Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

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A Successful Evening!

Last night we celebrated two years of Sphere College! We sponsored the film Amélie at the Colonial Theatre and had a very nice crowd in attendance. People heard about it through an article in the Pottstown Mercury, a couple of spots I did at WPAZ 1370AM (I learned last night who won the tickets by calling in to WPAZ!), on Facebook, and by word of mouth. Before the film, Frank Wolfe, poet, artist, entertainer and student in Sphere College performed a well-received opening monologue introducing the audience to him as a person and as a student. After the show a group of attendees went across the street to Artisan’s Gallery and Cafe for a discussion of the film. What a pleasure it was to celebrate two years of Sphere College!

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Two Years?

That’s right: two years! The second anniversary of Sphere College is coming up on Wednesday, April 20. To celebrate, we’re hosting the film Amélie in the Colonial Theatre at 7:30pm. Mark your calendars! Come out and enjoy this spectacular film ON THE BIG SCREEN and support a new, innovative form of education!

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This Week’s Class

This week we will hold the third class in our newly structured 10-week session. This session is entitled “The Art of Communication”.

We have been unable to raise sufficient funds to continue classes in the Colonial Theatre for the time being, so we are grateful to Jody Salen of Step by Step Fitness in Phoenixville for donating her space for the continuation of our classes. We are deeply indebted to the Theatre for their generous support for such a long time—one year and four months! We look forward to returning when we reach the point of financial viability. In fact, ultimately we plan to establish mutually beneficial relationships with many local businesses.

The theme of the 10-week session originally began as “The Art of Conversation”, after the essay by Michel de Montaigne, “On The Art of Conversation”. In the first class we worked together to create the syllabus for the session. We wish to provide more balance in the classes, incorporating the arts, sciences and humanities, so in the Steering Committee meeting we expanded the theme to “The Art of Communication” and brainstormed a list of about 14 suggestions for what we might do and brought them to the class. By constructing the syllabus together in class we get practice with our communication skills, and ensure that the students select classes in which they have a vested interest. It also serves as a marker for our current communication abilities. We didn’t complete the syllabus in the first class, and continued it for the first hour of the second class when we arrived at a robust consensus.

In the second hour we began a stimulating discussion of the Montaigne essay. We will continue this discussion in the first hour of class this week, then we will begin discussing a chapter of the book, Theory U by Otto Scharmer, “Conversational Actions”, contributed by one of the students, Wes Frazier. This chapter has already had a profound influence on how I conceive of the field in which conversations take place. We will continue this discussion in the fourth class. I’m very excited to see what effect exploration of this topic will have on the students, both individually and as a class.

In classes 5-7 I will do a three week experiential segment on Computer Communication, describing at a high level what the Internet is, how it came to be, how machines communicate and how we interact with technology. Since time is short I will only be able to whet the appetites of students for more in-depth study, but I imagine it will change the way the students conceive of online interaction.

In classes 8-10 three of the students, Frank, Virginia and Jonathan are constructing an art-based segment connected with the theme of the entire session. It will also strongly tie in the topic of Phase I of the Sphere College Program: “Self and Other”.

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Classes Continue

We had another very interesting class on Thursday night. We had planned to discuss the first chapter of Looking for Spinoza, but we never got around to it. Usually when something like that happens, it’s a very good class. Instead, we ended up using the entire time discussing two primary things: our transition to a new structure for Phase I: Self and Other, and use of the phrase “free or pay-if-you-can college”.

The new structure comes about for multiple reasons:

  • The College has not yet attained a state in which income exceeds expenses.
  • Michael is in the process of developing his business and writing a book.
  • Richard must seek income in order to continue to support himself and the College.
  • With feedback from class discussions, the Steering Committee has adopted a structure that will provide us with a more tangible entity that gives us all more of a feeling of direction.

The new form of the College will be as follows:

  • Marking the transition there will be no class on Thursday, July 29. Instead we will have a Reflection and Recognition Potluck Dinner at Michael’s home on July 31.
  • We will move to quarters of 12 weeks with 10 classes, leaving time to breathe and prepare for the next quarter. The first class of the first quarter will meet on Thursday, August 5. Plans are to continue in the Colonial Theatre, but they will soon need us to begin paying for the space so we may be hunting for another location.
  • Topics treated in the next quarter will be determined ahead of time. The subject matter will emerge from both the class facilitator—most likely, me (Richard)—and from suggestions from students.
  • As always, we are soliciting feedback from the students about how this new form of the College is working for them and we will work to incorporate their suggestions.

