ExCos Showcase Best in Liberal Arts Education

Emily Peterson

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You might expect to find some of the ExCo classes on offer this fall semester at any liberal arts college in America: “Understanding the Contemporary Politics of Palestine,” “Alternative Schools of Economic Thought,” “Debate and Public Speaking,” and a variety of language and dance classes. And then there is “DisCo: A Disney History ExCo,” “Spongebobology,” and, of course, “Beginning Dungeons and Dragons.”

All these courses and more were on offer Wednesday night, when a steady stream of students milled around tables set up around the perimeter of the Root Room, talking to teachers and signing up for classes about everything from longboarding to Cyberbunk to representations of oppression in science fiction and fantasy. Even during the opening half hour of quiet time, which was implemented last semester to make the fair more accessible, the space was humming with activity.

As opposed to the somewhat stressful online process of regular course registration, the ExCo Fair emphasizes the Experimental College’s commitment to gathering and fostering community. Officially chartered in 1968, the Experimental College gives students, faculty, and community members the opportunity to learn from each other and engage in subjects that fall outside the purview of the College curriculum. Students can take or teach these courses for credit.

Still, ExCos are about more than getting class credit in non-traditional ways. Senior Alex Menninger, chair of the ExCo Committee, said that only about half of students taking ExCos are getting credit for them. Though separate from regular College classes, ExCo is an academic department, and as such, adheres to the values of a liberal arts education — learning for the sake of learning.

“It’s really exciting for people to have a chance to teach something they’re passionate about and get other people excited about it,” said Liz Yearsley, a sophomore on the ExCo committee.

Reverend Derek Kubilus of First United Methodist Church in Oberlin, who will be teaching an ExCo this semester, agrees.

“Both students and community members who teach these things have been really excited, seeing them at the couple of meetings that we’ve had, seeing how much time and energy they put in,” he said. “It opens up people to experiences they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.”

Although ExCo classes do follow the traditional teacher and student model, education plays a much more reciprocal role here than in other college courses.

“I think a lot of people think about the [ExCo] instructors and how it’s important to have students who are able to teach what they are interested in … to their peers,” Menninger said. “I think it’s also important for the students who get to see their peers as instructors and … navigating that relationship between student and instructor without having this huge decade-wide age difference that we’re used to. I think it’s really fun to see faculty members both as instructors and also as students in ExCo courses, and definitely community members [participating in these roles as well]. And I think for the committee members, the people who run ExCo, it’s really challenging work but also really important for us to learn some of what goes into running an organization and how to be professional in many different aspects.”

Rev. Kubilus, who is teaching an ExCo called “The Christian Anarchist Tradition” this semester, drew inspiration for the class from the history of the town and the college.

“What drew me to Oberlin in the first place was its history of social justice. … It’s considered — rightly or wrongly — sort of a nursery of radical thought, radical thinkers. My course that I’m teaching is on the Christian anarchist tradition, so I thought that this would be a fertile ground to talk about that and share those ideas with people that would be interested.”

Beyond the specific content of the courses, the ExCo program itself has had a noticeable impact on the wider Oberlin community.

“I think ExCos are actually one of the few ways that Oberlin gets it right as far as involving the community more in college relations,” said College senior Tré Quarles, an Africana Studies major who is teaching “Contemporary Black Queer Film and Culture.”

Although community and college relations are often a hot-button issue, the ExCo committee has concrete ideas about how to strengthen town-gown ties. Yearsley said that what drew her to ExCo in the first place was the possibility for heightened community involvement.

“Last fall I was thinking a lot about how the College can get more involved with Oberlin’s community. … I’m from a pretty small college town, and as a townie it can be frustrating not really benefiting as much as I could from the [college]. … I wanted high school students to be able to take ExCos. … Usually our catalogue is just online, but high school students won’t see that. So maybe finding a way to have the fair take place in a more friendly place for them or [having] physical copies at the school that they could page through and their teachers could give to them [would help].”

Before joining the committee, Yearsley took ExCos in rock climbing, taught by students, and puppet making, taught by a community member.

“They approached the whole ExCo thing differently,” Yearsley said. “The community member was very into the midterm and final; she wanted us to do it right, which is cool because I think it could have been something that I didn’t really take seriously, but I really put a lot of work into it. And I also think she really put a lot of work into it … and made super structured, cool lessons, and would have tons of extra time to give to us, whereas obviously a student, by teaching an ExCo, they are already doing something extra.”

Quarles, who taught this ExCo last semester as well, said the work was worth it because of the opportunities it afforded them. “To be able to get this kind of teaching experience in undergrad — that’s something that’s pretty unprecedented unless you’re a TA.”

Quarles was inspired to teach their ExCo in part because the content of their course is not covered in other College classes.

“I wanted to teach this ExCo specifically because there aren’t any Black queer courses offered by the Africana Studies department, and so I just wanted to put my hat into the ring and maybe influence them into thinking about what’s missing in the department,” Quarles said.

More information on the Experimental College, as well as on specific courses available this semester, is available at its website. Students who are interested in taking an ExCo for credit this semester can register until the end of the Add/Drop period on Monday, Sept. 7

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