Think Olio Is College Only Better

Think Olio
Professor Michael Haltenberger, casually teaches Vonnegut for Think Olio. (Parker Peterson)

After you start working for a living, school sounds amazing. Days filled with reading, conversation, pondering random theories about anything as, like, your job; this is the definition of luxury. But, of course, most of us are suckers and never realized how glorious this time in our life was until class got dismissed for good. 

Some people, however, are smarter than that. Chris Zumtobel, for example–he’s smarter than that. Nearing the end of his time at CUNY, and realizing he had no interest in leaving an environment of social learning, Zumtobel said: No! There must be some way to keep this going that is not graduate school. And then, he and his partner, David Kurfirst, realized there was a way. They called it Think Olio, or “a miscellaneous collection of art and literature,” and it would be made available as an ongoing lecture series, led by college professors, covering a vast array of subjects, in casual venues with alcohol.

Tomorrow is Think Olio’s one-year anniversary, and the occasion will be marked with a month-long series at Berg’n Beer Hall in Crown Heights. The first lecture comprises three parts and is film-based, led by CUNY professor and Oxford doctorate Geoff Klock, called “Unlocking Mulholland Drive: David Lynch & Monstrous Hollywood Dream Machine.” It is also the first of many more classes to be held this month at Berg’n’s private dining room, where you will also have the joy of imbibing drink specials while your brain is illuminated by a ton of interesting, thoughtful information.

Since last March, Zumtobel and Kurfirst have organized 75 lectures; this month, at nine different venues, there will be 20 more, and that number, Zumtobel tells me, will just keep growing. Most growth has happened by simple word of mouth from people who have attended, or the professors who have led a lecture and loved that the environment is casual yet filled with people who really want to be there.

“Professors have reached out to us once they heard we were holding classes,” Zumtobel says. “It’s just so nice to have a classroom full of people who want to be there—that’s really what we hear the most—and they’re so excited to teach whatever it is they’re obsessing over, rather than what is on the syllabus for a change, to really go in depth on something that [otherwise] you only get a piece of in one class.”

(Parker Peterson)
(Photo by Ethan Covey)

For the very first Think Olio lecture, all the way back on March 8, 2015, Zumtobel and Kurfirst invited CUNY professor Michael Haltenberger and his dog to his apartment to teach a class on Kurt Vonnegut’s make-believe (though pretty awesome) religion, Bokononism. The group guzzled Sierra Nevada’s and Haltenberger sipped wine and everyone had a grand time. It was the start of a very good thing. (And Haltenberger will return for another class on Vonnegut, and his dystopian story “Harrison Bergeron,” on March 17 at a separate Think Olio venue in Crown Heights.)

The lecture series has grown so popular among professors and casual students alike that–ironically–Zumtobel’s actual course work (of which he has less than one semester remaining) has taken a back seat: he and Kurfirst, after all, have a burgeoning lecture series to run.

“I’ll say, hey, I didn’t do my homework, but can you teach a lecture at this coffee shop?” Zumtobel says, knowingly laughing. But the cool part is that, most of the time, the professors are so impressed they forget about the homework and agree to teach a lecture. Or, he can use his series as a bargaining chip for professors of classes he wanted to take but couldn’t get into. When Zumtobel was unable to get into a class on politics and media he was very interested in, he wrote to the professor to express his regret. Now that professor will be leading a Think Olio lecture in April on Donald Trump: how he exists and what happens if he wins.

At the MET. (Photo by Parker Peterson.)
At the MET. (Photo by Parker Peterson.)

Even better: not only has Zumtobel secured a way to continue to learn in a casual environment with smart professors he likes a lot after his formal education is over, he’s also found a way to get paid for it. (Zumtobel and Kurfirst split the ticket cost with the lecturers.) True genius, if the word ever applied.

It’s one of those ideas that is so simple–learning about really interesting things from very smart people in non-classroom, inviting environments with booze–that you can’t believe it hasn’t existed for a long time already. “It’s crazy how few options there are to keep learning after you graduate, especially related to literature and film,” said Zumtobel. “We really thought that when we first started to do it we were Googling something wrong, to not be able to find it. But really, it doesn’t exist (elsewhere) in this form. It becomes a sort of community of life-long learners.”

For more information on Think Olio lectures, visit the following links for a complete list of teachersvenuesupcoming classes, and the David Lynch series, starting tomorrow at Berg’n, 899 Bergen Street, Brooklyn.


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