UT’s informal courses allow students to explore unusual fields

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Theresa Absy, left, and Carla Salas practice a yoga move on Wednesday evening as part of the UT informal classes program. Class sizes range from eight to 60 students, cater to a variety of student interests and don't affect grade point averages.
Photo Credit: Mariana Munoz | Daily Texan Staff

“Drawing and Painting the Human Head,” “Instant Piano For Busy People” and “Solo Travel With Confidence” are just three of the courses Austin residents can take through the UT Informal Classes program.

UT Informal Classes are non-academic courses that cater to a variety of student interests and don’t affect grade point averages. Each class takes place in the Thompson Conference Center, and last from one day to a few weeks. Registration for individual classes is open until the first day of that class as long as spots are still available.

Program coordinator Monica Mercado said informal courses initially focused on targeting students enrolled in summer academic classes. The service expanded in 2010 to offer nonacademic classes for the entire Austin community, and Mercado said the classes are student-driven and based off post-class surveys that students fill out.

Some of the most popular courses, Mercado said, are photography, art and Spanish language. Class sizes range from eight to 60 students.

Informal classes do not require instructors to have teaching degrees or certification. Instead, adults can submit a course proposal on any topic they want to teach. Donna Woodwell, who teaches beginner astrology and tarot classes, said she appreciates the wide range of courses available.

“There are classes from applied positive psychology to what the patterns in a printed rug means,” Woodwell said. “You can take courses that last weeks or a day, but you wouldn’t have a chance to take them when you’re counting credits.”

Twenty years ago, Woodwell took tarot and astrology informal classes as a UT Latin American studies and journalism graduate student. She said they led her to develop a deeper interest in astrology. After working in fundraising for a decade, she decided to spend her time doing what she enjoys, she said.

In addition to her work as an instructor, Woodwell is an astrologer at her consulting practice at Four Moons Astrology and founded the Astrological Society of Austin in May 2006. Woodwell said she is amazed her UT informal class experience has come full circle.

“The classes give you opportunity to explore other things,” Woodwell said. “Whoever thought that a little class in [UT’s informal classes program] would have changed how things turned out?”

Julie Latcham — UT alumna, photographer and blogger — said she took a four-day digital photography class for beginners last summer, during which she brushed up on the basics of photography and strengthened her skill foundation.  

“Our instructor said in the beginning of the class that our photos will be better than they have been,” Latcham said. “After taking the class, a lot of my family and friends told me how significant my improvements were just from learning basics.”

Latcham runs a blog called “Julia Louise Style,” in which she posts fashion, travel and personal photo shoots. She said exploring interests can help lead to different career fields.

“It’s a great way to build confidence in something that you are already passionate about,” Latcham said. “Photography is an area I want to potentially grow into a business and [taking informal classes] helped gauge my interest on whether it was something I really wanted to pursue as a career.”

Informal classes are meant to provide leisure classes for personal enrichment and growth, Mercado said. She said it is especially rewarding to see student success stories on feedback surveys.

“It’s gratifying to read comments from students who have wanted to learn a new skill or are interested in picking up a certain hobby but just didn’t know where to start,” Mercado said. “Knowing that we provide an avenue for them is extremely rewarding.”