Experimental college comes to the University

A group of students organized free classes on untraditional subjects for both students and community.

It’s not likely a student would take a University class that could save an emergency trip to the orthodontist – “Falling Safely: How to take a header off your bike, board, or blades without losing teeth’ doesn’t sound like a typical University class, anyway.”

That’s because it’s not.

The Experimental College, a new student group at the University this semester, will provide free weekly classes on a variety of untraditional subjects, to college students and community members who enroll.

University graduate student and EXCO organizer Lucia Pawlowski said this semester’s 12 classes will start at the beginning of February and run until the middle of May.

Topics will range from a crash course in capitalism to a demonstration of how to ferment food and drink.

Some classes, which are taught by virtually anyone who wants to lend their expertise, will be held in locations such as the Hard Times Café and Arise! Bookstore in Uptown, but others will be in University buildings. Registration is open to both students and nonstudents at www.excotc.org.

Because EXCO is not part of the University, students won’t receive grades or academic credit. All classes are free, Pawlowski said, to give an opportunity to people who couldn’t otherwise afford higher education.

Around 10 University undergraduate and graduate student organizers arrange for facilities for the classes.

EXCO teacher and University alumna Laila Davis said the educational philosophy recognizes that people outside academia are still able to offer valuable knowledge and expertise.

“It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to teach a class in business management because, although I don’t have a degree, I have a business that’s successful and I have knowledge,’ ” she said.

Davis said the EXCO classes encourage students to actively participate, and are usually run democratically, with the teachers acting as discussion facilitators and not just lecturers.

The University’s branch of EXCO was inspired by a similar project at Macalester College that was formed in spring 2006. Macalester’s EXCO will host 40 classes in St. Paul this semester.

Macalester EXCO founder David Boehnke said the formation of the Twin Cities EXCOs can be traced to events that organizers felt limited peoples’ access to higher education.

At the University, a variety of issues culminated in the group’s formation, which was during the AFSCME strike in the fall, Pawlowski said.

“It was the strike, it was the dissolution of General College, it was increasing exclusion and rising tuition,” Pawlowski said.

These events brought to light issues of access and fairness, which helped dictate the direction that the University’s EXCO would take, she said.

In 2006, the Macalester EXCO attempted to obtain accreditation for its courses.

Macalester history professor Peter Weisensel served as chairman of the committee that decided to deny them academic credit. He said the decision was based on maintaining teaching standards at the college.

“If you’re giving credits for a college education of $35,000 a year, you have to have people teaching classes and giving grades that are qualified,” Weisensel said. “We welcomed EXCO but couldn’t see offering credit for it.”

Gender, women and sexuality studies junior and EXCO organizer Arnoldas Blumberg said the lack of credentialed professors won’t hurt the quality of the classes.

“If someone has Ph.D. or ‘professor’ at the front of their name (it) doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher,” he said.

Blumberg said the democratic teaching style also allows students to influence how classes are taught.

“Everyone comes to the classroom knowing that ‘If there’s something I don’t like, I’m going to say it. No one’s going to fail me,’ ” he said.

Richard Martinez, an assistant professor of Chicano studies and EXCO teacher, said he has received mixed reactions from other faculty about his participation in the college.

“Some faculty have told me that it’s a waste of my time, don’t do it,” he said. “Some say, ‘That’s really cool. I wish I had time for it.’ “

Although Martinez is currently the only faculty member involved, he said he hopes others will get involved as awareness of the group spreads.

EXCO organizers said they hope to expand the number of classes offered next year.

They also said they plan to build relationships with people outside the University.

“We want to tie into the larger network of EXCOs and adult schools,” Blumberg said. “This isn’t just free classes, this is a political movement.”