The discussion about use of the phrase “free or pay-if-you-can” was a very open, honest discussion emphasizing the importance of language and thinking clearly and as thoroughly as possible about the implications of a move like this. Instead of trying to recapture all the positions and nuances of the discussion here I’ll just mention that we really felt as though we were getting into important concepts. For example, we began to come to grips with what our ideals really are, and what we do when they come into conflict. I also felt as though we were actively putting into practice the material we recently discussed in the classes, Crucial Conversations, which made me feel quite proud. And as we discovered great differences in how people reacted to the phrase under discussion we were also learning a great deal about Self and Other, which is part of the point of what we’re doing. This, too, made me feel proud. So to my mind the College is working, albeit not exactly as I had envisioned. But things never really turn out exactly as one expects, do they?

Meanwhile, since I appear not to have learned enough about how to raise funds for such a forward-thinking insitution as Sphere College (I really thought it would be a lot easier—I mean, it seems to me that people are ready for real change that can only be brought about through a more compassionate, thoughtful population!), I’m putting myself on the market for a software management position that can help me support my education habit. So if you know of anything in the Phoenixville area, please do let me know.

By the way, we didn’t come to a conclusion in the class about the phrase “free or pay-if-you-can”, but we do have a great deal more to discuss in the next Steering Committee meeting. And this week we’re taking a break from the class since the Colonial Theatre needs the space for their biggest event of the year: Blobfest!

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A Pound of Flesh

On the heels of the first anniversary celebration on Tuesday night last week we had a fantastic class on Thursday night. The discussion was about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Why are we reading/discussing Shakespeare? Well, for several reasons. My former students at Ursinus College have been doing book drives collecting texts that Sphere College students can use. In fact, I have stacks of texts in my kitchen waiting to be handed out: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Galileo, Genesis, The Qur’an, The Bhagavad-Gita and more. In Sphere College we go in the direction students choose to go given our interests and the resources at hand. I had a stack of Merchant, and a number of the students thought that it would be a good experience to approach Shakespeare, so there we go.

Shakespeare proves to be a very rich source of material for exploring ‘Self and Other’. Our discussion included gender similarities and differences, the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law, the nature of bargains, morality questions related to charging interest for loans, what the implications are for an economy based on loans for growth, how social norms in one society can affect social attitudes in seemingly remote societies, and other topics.

We’ll be continuing with Merchant this Thursday night, then move on to something brought in by one of the students.

In the meantime, I continue working to build the infrastructure of the College during a time of economic difficulty. But hey, I do love a challenge—particularly one that will have such a huge payoff in its affect on our society: a practical program of education for adults that allows them to go through the transformation they wish to go through. Frankly, I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t think of anything at all that would have greater positive influence. Stay tuned! Help out!

And as always we welcome your financial support. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount—any amount will help. Just visit the DONATE! page and make a small, tax-deductable contribution. It will help us pay for the people who are making this possible (right now that’s me, Michael and Virginia), it will help defray costs for creating and printing brochures and mailing materials, for purchasing supplies, and it will pay for our memberships—we belong to the Phoenixville Area Time Bank, and we very recently joined the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia!

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The Speech

During our first anniversary celebration on Tuesday night I gave a speech about the founding of the College, it’s current state and future vision. I’ve received positive feedback on it, so I thought I would reproduce it here for those who were unable to attend. I’ll also expand on a couple of items that could use some fleshing out.

In class last Thursday night we went around the table talking a bit about our relationship to the material we were studying. I spoke for a bit about myself and the motivation for founding Sphere College, and I thought it would be useful to repeat it here to frame what it is that we’re doing:

I was born and raised in rural South Carolina. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to take as long as it may seem from that introduction! I grew up going around barefoot and saying “ain’t”. Like the childhoods of most people, it was a beautiful and horrible existence, and I thought I was unable to do anything useful in the world.

In the sixth grade I had a math teacher (I don’t recall her name right now, but will find out and add it) told me I had a good brain in my head and I wasn’t using it. (In class I misspoke and said “told me I had a good brain on my head”. We had a bit of a chuckle at that.) What she said caused a shift in my self-image and I cried. A lot. But from then on I excelled at math.

When I went to college I studied music—my mother was a piano teacher—and became a very accomplished musician, performing with some of the best in the world. But while living in NYC I realized that I had not sufficiently satisfied my curiosity for mathematics and computers, so I then became a software engineer. But I knew I loved teaching, so I earned my Ph.D. in Computer Science at Georgia Tech.

