You've been assigned the Russia account and the only Russian you can utter is da and nyet -- picked up from "Dr. Zhivago." Or you've moved up a notch on the GS ladder and now must quickly learn the ins and outs of the federal appropriations process. What to do? Since 1921, the same folks who put their stamp of approval on our meat and eggs have provided -- of all things -- a graduate school, a continuing-ed school, really, to respond to these educational needs and others.

Over the years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School's offerings have changed along with the nation's economy and the federal government's way of doing business. Stenography has given way to computer skills; agricultural sciences have waned beside international trade policy. And the scientists and engineers for whom the school was created have been supplanted by a much broader group of fortysomethings. In 1921, 176 students attended the first classes, all of them from the Ag Department, according to Philip Hudson, the current head of the graduate school. This year, more than 110,000 people (average age: 45) signed on for at least one continuing-ed course. Many of them were federal employees, but thousands were not. The numbers change. But now as then, these folks were out to reposition themselves in the ever-changing American marketplace. We sat down recently with Hudson to discuss the trends in adult ed.

Q: What explains the growth of interest in adult education programs recently?

A: I think -- and it's pretty much nationwide -- that there's so much more we have to be learning, in our workplace and in our personal life, too. You hear a lot of talk about the fact that it sort of follows on the idea of the company of one: You're not going to live in the same town for your whole life; you're not going to work for the same company for your whole career, so you develop more interests and skills of all kinds. Things are more complex. And the way people are facing it -- the way we are facing it -- is just tuning in to more learning.

Q: So, people are going back and finding things that are going to make themselves more marketable or going back and finding things that are going to enrich their mental lives?

A: Both. Adult education is need-driven. When you need to know something, that's when you go and learn it, however you might learn it. From a friend or a library. If it's something more complex, you might want to take a course. And usually it's all of those. So you might find a friend you can take Spanish with, while you read some books, while you take a course and while you get some tapes.

Q: Is there a hot niche in adult education right now, something that is a real funnel for students?

A: Computers have been and continue to be. It kind of surprises me, in a way. The computer packages get easier and easier to use, but then there are more and more of them. We end up doing shorter and shorter courses, but a wider and wider variety.

Q: Do you think people come to these courses right now because they're anxious about the job market or because they're optimistic about the economy and just want to see what's out there?

A: It used to be the conventional wisdom -- and as a matter of fact you can see trends in adult education and higher ed, too -- that as the economy would go down, enrollments would go up. If people are not getting the kind of jobs, the kind of pay raise they want, then they go back and retool. They get a second degree, or if they have a BA they get an AA [Associate of Arts] in a specialty area, or a real estate license. But during this economy, where unemployment is so low, the adult education market has continued to go up and up and up. So the conventional wisdom, or what used to be the case, is no longer the case. Now, if the economy goes down, maybe [enrollments] will go up even higher.

Q: So, people have internalized the lessons of the '80s, that jobs are not here forever and that you have to stay current to be able to move in the economy regardless of what happens in the future?

A: Oh yes. I think that's the company-of-one idea -- "I am responsible for my own employability," not, "My company's responsible for keeping me employed." So you need to be continuing to look for the next skill, and credentialing is part of that, but some of it is skill-driven: "I really do need to read a spreadsheet."

Q: How did USDA come to have an adult education school under its wing?

A: We are part of USDA, but we're entirely self-supporting. Even though we're government employees in the larger sense, we're not in the civil service system. Tuition pays for everything. It began after 1921. Basically, the director of scientific work was losing research scientists to private industry and was looking for something to try and capture them and keep the learning going. So he was interested in adult education and talked to colleges and universities. But they said, no, you get our doctorate, you're done. It was the end-of-learning kind of thing back in 1921. So he talked to other departments and people on the Hill and they said, if you set something up can we send our folks? That's the way it started. It was called the graduate school of the USDA because it was intended to be at that level training.

Q: And did it stanch the flow of government scientists to private industry?

A: I don't know the answer to that. I guess the answer is no, we're probably still losing them to industry. But, certainly, it did have a good impact on the department.

Q: In your recent catalogue you list courses on Swedish and Swahili, on reptiles and amphibians, on U.S. trade policy, and even how to operate a successful business. How do you come up with these topics?

A: We're always keeping our ear to the ground to see what might be a good course. We ask our [advisory committees] what kind of courses are needed. So that's one way. Also, we're always asking students taking our courses what other courses they would like. And then we're also always just looking. It may be that we see something in the newspaper or on TV or on the news and we say, "Ooh, this is a really hot area, let's see if we can do something with it."

Q: Like what, most recently?

A: A lot of it will be in the computer area because you sort of have to get out in front of it. Some of that's a little painful because if you get too far out in front of your customers you don't have any customers. But in the foreign language area, that's one where it's good to watch. You see some of the popularity of courses come and go.

Q: How about 15 years ago, 20 years ago. What was the bread and butter?

A: Maybe there was more emphasis on process 10 years ago, and more emphasis on results now.

Secretarial training obviously is one of those areas that we used to do more of 20 years ago and just don't do at all -- things that would be identified as specifically secretarial. We don't do any shorthand. We don't do much keyboarding even though we should, but we can't sell it. And yet we're teaching an awful lot of computer stuff.

You asked about subjects, but the biggest change in the future is going to be in the modality of learning, with a lot more on the Internet.

Q: What they call distance learning?

A: Although the interesting thing is, even in our correspondence study program, which is through the mail, a lot of people in the Washington area are signing up for that. Because it's really time- and location-free, more than distance.

Q: People just want to be able to do it from their home, save some time?

A: Do it when they are free to do it. Because with correspondence study or independent study they may be sitting at the front desk here, and instead of doing a crossword puzzle, they're doing some learning. We have one person who took about a dozen of our self-study courses. So I asked, what the heck is the story on the person? That's a lot.

Q: What was the story?

A: Working on a guard desk somewhere and wanted to improve himself. Couldn't leave the desk but didn't necessarily have to be totally a door-watcher, so he was building new skills. That's the way to do it; it makes a lot of sense.