaries.
“I’m kind of like a sponge. I just want more, more, tell me more about that, tell me more about that—I can’t get enough,” he says. “I would probably be reading these same books anyway, but I can get a degree doing that.”
Todd is now working on his capstone research project. He plans to graduate in December—and then keep learning as voraciously as ever.
“Because of the classes I’ve taken, I have a bigger reading list now than I’ve ever had before,” he says. “So I’ve got a lot to do but I won’t have to get a grade for it. And I’ve got the UVa library at my fingertips—fantastic.”
Todd has focused his own research on art history. In January 2019, he spent two weeks studying abroad in Paris with UVa’s adult learner program, touring Victor Hugo’s home and examining the author’s handwritten notes for “Les Miserables.” On Todd’s free day, he headed to the Louvre, arriving early enough to enter as soon as the museum opened.
“I stayed there for seven hours, absorbing the art, just sponging it all up,” he says. “I could see either the artist or specific works that we had studied in different classes that I had taken. So it was just wonderful.”
Todd likes to think about cathedrals—Romanesque, Gothic—with their sculpture, stained glass and architectural finery. He wonders about the people who made all of that. When did they do that work? How?
And, most mysterious of all, why?
“It just fascinates me that people are compelled to do this,” Todd says. “What intrigues me, too, about a lot of these medieval and Renaissance churches and the artwork is that we don’t even know who these people were. They’re not famous. It’s not Leonardo da Vinci. It’s just some guy who wanted to make something beautiful, and we can see their work, and they might have spent their whole life creating this church.”
Carving a gargoyle on a grand cathedral. Writing an essay about a timeless text. Maybe these actions arise from the same impulse.
“I think people like a sense that they’re part of something bigger,” Todd says. “That can make them feel like they’re not by themselves.”
He pauses to think.
“That is the construction of many, many hands over time,” he says.
Speaking Your Truth
Class starts with silence, and a mantra.
For the next hour, Charlotte tells her students, remember that you have nothing to do but this.
It’s the last day of Transformations. The literature review is due tonight. One more assignment remains between now and then. To pass the course, each student must teach the class, for no more than five minutes, about any topic he or she chooses.
When it’s Ruth Cady’s turn, she talks about what she calls the most interesting part of herself—her family. There are details she shares: about how her oldest daughter is now in college, too, about what it was like to give birth to quadruplets and lose one, about how she dreams of opening a school for children like her own.
There are details she doesn’t share. About how a teacher back in high school told her that a teen mom would never succeed in college. About how she’s not sure what higher education will look like for her young children who have autism and attention-deficit disorders. About the lessons she hopes her own college journey might someday teach them.
“I want them to know that you can do it, whenever and however it looks,” Ruth Cady says later. “I’m not going to a physical campus. I’m not 18 and going into a big lecture hall. But it is possible to do it and all the other things at the same time.”
Other students teach about their dogs, their children and learning to swim; Frederick Douglass and Virginia creeper; disliking P.E. class and loving the Super Bowl; ancient coins, avocados and astrology; and that time America exploded a nuclear bomb in outer space.
“Fascinating,” Charlotte says with feeling.
She congratulates her students for completing the assignment, and the semester. For learning to relax when they speak and write. For discovering the power of breath, brevity, bravery.
She offers one last poem: “Desiderata.” Remember what peace there may be in silence, she reads. Take kindly the counsel of the years. And:
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
“That is my favorite poem of all time!” a student writes in the chat box.
A few minutes after 1 p.m., the bonds loosen. Summer calls. Class dismissed.
“Thank you very much for a wonderful semester,” Charlotte says, as her students vanish from the screen.