I had become accomplished in the arts and the sciences, but I knew that the humanities was missing, so I sought a job in a small liberal arts college in the northeast so that I could absorb the humanities by being in close proximity with professors who were in the humanities. It worked. I was pleased to land a position on the faculty of Ursinus College. The great advantage of Ursinus was that all professors are expected to teach the freshman seminar course, CIE: Common Intellectual Experience, essentially a humanities course, from time to time. Now, in my first class meeting I explained to the students, “Hey, I’m a Computer Science professor. If you think I’m going to teach this material TO you, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. We’re going to learn this material together.” I think they appreciated my honesty and really dug in.

The material in the class seems to have had the intended effect, not only on the students but on me as well. I came to understand that what I really want to do is to provide an environment in which students can really identify and pursue their dreams.

Ursinus and I parted ways. (Oh, we’re friends… I stay in contact with many of my former colleagues and students. In fact, students at Ursinus go on book drives to collect texts from the CIE classes and donate them to Sphere College.) As I was looking for another college in which to teach, I began as a good software engineer would: by defining my requirements. So I designed the most sensible educational program I could think of.

It makes the most sense to first help the student identify what they want to accomplish with their lives. This would take as long as it takes for the student, and would involve learning more about oneself and others, and how similarly and differently people think, and being aware of important issues facing our society. Once this is established, then the student would need to acquire the skills to accomplish their life goals. This means working with the student to develop an individualized, interdisciplinary curriculum around their passion. Then each students needs to put their knowledge into action while gaining practical experience.

I then thought about who deserves to be able to learn in such a program. The answer was clear: anyone who has the desire to, whether they have money or not. And if everyone has access to this kind of education, then it would likely be transformative for our society.

When I went looking for a college with this kind of program, I didn’t find it. So I decided to start it myself. This satisfied another goal: to remain in Phoenixville, which I had come to love.

So I founded Sphere College. Why the name? Well, I didn’t want to name it after me (Liston College? Liston University? No, thanks.) or the area. And the word “sphere” can be a nice metaphor for many things: the inner and outer self, self and other, an image of perfection for which to strive, and hey, it’s Thelonious Monk’s middle name!

Well, we’ve been going strong for one year now. We’ve got a very solid core group of students who have studied a wide range of material including Gilgamesh, Genesis, Galileo, Goethe, Graph Theory, Game Theory (yeah, lots of ‘G’s there!) the Bhagavad-Gita, Rudolph Steiner, Plato, Aristotle, Wendell Berry, and many other topics. Sure, it’s heavily weighted to the philosophical, but that’s what the students selected. Currently we’re doing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and will soon move on to another topic suggested by a student.

We also have a Steering Committee made up of students and faculty that meets once a week that makes fundamental decisions about how the college will unfold, and we all learn from this process, and a fundraising committee that did a great deal of work putting together the first anniversary celebration. And speaking of faculty, how lucky are we to have Michael Reddy, who has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from the University of Chicago, is an accomplished guitarist and woodworker, and has studied Native American shamanism for 20 years, to be on the faculty? Well, pretty lucky. And we’ve done all this on a shoestring budget!

What’s the future vision for Sphere College? Imagine us one year from now with around 100 students and 10 diverse faculty members in a space of our own—which we’re currently working to acquire, by the way—where we are exploring the education that we are passionate about, forming strong relationships with businesses in the area and working together to take the College in its next direction. This to me, and I hope to you, too, seems like a vision worth making a reality.

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It’s Here!

Tonight we celebrate one year of classes of Sphere College!

My, how time flies! We’ve come a long way, but we must keep our nose to the grindstone. Good things come to he who waits, but the waiting is the hardest part. Oh, I could go on and on listing clichés now, particularly with the help of websites that list clichés. But what we’re doing is trying to create new human experiences—the feeling of being deeply connected with one another. It will be a good day when this feeling is worthy of cliché. I do hope you’ll join us tonight and we can work on establishing the connected feeling that, in my humble opinion, is all too rare.

What exactly is it that we’re celebrating? Well, this is a milestone on a journey into something that truly has never been accomplished before. And trust me, as good of an idea it is to provide free, high-quality education to adults, it’s a seemingly impossible task to many people—particularly to many of the very people who truly have the means to make it happen! It’s surprisingly easy for us to believe that as a world society have already done it all—climbed mount everest, conquered all the lands, explored space, created all kinds of artistic expression, established that we can completely destroy the earth. Is there anything left to do?

