Oberlin Blogs

An ExCo (Af)Fair to Remember

February 15, 2011

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

I've been to seven ExCo fairs as a signer-upper. I get swept along with the waves of students and community members, washing up next to standby ExCos like fencing, aikido, swing, juggling, Calvin and Hobbes (one of the reasons I came here, seriously), and newer things like the David Lynch ExCo, the bread baking ExCo, yoga, Firefly, picture books... the list goes on and on. Usually there's between two and seven ExCos I want to take any given semester. Tough times here in Oberlin, y'know?

A student stands on a chair and speaks to a crowd

Before the rush, the ExCo committee gave us a quick spiel about the evening. Basically, don't panic, have fun, and make sure to stay and clean up when the fair is over.

This time, the tables were turned (literally). I was seated for two hours watching the masses flow past me, filling out applications, talking about the collection of cameras on the table, flipping through my syllabus, and asking lots of questions. It's nice to not push through the crowds, not have to think up answers to serious and silly questions on a variety of applications, and seeing all the excited faces as opposed to competitive backs.

An Exco class table

Hannah and Julie put final touches on their booths. In order from the left: SexCo I and II, Knitting for NOOBS, the Kindergarten ExCo, and Partner Acrobatics.

Cameras and a sign up sheet on a table

My table, complete with tons of cameras, a photo of my dad taking a photo in a bunch of mirrors, the Photo Idea Index (class required reading), and applications. Thank you Daniel, for lending me most of the cameras on this table!

The only downside to teaching is that actually signing up become a chore (unless you're sitting next to an ExCo you want to take; however, I was next to Seán and Jane, teaching intro and advanced gamelan, and a girl named Nadia who is teaching Lebanese Arabic).

Students sit behind a table with sign-up sheets

My table's placement (you can see my photos up on the high ledge, which I hoped people could spot from across the swarms of ExCo fair goers), next to Lebanese Arabic (with Nadia) and the Gamelan ExCos (with Seán and Jane).

Two students smile under a "Gamelan" sign

Seán and Jane ham it up. (I realize I might not have introduced Jane to you readers before... Jane was my roommate in Harkness my second year! A most wonderful pairing, to be sure.)

Somewhere in the mix, I asked my friend Naomi to track down an application for an ExCo I wanted to take, Phil Wong's ClownCo. I had a total blast filling out his application, annotating his questions with quirky notes and writing out a full cupcake recipe in the "additional information" section. This occurred shortly after Ben popped by my table to borrow a pen to fill out Phil's application as well, and asked me for a cupcake recipe. I started to tell him, but realized he was doing sneaky answer poaching (this is against the Honor Code, guys), and stopped immediately. Ben also introduced me to another cool first-year I had heard of but had yet to meet, Shaye, and I snapped a photo of them together.

Two students make silly faces for the photo

Gratuitous photo of my brother, just for my parents reading this blog post (who are always searching for more photos of Ben).

So, out of the 56 most excellent applicants who visited me, I could only take 12. Because my class is primarily peer-critique and I want to make sure everyone's work is discussed every week, the maximum amount of folks I could comprehend and have productive discussion with is 12 (you know, without having an eight-hour class every week o.O). I was also looking for a wide range of students (people who already call themselves photographers and have taken classes or worked at Oberlin as photogs to people who have a camera and want to use it more) and hopefully the full spectrum of photographic experience and equipment. I already narrowed down applicants by knowing when my class would meet, on Wednesdays from 7-9:30pm. Since there are a few classes and activities that are already on the books for some people, that already reduced the number of applicants that could sign up.

How do you choose a well-balanced class when you have many times more applicants than spots in the class? When you choose to teach an ExCo, you have one of two options: a completely random lottery (names in a hat, number generator, throw the papers in the air and catch all the ones that land a certain way...) or via an application, which means you can choose anyone for any reason.

As someone who has been on both the short and long end of the acceptance-into-an-ExCo stick (I've gotten into an ExCo with eight slots and 50 applicants, and was turned down from one that takes almost 40), I modeled my selection from an application setup of the Chocolate ExCo two semesters ago. When an applicant walked up to my table, I asked them to sign their name, email, and ID number to my master list, and write down a number that then corresponded to a nameless application. After all the craziness of the ExCo fair, Brandi and Stephen (who are co-teaching advanced swing dancing) and I gathered at Brandi's to eat a late dinner and make our selections.

