Teaching Yourself. A Course of One's Own

In economist by training, Claire Reid was tired of taking a backseat whenever she and her husband got together with friends and talk veered to the news.

"All current events tie back to a historical event," she explains, "and everyone around the table would chime in with historical references." None more so than her husband, George, an Atlanta lawyer and avid history buff. "I saw a real gap in my knowledge," she adds, and she set out to fill it.

At the time, she worked full time - so she devised a systematic way to study American history on her own time, at her own pace, in her own house.

She joined countless others who have developed independent study programs - tailoring their pursuits to their specific interests and learning styles.

The result can be a program with a well-defined end, such as learning Spanish well enough to read Cervantes in the original. It can be a project limited to one summer vacation. Or it can evolve into a lifestyle.

Whatever the case, there are two identifiable keys to success: commitment and flexibility. As Mrs. Reid worked her way from Paul Revere to Richard Nixon - a voyage that ended up lasting almost seven years - she read nothing but the prescribed book on her night table.

Newspapers were the only exception. Even if a friend recommended a novel or a book review caught her eye, she never deviated. "I figure these books will be there at the end," she says.

Robert Lawrence, a science teacher in Benton Harbor, Mich., agrees.

For years he has pursued a three-pronged independent study of literature, philosophy, and science. At lunch time these days, he will either pull out Rousseau, Heroditus's "Persian Wars" (which he deems more literary than historical), or a book by Carl Sagan. But under no circumstance will anyone ever spy him perusing the latest bestseller or a history of, say, filmmaking.

When it comes to mapping a course of study, however, the less strict the plan, the better. Kay Mussel, associate dean of academic affairs at American University in Washington, has coached many a student through independent study, and she advises nonstudents to take full advantage of their freedom by working at their own pace and adopting "an exploratory approach - you start with something and see where it leads you."

The only structure Reid imposed was that she progress chronologically. Otherwise, she says, "I let it evolve." When she realized that she remembered the material better from biographies than straight historical accounts, she "redirected." When she came across an inventor or an industrialist that helped shape a period, she made a note of it and read his biography next. Similarly, Mr. Lawrence does not map out his reading ahead of time. He lets every book dictate its sequel, with the link often proving thematic.

But Lawrence is rigid about "journalizing." "Every day I try to come up with one thought on something I've read, one perception I have not had before," he explains. "If I write it, I've learned it."

Although journals may not suit everyone, it is noteworthy that the only thing Reid says she would do differently today is take notes and keep a record of the material.

Hit the library

What also comes through time and again is that an independent study project is no more daunting than taking that first step. This can be as easy as reaching for "The Reader's Adviser," a six-volume bibliography found in most public libraries. From world literature and history, to economics, anthropology, and technology, "The Reader's Adviser" breaks down the categories into manageable subtopics and lists seminal books within each. It also gives a brief biography of the major players in each field.

Another good starting point is the library's subject catalog, although Barbara and Lee Dudley of Atlanta warn that this is never enough. They spend seven months to a year researching the history, language, economy, and art of a place they plan to visit.

They are currently reading about northern Italy in preparation for a trip in the fall, and have found that their fingers can't always do the walking. "I roam the stacks," says Mr. Dudley, "thumbing through books until I start sneezing." A scan of the index might reveal that a book on Spanish history has an interesting chapter on 16th-century Lombardy under Spanish rule. The catalog might not have easily yielded that information.

It is important also to keep in mind other libraries, from small collections in museums and historical societies to the sprawling stacks of university libraries. Although these are sometimes closed to the public or require prior arrangements, many welcome visitors.

While university libraries often assume people can fend for themselves, staff members in smaller libraries tend to shepherd newcomers. Smaller collections are also advantageous in that they can "be very tailored to what people want," according to Katherine Philips, assistant librarian at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Gallery in Washington.

Or tap a docent

Docents - volunteer guides at museums - are another resource. Whether the impetus is to know more about Nigerian art or trace the impact of flight on 20th-century civilization, a tour of a germane exhibition can prove invaluable. In their training, docents receive reading lists that they will often share.

They also place their subject in a broader context. Joan Stansbury, president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, notes that, "Docents give a lot of information about the furnishings, the history of the period in which the house was built, the architecture, and the people who have lived there." These can be artists, politicians, or inventors, and subjects worth studying in their own right.

For subjects less book-oriented - such as photography - hobby groups and Internet newsgroups can provide tips on technique, suggested readings, or general advice.

No matter what the topic, don't be afraid to seek guidance. "I think it's true that experts like to talk about what they know," says American University's Dr. Mussel, "so people shouldn't be shy about calling and asking 'How would I construct a book list for, say, 19th-century literature in English?' " Consulting with an expert once you've started can also be useful - to ensure that there are no glaring gaps in your curriculum or that you haven't miss exploring an interesting byway.

By the same token, it is wise to remember that there are many different kinds of experts, some with more time to spare than others. An inquiry about the glass studio movement might meet with more enthusiasm if directed, not at a museum curator, but at the manager of a gallery carrying glass art. Similarly, a historical society might be able to offer more guidance than a university professor at exam time.

In Reid's case, her first step consisted in plucking a book off her husband's shelf. "Now, when history comes up," she says, "I no longer feel in the dark." More important even than that, she learned that "it's a lot more fun for me and more rewarding to explore a particular subject matter in depth."

Tips For Jump-Starting an independent study program

* At your local public library, get a librarian to assist you in looking through the catalog by general subject, but also check out general bibliographical references. The

Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and similar databases (such as InfoTrac) can direct you to articles germane to your subject as well as

reviews of books.

* Professional journals might prove too specialized for your needs, but remember that even narrowly focused papers contain in their bibliography one or more general sources that might prove the ideal place to start your research.

* The bibliography in the accompanying catalog at an art show can be a valuable resource even if your interest is as seemingly unrelated as history, religion, commerce, and technology. Art shows do more than present works of art - they place them in their social, historic, and economic context.

* In seeking guidance, remember to think broadly: Your best source could be a gallery owner, a docent, a graduate student, a specialist with the National Park Service, a hobbyist with a Web page, a volunteer at a historical society - the sky's the limit.

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