by Anna Holshouser-Belden
art by Priya Banerjee
[originally published March 25, 2022]
There are few things as unique as Oberlin’s Experimental College, or ExCo, program–an entire department run solely by students and community members. Founded in 1968 during a time when educational reform was shaking up undergraduate programs across the nation, the program allows for non-faculty members to teach skills and talk about their passions with like-minded peers. ExCos allow for more communication between “town and gown,” breaking down boundaries that so often make the world of academia limiting and inaccessible. It is led by a group of students called the ExCo Committee. Unlike other student-run organizations, it seems that the institutional memory of the organization has held up surprisingly well throughout these two pandemic-stricken years, with ExCo courses offered both remotely and in-person.
Something that is so special about a program like the Experimental College is that it is always shifting, with a course catalog that reflects current students’ interests, changing with them over time as students cycle through. In a way, a glance through the ExCo course catalog could reveal much more about the student body than any official college statistics or official documents. With the start of this semester, an entirely new group of student-taught classes has come into being, and I would like to highlight a few that really grasp the scope of varied interests present in our student body. Keeping record of these courses is a way for us to remember the unique-ness of the moment we are in, and how important student organizations like the Experimental College are in furthering the institutional memory of our student body. Currently, the course catalog contains the categories Community and Society; Language, Culture, and Religion; Computers, Math, and Science; Media and Literature; Dance and Theater; Arts, Crafts, and DIY; and Physical Activities, Mindfulness, and Games. I’ve chosen to highlight one or two from each group, with short profiles below:
Dictators in the Time of Covid
One of the more topically relevant ExCos offered this semester in terms of social justice issues would be Dictators in the Time of Covid, taught by fourth-year Louis Gounden. Highlighting under-represented human rights and humanitarian issues both at home and abroad, this ExCo navigates the fragile, often troubled boundary between democracy and authority in governments and organizations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Louis says he was inspired to teach this ExCo after being inspired by a think tank focused on human rights’ issues that we worked with in highschool. He also looks back to Model UN, HIS time at the Harvard Kennedy school, and a winter term spent covering protests in Hong Kong. Louis taught this same ExCo prior to Covid as well, but has now shifted towards more specific topics involving the disruption of elections or protests under the guise of public health issues. He hopes to bring attention to the sudden lack of attention paid to issues abroad with the rise of concern surrounding the pandemic in the United States. In terms of an average class, each week the ExCo focuses on a case study in a different geographical area, spanning everywhere from Eritrea in Northeastern Africa to chattel slavery in India, modern-day witch burnings, the war in Ukraine, indigenous rights in the U.S., and the genocide of Uighur Muslims in China. Students work on unique projects that can be framed through a variety of skill sets to present at the end of the semester. For those interested in the course, it meets on Friday evenings from 5-7 pm.
Trading and Investing
The Trading and Investment ExCo is a new course this semester, taught by third-year student Sam Hao. Sam has had a long-time interest in and passion for trading and investing, and thinks a crash course in the financial market for students who may not have time in their busy schedules to take Econ classes is important in gaining real-world experience managing finances. Sam emphasizes that he wants his course to be accessible to people in music and the arts, which he understands is a large part of Oberlin’s population, and for whom he believes money management to be crucial. A typical class period is lecture based and takes a mostly theoretical approach, preparing different topics each week to go over with students and then giving them time to ask questions and discuss what they have learned. Some goals for the course are to inspire people to day trade, because according to Sam the practical side of trading and investing can only come with real-world experience. He hopes to leave people with a good, basic understanding of the financial market that will come in handy later in life. Sam’s favorite part of teaching is when students approach him after class to delve deeper into topics that they find to be interesting.
