Smith College professor George Robinson worked the classroom, trying to convince students he was psychic by offering details about their lives -- including names of family members and descriptions of childhood neighborhoods.
Some were mesmerized, others uncomfortable -- but all were agreed that "Paranormal Phenomena" wasn't just another class at Smith College. In fact, it's one of 59 noncredit courses that Smith offers to bridge the three-week gap between the end of the holidays and the start of the spring semester.
Like some other, mostly private schools -- including Oberlin College in Ohio and Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan. -- Smith offers noncredit, nonmandatory courses in January called interterm classes.
Paid for by student fees, the goal of the courses is to give students a chance to learn something -- often unusual -- without the pressure of the normal classload.
"It's school without the school. It gives you independence to do whatever you want. Plus, you get to explore all these great things," said senior Lynn Peck, a student turned instructor for the interterm "Introduction to Fencing."
Other offerings include money management and an honest-to-goodness class in basket-weaving.
Smith began its interterm program six years ago, after the dean, Maureen Mahoney, observed that the 2,500 students at the women's liberal arts school tended to take their studies too seriously.
"Partly this is an effort to provide stress relief and to have some fun," Mahoney said.
However superfluous, every Smith interterm course instills a lesson in some shape or form.
In Robinson's paranormal class, the ability of psychics to dupe the public was one overriding lesson.
Robinson and his two co-instructors did their homework, scouring the Internet and surreptitiously contacting acquaintances of class participants to unearth morsels of personal information. Robinson then passed off the tidbits as psychic communication.
The students didn't learn of Robinson's mind-reading techniques until the final day of the weeklong class.
"Technically, this is a science course," he said. "And the main point is to debunk pseudo-science."
Like all other interterm offerings, "Paranormal Phenomena" was selected from a list of proposals submitted during the fall semester by students, faculty and staff.
Many of the seminars are taught by Smith students and staff. Approximately 500 people from the college community, including Northampton residents, participate.
Certain classes have become perennial favorites, such as a course in auto repair taught by the crew that maintains Smith's vehicle fleet.
And since junior Laura Freye-Levine's arrival on campus two years ago, her tutorial on creating backpacks, purses and even clothing from four basic types of tape has continually stuck a chord.
For one of her interterm selections, junior Kami Cott opted for "Schmoozing 101: How to Meet, Greet and Network Comfortably."
"I tend to sit in a corner reading a book. But apparently you have to talk to people sometimes," said the engineering major. "I've been trying to find a job where that is not necessary."
But when the crash course in schmoozing required her to meet, greet and make small talk with similarly socially challenged classmates, Cott rose to the occasion by maintaining eye contact all the while standing squarely in the middle of the room.