Of course! And you know what it is: to bring people together to really communicate with each other. To learn how to be patient with one another, to understand that we all see the world in radically different ways and that instead of living in conflict and trying to get each other to see things our way (because we’re so convinced that our way of looking at the world is the right way) we can learn to experience the world through all the senses of another. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that there are many, many other worlds out there to explore—our complex, beautiful, scary, wonderful world as experienced by other people—and that doing so opens us up to extraordinary experiences.

So please join us tonight, Tuesday, April 20 at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville for the Sphere College First Anniversary Celebration. We’ll have a reception at 6pm, a presentation at 7pm, the Sphere College Short Film Contest screening at 7:30, and the fantastic feature film, Living in Oblivion, a self-referential comedy with excellent acting about independent filmmaking, at 8pm. Come talk to the students about their experiences—what we’ve been doing and learning together. And find out what we hope to accomplish in the future.

Whether or not you are able to join us in person for the celebration tonight, and I know there are many who will be there in spirit, I invite you in whatever way you can to become a part our journey to chart the truly unknown territory of bringing humanity closer together.

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Letz Put Those Social Networkz to Work!

It’s tomorrow night! What??? You don’t know about the Sphere College First Anniversary Celebration on Tuesday, April 20 at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville?! You don’t know about the reception at 6pm, the presentation at 7pm, the Sphere College Short Film Contest screening at 7:30, and the fantastic feature film, Living in Oblivion, a self-referential comedy with excellent acting about independent filmmaking, at 8pm?! Well, now you do, so please join us in the celebration! And let’s all do what we can to make this a big, fun event. Use your social networkz to contact everyone on the planet and bring them out to celebrate with us. Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, texting, whatever. Yes, I mean it… do it right now before you forget! Ok, I’ll say it… pretty please?

Oh yeah, although this is primarily a celebration, we’ll also be raising funds to help the college move into a space and build the infrastructure of people who can handle the myriad tasks associated with providing a FREE education that WORKS to the huge population of adults who desire and deserve to learn! So stop by the ATM on your way so you can purchase some raffle tickets. There is a variety of items and you just may want to try to go home one of them.

FYI, here’s the press release. We look forward to seeing you there!

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We’re Almost There!

In just two days Sphere College will reach its first anniversary. We’re celebrating with an event at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville.

It’s been a rewarding, difficult, exciting, growing, bonding, and fascinating year. After the reception at 6pm I’ll be giving a speech at 7pm. I’ve been thinking a lot about the form and content of the speech. I’ve observed many speeches of this kind, but never given one.

Ok, I’ll admit it: giving speeches has never been my forte. To give this kind of speech I have to step very far outside my comfort zone. But this is exactly what I’m asking my students to do in pursuing their education, so I know I must rise to the occasion.

Actually, my greatest concern is not being able to individually thank the many, many people who have made it possible for the College to make it this far. But it is not possible for me to do this. It would end up like those Oscar acceptance speeches, where the actor or director goes on and on. It would be tedious for the audience to hear a list of names of people they don’t know. But there truly are so many people I’m indebted to who have given their time and energy to this seemingly impossible project. So I’m going to have to strike a balance. I’ll do my best.

We do hope you’ll join us for this celebration. Come, share some food with us, meet the students, meet Michael Reddy, meet the members of the Steering Committee, the Advisory Group, the Fundraising Committee, and all the other people who are supporting Sphere College in so many ways. Enjoy the entries to the first annual Sphere College Short Film Contest, and the feature film, Living in Oblivion—a comedy with some fantastic acting. And hey, why not bring a little cash so you can purchase tickets for the very fine raffle items collected by members of the Fundraising Committee, and provide some financial support the ongoing activities of the College?

We look forward to having you celebrate with us on Tuesday night!

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Passing the Baton

Really great class last night. And it was the first night I got to participate completely in the role of student!

I passed the baton to Michael Reddy, who is taking over responsibility for the Thu night class. What a relief to have someone so capable of managing a discussion! And I get to learn along with the other students. That’s a large part of the idea here: a college administration that understands that we’re all learning together.

The discussion last night was a reading, suggested by one of the students, involving the metaphor of the earth as Divine Mother. We learned a lot about Self and Other in the process.

Next up, we’ll consider masculine/feminine in the character Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

DON’T FORGET: Join us for the Sphere College First Anniversary Celebration? It’s Tuesday, April 20 at the historic Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville. Reception at 6pm, presentation at 7pm, screening entries to the Sphere College Short Film Contest at 7:30, feature film, Living in Oblivion at 8pm. Here’s the press release. Come on out! Bring friends! Bring enemies! bring random strangers!