BadArtCo is a course taught by Henry Wahlenmayer, third-year and advocate for experimental, underrepresented, and amateur artists. Their class poses the questions: Is there such a thing as “bad” art? If so, who and what defines it as such? Is it important to learn about? With subject matter ranging from works by prestigious contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei to pop culture ephemera such as Riverdale and kitschy household objects, this course pushes the envelope on what we value as art across a multitude of genres. Henry’s goals for the semester are to establish a discussion around art that may not be viewed as “good” in the way the Sistine Chapel or French film are, and to expand the palettes of Oberlin students in our small liberal arts echo chamber. Henry wants BadArtCo to show that there are ways to look at art outside of the inherently problematic historical canon that is so often pushed in academia. They describe the curriculum as any type of art that could “piss off your dad”. Each week focuses on a different art form, with more umbrella topics like performance art, “outsider” art, and camp and kitsch; along with specific topics like the band The Shaggs. Additionally, the course discusses what constitutes bad art, and the differences between art outside of the traditional canon versus art that is harmful to people. It asks if it is possible to go so far as considering all forms of media as art. A typical class period consists of a slideshow lecture with artistic examples followed by a class discussion on the week’s subject. This is the first time Henry has taught BadArtCo, and they have expressed interest in teaching it again in the future. BadArtCo never turns away interested auditors, who are encouraged to pop into any class on Mondays or Thursdays from 6-7 pm in King 323!
Since its beginnings in 2001, Big Parade has been a quintessential Oberlin event. It also happens to be an event that the majority of students on campus right now have never seen, as there has not been a Big Parade since May 2019 due to the pandemic. The parade itself is a day of celebration that both college and community take place in, with floats made by everyone from WOBC and the bike co-op to the business owners in town. It is organized by a student-led club, but wouldn’t be possible without collaboration from the Oberlin community. As one of the many student organizations on Oberlin’s campus that suffered from a lack of resources and institutional memory, Big Parade has been shifting from club to ExCo in order to pull in new members and renew interest among the student body. The ExCo is new this semester and is being led by Big Parade’s club members: Priya Banjeree, Mayu Evans, and Audrey Burkey, who describe their task as “putting Big Parade back on the map.” Having been members of the club before the pandemic, Priya, Mayu and Audrey look back on this time fondly and describe Big Parade as a good way to get creative outside of a traditional classroom setting, and a magical experience that during the pandemic is a much-needed celebration of remaining normalcy. The ExCo’s goals for the semester are to find new committed club members to carry on the tradition, teach people how to create mass projects and “big ass floats,” and bring back the magic that its leaders found in the parade pre-pandemic. The ExCos leaders attribute Big Parade to helping them love Oberlin, and their favorite things about being involved are “crafting and hanging” with creative people who are excited to make art and have fun! Look out for the parade on May 21st on its route down Main Street to see what the ExCo and its leaders make!
Garden ExCo is often one of the most sought-after ExCos in the course catalog. It’s up there with Beginner Pottery and SexCo in terms of the sheer amount of applications it receives year after year. This Spring, the ExCo is being taught primarily by Hannah Isenberg and Sophia Gliatto, and secondarily by members of Oberlin’s Resource Conservation Team (RCT) who maintain the J-House garden. In terms of the variety of ExCos in the course catalog, Garden ExCo is pretty straightforward, and consists mostly of getting everyone’s hands in the dirt on Sunday mornings (from 10-12!) to learn the basics of caring for a garden. A typical class period consists of discussing readings, which usually relay the benefits of a specific gardening practice, followed by a practical explanation by the class leaders of how to complete a specific gardening task. Since the Garden ExCo is run by the RCT, there is an emphasis on sustainability, with students donating leftover harvests to Oberlin Community Services to eliminate food waste. Students are also encouraged to come to the RCT’s general gardening hours from 3-5 on Saturdays and Sundays. Some goals Hannah and Sophia have for the ExCo going forward are increasing community participation and the promotion of sustainable practices. Hannah particularly enjoys the ritual of starting off every week with two hours in nature! One of the most special things about Garden Exco now is how unaffected it is by the pandemic; it takes place outdoors so no need to worry about masks!