Get Smarter For Cheap at Portland’s Underground Grad School

A new DIY school offers Portlanders a deep-dive on academic subjects at bargain prices.

By Fiona McCann March 4, 2015

Portland Underground Grad School's unofficial mascot.

Fancy learning a little bit more about an academic subject without having to shell out for a full-on graduate program? Then Portland Underground Grad School may be your ticket to smarts—or at least to decent bluffing capabilities.   

The brainchild of Douglas Tsoi, Portland Underground Grad School—otherwise known as PUGS—kicked off last November with its first course on criminal law, and since then has been putting on four-week courses on a variety of subjects, taught by experts in their field. And here’s the real appeal: a graduate course in your chosen subject comes with the bargain price tag of $40.
This month’s course is on Beauty and Aesthetics in Western Art, and is taught by John Doyle—known to many Portlanders as one of the duo behind the No Fish Go Fish food cart, which closed after a 15-year run in 2012. Doyle, who runs a popular Trivia night at Maui’s on North Williams, also has a Masters in Art History and is a former Education Department lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“I think it’s a great idea for folks who want to do more than go down to the pub and talk about the hop content of their microbrew,” says Doyle of the PUGS concept. He describes his course as “a bit of a whirlwind through roughly 4,000 years of art focusing on what we know and what we can discern about how ancient and medieval peoples thought about art and beauty and how these notions were communicated through their artifacts.”
Doyle’s is the fifth PUGS course—previous subjects included criminal law, genetics and the history and theory of Superhero Comics. Attendance has been varied, from three students to 15, with classes currently taking place at Southeast Uplift Center.
Inspired by an informal lecture series on scientific topics organized by Portland writer Sarah Mirk—which attracted some 50 attendees for every backyard session—school creator Tsoi realized that “there was an incredible thirst [in Portland] for continuing education.”
Tsoi gave the first PUGS class himself, on Criminal Law. The idea is to crowd-source new classes, with previous attendees and teachers spreading the word. Each new course has an administrator assigned who coordinates and publicizes the classes.
Annie Moss is a PUGS student-turned-administrator, having attended Tsoi's Criminal Law course. “It changed the way I think about our law system,” she says. Moss is now responsible for running Doyle’s classes, which kick off on March 4, and has also helped create some online assistance for those who want to put together their own course.
“We’ve put together a whole toolkit so anyone can come on and say ‘I think we should offer a course on [for example] Portland history’, and we can say ‘OK, here’s your checklist about how you might do that,” says Moss.
So what do you get at the end of your grad school course? Well, there are no credits and there’s no certificate either. “It’s purely for the joy of learning,” says Tsoi. “Our tagline, is ‘it’s so much fun to be asked to think again.’”

Students can register through the website or contact PUGS through their Facebook page.

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