The Oberlin Experimental College was founded in 1968, offering five courses.
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 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 1980s, ExCo was regularly offering 50+ courses each semester, indicating that the program had already reached the size that it is today.
To provide the Oberlin community a space to share interests, knowledge, and expertise that Oberlin College curriculum does not or cannot cover.
To validate a wide variety of interests and subject matter as academically enriching parts of the learning process.
To allow students and community members to have a teaching experience through which they can learn about the academic environment from a new perspective and create their ideal classroom.
To support the Oberlin community’s diverse skills and interests through institutional affiliation, financial support, and organization.
To maintain a record of ExCo’s history at Oberlin and thus a record of Oberlin’s evolving interests as a greater community.
Number of classes offered each semester
Number of people who have served on the ExCo Committee since its inception
Number of students taking an ExCo each semester
THE EXCO COMMITTEE BEGINNINGS
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: 6 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 six-person ExCo Committee must take on to ensure the program stays afloat.
BEATING THE ODDS
ExCo 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.
The current ExCo Committee is working hard to preserve institutional memory, make long-term beneficial policy reforms, and widen the reach of this truly unique educational opportunity.
Big Parade ExCo