Columnist Note: Some ExCos are taught by community members or College staff and faculty, but the vast majority are both attended and taught by students. I’m addressing the effect that the current ExCo system has on students. I’m also largely writing from the point of view of someone who’s been a student but not a teacher.
Oberlin College officially admits that the ExCo system works to fulfill gaps in the College’s curriculum. “ExCo supplements the regular curriculum by offering classes not typically available in traditional courses of study,” the College website says — the page on ExCos, by the way, is listed under “Student Life: Student Organizations,” not academics — but those classes include language, literature and history that would not be out of place in an official department. Instead, they count for co-curricular credits, which don’t affect majors, minors or distribution requirements and have limited impact towards graduation. No matter their topic, ExCo courses aren’t recognized as having academic content for people teaching them or studying in them, while a private reading on the same material wouldn’t be co-curricular and could count towards a major or a minor.
Quite frankly, taking an ExCo is likely to be a liability, as far as one’s academic life goes, instead of the benefit it’s supposed to be. For someone who needs to work in order to keep food on the table and a roof over their head, who needs to graduate early and maxes out their credits every semester to do so, whose usable hours in the week are cut short by disability or who lacks flexibility in their schedule as they try to fulfill multiple major and minor requirements, participating in the Experimental College could be a breath of fresh air. Instead, it’s a huge expense of time and effort with very little academic return. People from disadvantaged populations are far more likely to look at their class schedule in terms of how it optimizes their ability to graduate quickly and with the credentials they need, due to the cost of attending Oberlin in stress, time commitments and money. Participating in ExCos becomes a literal privilege.
The system also lacks institutional memory. While some people teach the same ExCo for years, as soon as they leave Oberlin, their class is likely lost. Sometimes people consider it their responsibility to choose successors and furnish them with the materials they used to teach, but that depends on whether a random crop of students in a given semester happens to contain people who are in a position to take on that commitment. Otherwise, if someone wants to restart an old ExCo, they’re left hunting down the former teacher by word of mouth. At minimum, the Student Union could maintain records of past ExCos and their curriculums, and make them easily available to people who might want to revive them — the same way it does for former chartered organizations.
Here are some potential ways to give ExCos the value they deserve: enabling credits from ExCos to count toward major requirements in a department, allowing ExCos to fulfill distribution requirements, removing or further raising the limit on co-curricular credits or awarding more credit for taking and teaching ExCos. Just one of these changes would go a long way toward making an ExCo an asset to one’s attempts to graduate on time instead of a liability.
The limited amount of co-curricular credits that can count towards graduation — somewhere between five and eight, according to the inconsistent websites — disincentivize taking ExCos at all. Suddenly whether to take an ExCo isn’t only a question of if you have the time and effort to devote to the class, but whether it’s worth taking up one of your remaining opportunities for an ExCo to pay off. Often people need to load up on ExCos in order to graduate on time, as issues over the course of their past years add up and mean that, as seniors, they have to take 18 credits. So there’s an incentive to “save up” co-curricular credits in case they’re needed then, which keeps people from just choosing a class they want to learn from. In theory, I suppose this exists to preserve the sanctity of earning a major, but I sincerely doubt anyone would try to “cheat” their way to graduation by taking dozens of one-credit classes. There simply aren’t enough hours in the week, and considering it a valid risk doesn’t give students’ commitment to their education — or the potential value of an ExCo — enough credit, literally and figuratively.
I doubt the College could be convinced to allow ExCos to count towards majors. But if we had a way to support long-lived ExCos, perhaps after being taught for a semester or a year, the people organizing said ExCos could petition to have their classes supported by an academic department. For example, allowing a course in American Sign Language to count towards cultural diversity requirements or to add Korean to East Asian Studies. These courses wouldn’t have to satisfy internal major requirements, like Politics majors’ obligation to take a course in American politics, for this shift to make a difference in the value of ExCo classes to students.
While, theoretically, the number of credits an ExCo counts for can vary based on the level of commitment it requires, in practice the difficulty of getting two credit status is an effective disincentive so most ExCos are worth only one credit — the equivalent of a quarter of a class. A course like Beginning Dungeons and Dragons may not fit in with an academic department or one of our distribution requirements, but it still requires great commitment of both time and effort from students. For people to spend eight hours of their week working for one co-curricular credit is an insult to the value of students’ labor and time. In addition, the odd amount of credit throws off people looking to satisfy the minimum 14-credit requirement, stay within overload’s 20 credits, or work within Conservatory rules. To use ExCos to get to 14 credits, which someone struggling with balancing their academics and the rest of their life needs to stay enrolled, one must commit to two classes that last the entire semester and require hours of commitment per week that could be spent on work or other classes. That commitment and effort is valued the same as secondary music lessons that spend half an hour in the classroom or a half-semester course below the 100 level that also counts for distribution requirements. If all ExCos were half classes instead of a quarter, they wouldn’t throw off people’s credit requirements, and the payoff would better reflect what passing one means.
Meanwhile, teaching an ExCo requires great dedication and a level of expertise that’s at least assumed to be above average for a college student. It’s a crash course in teaching and organization that’s worth only two credits. It doesn’t count for major requirements either, even if someone’s an education major getting practical experience teaching or running a class. Some large or especially complex ExCos will even have teachers who don’t earn credit at all because they need more than two people to run the class effectively.
Because the ExCo Fair happens in the first week of add/drop, people often can only attend one class of an ExCo before deciding whether they’re staying in. If a promising one disappoints, they have a handful of days to find another way to make up the credits. Between this leap of faith and the fact that only eight co-curricular credits can count towards graduation, picking an ExCo becomes unnecessarily fraught with potential risk.
And yet, hundreds of people take and teach dozens of ExCos a semester as an undervalued act of love. The ExCo system is touted by the College as emblematic of the freedom and creativity that Oberlin offers. It’s true that the system is emblematic — of the College’s consistent devaluing of Obies’ labor and taking students’ passion and dedication for granted while exploiting ExCos for its own image.