We had a brief interlude attempting to track down a way to get my ClownCo application to Phil, who left early to go to The Zoo Story's rehearsal (so intense, so good!). It involved knocking too hard on his door and accidentally waking up his roommate. Luckily the noisiness factor alerted my brother to my existence in Asia House, where he and his friends Jessica and Hannah were pre-celebrating Jessica's birthday with a batch of brownies her mom had sent. Application in, dessert consumed before dinner... Double success (or maybe a triple success because I got to see Ben again)!

Anyways, over pasta and ice cream, I made my blind yet informed decisions (silly how that actually makes sense...). Let me tell you, it is really really really hard to decide how to narrow down 56 people into 12. I talked to practically everyone who came to my table, and every application had something on it to make me grin, or think, or both. It was so encouraging to see that so many people took the time to think through my application, and smile for me before they moved on to the next table. Of course, I took a photo of every single person who applied, so I would be able to associate names and faces later. How you looked in your photo didn't factor into the application at all, actually, I haven't even looked at the photos yet (edit: when I started this post, I hadn't looked at them yet, but I now have, since I'm including my class below, but y'all make great faces and take great photos!). I just like taking photos of people being psyched, and everyone who came past my table seemed pretty excited.

Students sit around a table with computers and papers

Caitlin and Stephen look over Blues ExCo applications while Stephen and Brandi co-author emails to their class (yes, Stephen is co-teaching two dance ExCos this semester and he sort of totally rocks at it).

Forms on a clipboard

Organized Learning to See applications on an absolutely invaluable clipboard. See the alpaca? That was an answer to one of my application questions... see more details below.

My application had the following questions, and because I can, I'll explain why I had the question on there and what kind of answers I was hoping to see:

1. Look around. What is the most interesting thing you see?

I wanted to see what people focused on in a room brimming with people doing all kinds of things. When you have a million things to see, where do you look? How descriptive can you be? When I looked at the applications, I liked to see either something I hadn't noticed before, a detail that someone chose to highlight over all the chaos in the room, or something someone else hadn't seen.

2. What kind of camera do you have?

I created this class in such a way that one could take it with any kind of camera, ranging from a cell phone camera to a film camera to a fancy digital SLR, as long as the images could be removed from them and accessed digitally. Since my students are required to have a camera with them at all times, I wanted to know what sort of things students had at their disposal. This question was more to give me an idea of the range of equipment than choosing certain types of cameras over another.

3. What's your favorite color?

Not only was I attempting to reference Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I wanted a little glimpse into people's minds, to see what sort of colors were inspiring, emotional, exciting, or joyous. I had purple pens on my table, which meant that every time someone wrote that they liked purple, they added an exclamation point. Yay color!

4. Draw or describe your favorite texture.

This question prompted a range of responses that were great to read or see (oh, if only I could have touched, too!). Since texture is just one way to make a photograph pop, I wanted to see what sort of things people paid attention to in the world, whether they were drawing from visuals, tactile sensation, and even mouth feel (I was so impressed by these responses, I have such a hard time describing how foods feel, but it makes a huge difference when you're eating something. /end nerdy food thoughts). People drew me different kinds of shading, animals with different kinds of fur, and wrote poetic descriptions of things they had experienced. Such a wide range. Super great.

Based on creativity, detail, and range of all these answers, I made my decisions. I chose 18 applications, accepted 12, and placed six on a waitlist. Then came the hardest part, which was emailing the rest of the folks who applied for my class but I couldn't take this time around. Boo. I really wish I could teach five sections of this class, and I would have a total blast doing so, but I don't have the time. Sorry, guys. I still want to talk to all of you about photography!


At final count, I have ten students in my class. Here are their bright shining faces from the photos I took at the ExCo fair!

A portrait of a student A portrait of a student

Alex and Arianna!

A portrait of a student A portrait of a student

Arielle and Brady!

A portrait of a student A portrait of a student

Jee and Joaquin!

A portrait of a student A portrait of a student

Krista and Mark!

A portrait of a student A portrait of a student

Nadya and Saad!

Fact: I have learned everyone's names just from looking at these photos long enough to edit them for the blogs. Super win!

We had our first preliminary class on Sunday, where we went over the syllabus and made sure everyone knew how to use their cameras. The first assignments, collecting three images you like (so we can do a test-run critique before we start talking about our own work), are trickling into my inbox. I'm doing some additional research for class discussions (even from our first class, my students had big questions, right from the get-go), sending fun emails, reserving books on OhioLINK, and getting more and more excited about class this Wednesday!


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