How to Free Your Mind

A guide to getting smarter, sans the pricey student loan.


Photograph by Toan Trinh

While Bostonians generally dread September’s influx of boozed-up bros, snooty wonks, and angst-ridden activists, this time of year does present an opportunity for us to get smarter, sans wallets. Forget MOOCs, TED Talks, and mortgage-sized student loans; we’re tapping into the city’s brainpower by polishing apples, auditing lectures, and accessing overlooked archives, all in an attempt to smarten up without paying a dime. Our docent to the priceless education is Rayshauna Gray, who in 2009 found herself halfway through a degree and out of money. That didn’t stop her: Since then, she’s staked out more than 75 professors, authors, and intellectuals throughout New England, and attended enough lectures to write a book. Follow her tips to get some free book-learnin’.

1. Size Matters: It’s easy to crash a big lecture hall like Fulton Debate Room at Boston College, or Morse Auditorium at BU. But Gray recommends emailing the professor first and asking to sit in. “People really light up, especially those academics who are used to students being forced to take their classes for credit,” Gray says.

2. Work the Room: Don’t be afraid to speak up, even if you are an interloper. “When you go, sit in the front row,” Gray advises. “If time and the space allow, ask one pertinent, meaningful question. Push yourself to show up, occupy space, and interact.”

3. Get Personal: Geeking out over a professor’s work? Gray suggests finding out when he or she holds office hours. “When they agree to meet with you, ask them about their story—and bring chocolate. That always goes over well.”

4. Stay Connected: Download every nearby school’s app, and follow professors on social media, Gray says. If you attend a reading or a lecture, follow up with a blog post on what you learned and email a link to the speaker.

5. Range Wide: Boston hosts a bounty of visiting lecturers from around the world—not just at universities, but also at museums and historical societies. Consider day trips to New England’s other brain banks, such as Brown and Yale, as well.

Crash Courses

Not quite Underwater Basket Weaving 101, but here are some classes that put the “liberal” back in “liberal arts.”

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Circus and Society
Tufts University

Instructor Amy ­Meyer, an “aspiring ­acrobat” and PhD candidate in drama at Tufts, ­unpacks the Western circus in this once-a-week gathering. No clowning around, please.

Mystery Cults in the Graeco-Roman World
Boston University

Fascinated by cults? Always wanted to be Indiana Jones? This 300-level archaeology course covers rituals, iconography, and sanctuaries of ancient sects.

Anime as Global Popular Culture
Harvard University

With a weekly ­Monday-night screening, this class goes deep on Japanese-­inspired animated film, treating the genre as “a node in an extensive transnational network.”

Making Monsters
Emerson College

This course explores all manner of ghouls in literature and film, from Beowulf to Frankenstein. The goal is to communicate that ­monsters are “manifestations of racial, ­sexual, and scientific anxieties.”

No ID Required

Unleash your inner scholar at these local university libraries and archives, all of which are open to the public.


Boston University: The School of Theology Library has collections ranging from Eastern art to graphic novels. 617-353-3034,

UMass Boston: Healey Library houses the American Sheet Music Collection, with more than 4,000 songs. Appointments are recommended. 617-287-5469,

Northeastern University: Snell Library’s special collections range from Big Dig planning documents to antique devices used by the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. 617-373-2351,


illustrations by dale edwin murray