The year is 1966. Students are dancing to rock music on the lawn at San Francisco State. They’re at the “Whatever It Is” festival, a gathering sponsored by the Experimental College.
A group of students had begun the Experimental College one year earlier. A college within a college, it operated from 1965 to 1969, and spread throughout the California State University system. “We feel quite strongly that education has got to look at what’s happening in the culture today,” said Jim Nixon, co-founder of the Experimental College, in an interview at the festival.
This semester, students and faculty at San Francisco State University have revived the Experimental College, or Ex Co, through a pilot program. The program allows students to experiment with progressive pedagogy by designing classes of their own.
“Each person learns differently. We have only been exposed to one or two ways of learning,” said Alisar Mustafa, a senior at S.F. State. “The way we learn in the university system, and all of the schooling we get in our life, is really top-down. It’s really patriarchal.”
Mustafa, who grew up in Syria, is one of four students who taught a class to peers this semester. Her parents fostered an educational environment in their home after her father went to jail for 14 years because he participated in a study group on Marxism.
Mustafa’s family relocated several times to escape the government’s watch, and eventually sought asylum in Vienna and, two years later, in the United States.
Today, Mustafa educates her peers about the Syrian refugee crisis by facilitating peer-to-peer learning, student-led activities, and having her students keep reflective journals to inspire pieces for an art gallery at the end of the semester.
“They were all really connected and passionate,” Mustafa said about her students. “They were coming to class because they were interested, and making the connections to their own majors.”
The pilot program is expanding rapidly, as there are currently 24 students slated to teach Ex Co classes in the spring.
“It’s really directly empowering the students to study, or to gain knowledge or expertise, in areas that simply are not offered at S.F. State,” said Ray Larios, a student teacher this semester of “Cybersecurity, World Affairs and Social Implications in the Digital World.” His course will be used as a framework to develop a class in the International Relations department.
When Ex Co began 52 years ago, it was in the midst of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and a few years shy of the campus strike of 1968.
“The students were the only ones on campus who really had thought deeply about pedagogy because professors had never thought about how they teach, and not just what you teach, but how you teach,” said Kathy Emery, a faculty coordinator for the program and lecturer in the political science department.
Students gained funding for the program by running for student government positions on a platform of expanding Ex Co.
According to an S.F. State history timeline, the Experimental College attracted more than 2,000 students by 1967. The 1967 summer course catalog contained descriptions for a wide range of class selections, including “Workshop on the Kennedy Assassination,” “Grass, Acid and Zen” and “Planes of Social Consciousness.”
The 1968 campus strike led to the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies, which adopted an area of study that Ex Co courses pushed for. Many students no longer felt as much of a need for the program and it eventually lost its funding. “A lot of these things are sometimes victims of their own success,” Emery said.
It wasn’t until this semester that the “perfect storm” of students, faculty and timing have aligned to make the pilot program come back to life, according to Emery.
“The election of Trump is definitely the right historical moment,” she said. “I’ve been teaching a course based on the Experimental College archives for three semesters, which has allowed relationships to develop that have been key to getting this off the ground.”
The program will be evaluated after this semester concludes, but it has already received the green light for next semester. But because the pilot is in its infancy, it faces challenges that traditional courses don’t encounter.
The courses are not listed in the official catalog, which makes recruitment crucial to informing students that the classes exist. Each course is worth only one unit for students, while typical classes at the university are worth three units.
“Potentially, yes, Ex Co courses could be worth more than one unit, but that may not be desirable, as it is a much bigger commitment both for the student leaders of the courses as well as the students taking the course,” wrote Interim Associate Dean of Academic Planning Jane DeWitt in an email. “Feedback from students about the structure of the courses will be very important.”
Students must also navigate the challenges that traditional teachers face in the classroom, but without the same level of experience.
“A lot of the times I won’t have the answer, especially with sectarian conflicts and all kinds of things that are hard to navigate because they’re still happening right now,” Mustafa said. She chose to invite several guest speakers who are experts in their field to her class throughout the semester.
“It’s like, ‘I’m a student, I don’t know how to teach a class,’ ” Cesar Plascencia, teacher of “Social Movements and Digital Technology,” recalled thinking at the start of the semester. “But that’s the point. We’re trying to empower students to take control of their education.”
Yet even in a peer-oriented setting, some students say it can still be difficult to break out of the traditional mode of education inside the classroom.
“At this phase, I think there were still problems in getting people to really be comfortable speaking out,” said Sophia Wenzel, a student in an Ex Co class about Noam Chomsky. “I think that was one of the biggest barriers, is just bringing people out of something when we’re so used to stepping in that role of just listening, or zoning off, or being on our phones.”
The idea for the Noam Chomsky course dates back to this past spring, when Ben Feldman, a political science student, felt frustration that the university did not offer a course to learn about Chomsky.
Emery asked him, “Why don’t you teach the course?”
Feldman then prepared all summer by poring over Chomsky books. By the time fall semester rolled around, Emery recalled Feldman telling her, “If I never get any students to sign up, it’s already worth my while because I’ve already learned so much about Noam Chomsky preparing for this course.”
Wenzel became one of approximately 45 students that piled into the classroom on Feldman’s first day. Students took up every seat, while an overflow squeezed against the back walls and sat on the floor.
Now, as the semester wraps up, Wenzel is setting out to teach a course of her own called “Graphic Journaling: Writing and Drawing as Self-Expression.”
“I really just want it to be a space where we create artwork and undo our memories and our histories,” Wenzel said. “We have a lot of intricacies as students, we have our family, our personality, everything that we bring to the classroom that never gets explored.”
Through the classes crafted by Wenzel and 23 other students, the next phase of the experiment continues.