Oberlin Blogs

ExCo Fever

April 11, 2015

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

Every year there is a time I like to call "application hell week" where college students far and wide agonize over the at least two life-changing applications they are trying to finish simultaneously. In my own experience this time usually happens during Fall midterms and at some point during Spring semester when it starts to get nice outside. However, this time around my life-changing application was to teach an ExCo for this upcoming semester.

ExCo refers to Oberlin's Experimental College where students have the opportunity to teach a course on pretty much any topic. If you feel like you are an expert on mixed martial arts or you are a baking guru, go ahead on and teach! Even if you have more "traditionally" academic based interests (like I do) you can create a course of your own too.

Students submit a proposal to the ExCo committee where they outline the course description, syllabus and terms of assessment for the course. The entire process is incredibly humbling as you begin to interrogate your own knowledge on a given subject. Even more so, thinking through the best ways to convey information to students not only as a teacher but a learner as well is a fantastic challenge as well.

Despite not having the time to take an ExCo in my Oberlin career (clearly I love my major departments, Africana Studies and Sociology, too much), my friends have had wonderful reviews about ExCos. I encourage folks to take a class or at least get familiar with the possibilities. One value both of my departments have instilled in me is recognizing the spectrum of ways I can give back to my communities--in Oberlin and beyond. Teaching an ExCo is a fantastic chance to give back to my campus community through learning and discussion but is also a self-development experience to draw on my own research and passions to make an engaging course.

My course (should it be approved *fingers crossed*) is in the community and society division of ExCo courses and is called "The State of..." Social Media, Race & Education. It came about after noticing how many articles I had read on education and race on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. From that experience, I created a discussion-based course that critically analyzes social media's role in forwarding ideas about how race/ethnicity contributes to what many scholars refer to as the rapidly declining "state of education."

Education debate tends to polarize and racialize where the blame for failing schools, particularly in urban areas, should go, which leads to Latino/a and African American communities often being scapegoated as underperformers in schools. My ExCo investigates this kind of "state of education" argument by using critical race theory and other intersectional sociological frameworks to figure out where African American students are located in this debate. While crafting my application, I was very cognizant of not wanting to use this course as a way to showcase my own expertise on the subject, rather I want to challenge my own assumptions of what the education debate means to and for African American communities.

So with that in mind, the design of the course uses a combination of academic journals, Internet blogs, digital newsprint and video clips to demonstrate the constantly evolving debate about education for Black students. We will be discussing an entire spectrum of themes--some of my favorites are philosophies of African American achievement, the norming of whiteness in schools, teachers and the wider achievement gap and the utility of education for Black communities.

The thought I will leave you all with is the power of teaching and learning in multiple forms. Throughout my life I had people who honestly told me my educational experience was going to have its challenges--some that I would overcome and other battles that are not as easily won. However, my mentors, teachers, professors and others gave me a reason to value my education (formal and informal) and I want to continue to actively share my knowledge with others.

Oberlin has its bright spots and its problem areas as well (like any place), but having the chance to teach as an undergraduate about a subject that I really love and has central significance to my life is amazing. To top it off, the fact that I get to design the course to do exactly what I want it to do is even better. I really hope that this course gets approved and that people are actually interested in taking it!

Personally, I see a legacy for this course and similar courses at Oberlin. While I have one year left on campus I want to take many first steps to giving this conversation the due attention and analysis it deserves on my own terms. So with that I will leave you all with two of my favorite quotes about learning.

"You are young, gifted, and Black. We must begin to tell our young, There's a world waiting for you, Yours is the quest that's just begun." James Weldon Johnson

"My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors." Maya Angelou

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