The value of the Experimental College before its founding was both exaggerated and understated in numerous opinion articles in the Oberlin Review. Proponents of the new Experimental College program emphasized that open courses could be used as testing grounds in both course content and pedagogical technique before being accepted into the traditional academic canon. Opponents of the Experimental College foresaw failure due to a perceived lack of expertise among students and insufficient free time for students to participate in teaching and taking ExCo courses. As part of the “educational earthquake” of reforms in the 1960s, the formation of the Experimental College – alongside the formation of January Term – represented the desire of Oberlin students to define their own education.
In a pitch to gain approval from faculty governance and administrative structures in the College of Arts & Sciences, members of the first ExCo Committee declared that ExCo was “an educational, not a political experience”. Given the radical nature of the program, it is assumed that public statements like these were political decisions to maximize the chance of the ExCo Charter being approved.
ExCo experienced rapid growth in both the number of courses offered and the number of students enrolled in the first two decades after its founding. According to a background information document provided by the ExCo Committee for EPPC review, by the 1980’s, ExCo was regularly offering 50+ courses each semester, indicating that the program had already reached the size that it is today. It was also around this time that EPPC Reports began talking of ExCo as reaching “maturity” and urged the committee to reevaluate the ways ExCo fit into a broader Oberlin education.
In 1987, Robyn Gittleman from the Tufts University Experimental College declared that “what works well for one school does not necessarily work equally well for others”, attributing the rapid growth of and sustained participation in the absolutely student-run Oberlin ExCo Program as something unique to the ethos of the student population at Oberlin.
Experimental Course Content in ExCo
While more research needs to be done, there are plenty of examples of outside organizations allocating funds for the development of an ExCo Course that wouldn’t be accepted in the traditional Oberlin curriculum.
- The semester before ExCo offered its first class (Spring ‘68), the International Affairs Committee announced a $250 grant to develop a course in international studies.
- In 1972, the Oberlin Review reported on how “Feminist Theatre, Women in Art, a women writer’s group, and Automechanics” were offered through ExCo.
- In 1997 the Multicultural Resource Center created a grant to develop an ExCo directed toward first years.
As is the case today – despite low community participation throughout the program’s entire existence – the 1980 ExCo Committee hoped “that involvement of persons not affiliated with Oberlin College will ease some of the friction now apparent between the College and the town”.
The ExCo Committee
When ExCo was first founded, in the spirit of open education and self-governance, any student at Oberlin College could participate on the ExCo Committee. The ExCo Committee was “ad hoc”, and all committee meetings were open to the public. While there were no limits to how many students could be on the Committee, it typically hovered around the size of the committee today: 5 student members.
The culture of the ExCo Committee has seemingly remained constant throughout its entire existence and is well-characterized by this quote from the 1973 Review article: “We ExCo people usually keep our mouths shut. We work quietly behind the scenes, setting up registration, coordinating the courses, allocating monies, and generally being too occupied to become embroiled in campus politics.” In the 1980’s, committee members commented on how students at Oberlin seemingly didn’t consider the work that went into running the program, and to this day, even instructors neglect to consider the work each member of the five-person ExCo Committee must take on to ensure the program stays afloat.
Due to a lack of campus visibility, for most of its existence, the ExCo Committee could fluctuate rapidly between healthy participation and severely lacking in person power in a single semester. This is similar to problems faced by other student organizations on campus including OSCA, SFC, and OST. In a single semester, all but a few experienced committee members could graduate, leaving the remaining members with the responsibility of both maintaining the department as well as on-boarding new committee members. This is what led 1987 academic review auditor Robyn Gittleman to comment: “because of the belief in autonomy and absolute student control, an ambiguous and somewhat schizophrenic state exists.”
Constant membership turnover and poor institutional memory restricted ExCo from undergoing the necessary “self-reflection” of a department that had truly come to maturity. “Although they had thought about the ExCo mandate and history, the Committee never felt obligated or had the time to reflect on the broader meaning of an Oberlin education or their relationship to the total undergraduate education. The great variance of subject matter and the awarding of credit seemed not to be an issue, but rather something they took for granted.”
While ExCo has consistently lacked a sense of belonging among the rest of the curricular structure of Oberlin, it has a substantial impact on the educational experience of nearly any person who chooses to participate as either an instructor, student, or member of the ExCo Committee. It is both surprising and unique to observe that Oberlin’s Experimental College has persisted for over half a century, while similar ventures at other schools typically disappear within a decade. ExCo’s existence requires both continued investment from the student body as well as a perceived value in the eyes of faculty governance structures. While I agree that ExCo achieved “maturity” in the 1980’s, there is still plenty to be done to create a more robust ExCo program that is better able to supplement the rest of an Oberlin Education. Many of the problems mentioned in the 1987 EPPC Report – especially those brought to attention by Robyn Gittleman – are still being considered by the ExCo Committee to this day.
It seems like several changes have been made in the past decade to address some of these problems such as: the transition of the ExCo Committee from being ad hoc and without pay to a closed committee with pay, the digitization of course applications and workflow processes internal to the ExCo Committee, and the creation of the ExCo Showcase.
I believe that each of these have been major steps forward, and I commend current and past members of the ExCo Committee for all they have done for the Experimental College.
There are a few major points for improvement that I believe future Committee members as well as general ExCo participants can work on in the coming years.
- Further improving continuity between iterations of the ExCo Committee through the formation of ad hoc advisory councils (one of instructors/students and one of faculty/administrators).
- Further freeing up ExCo Committee time to focus on the improvement of the program through the automation of tedious processes relating to the day-to-day operations of ExCo.
- Maximizing the value of coordinating an ExCo Course by experimenting with the balance between instructor assignments aiming for pedagogical growth and instructor autonomy.
- Improving student investment in the governance and operational structures behind ExCo through increased publicity of the ExCo Committee and their activities.