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On Teaching and Oberlin

January 12, 2011

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

Oberlin's longstanding motto, "learning and labor," has always resonated with me. My dad, proud '71 Obie, was an ingrained teacher, using the farm we lived on as a living palate and dirt blackboard of natural science: botany, nutrition, chemistry, organismal biology. My parents' idea of fun was getting us out in our garden weeding, feeding our rabbits, stripping pounds and pounds of fresh basil, shucking ears and ears of corn, picking pounds and pounds of tomatoes... You may or may not be able to see where my obsessions with food began.

My dad is not an anomaly here. Obies excel at questions and questioning, making the world their academia, and making all opportunities one of education. Of course, my dad eventually became a librarian (much to my young reading delight; I thought that his new profession meant he could buy me any book I'd ever want to read... he's done a pretty good job of that in the last few years) and uses his constant inquiry to indoctrinate high school students (and students in general) in the wide world of information. (Sidenote: I'm reading a great book right now called This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, which claims that librarians are the most interesting people you'll ever encounter. It's amazing, and true.)

When I was a young lass of three, I wanted to go to school oh so badly. I set up a school in the living room at my home, teaching my stuffed animals numbers and letters. My parents got the message pretty quickly and sent me to preschool. And thus began my illustrious years in education.

How times have changed. Eighteen years later, I am done with (this long current trajectory of) school, and very happy about it. I am ready to take my classroom to the school of life. Ironically, as a part of that, I'm heading back into a classroom, but this time, on the other side of the podium.

Yes, children of all ages, coming soon to a classroom near you, Ma'ayan will be teaching you, YES, you, an ExCo. *deafening cheers*

Class: "Professor Ma'ayan!" *hands wiggle in the air*

Ma'ayan: "Yes, oh so studious and thoughtful class?"

Class: "What are you teaching?"

Ma'ayan: "Learning to See: My Camera and Me!"

Class: "YAYYYYYY!"

Ma'ayan: "YAYYYYYY!"

Okay, guys, I'm really really really excited to teach an ExCo. In case you couldn't tell or anything, I really love photography, and education, and teaching. It seems only natural that I use Oberlin's incredibly unique and priceless venue to impart some photographic knowledge to my fellow Obies.

How to have an ExCo: a step-by-step guide by a newly-appointed teacher!

0: Go to the ExCo fair, sign up for ExCos, get into at least one, take said ExCo. It will help more than you know to have experienced a class from the student side first. I've taken six, so I like to think I am extremely prepared.

1. Have a brilliant idea! I have lots of them, but maybe narrow it down a little bit to one idea... Hence my class in training the photographic eye. I could teach about pretty much anything (I was almost convinced into teaching an ExCo on sandwiches... but... not this time).

2. Think about the idea a lot. I spent 2.5 years planning for this ExCo. This is not necessarily normal, but then again, I'm passionate about photography and teaching an ExCo is just an outlet of that. I was born to prepare for this ExCo.

3. Become an expert in that topic. Books, movies, talking to other people, the internet...

4. Create a syllabus. Follow the suggestions on the ExCo website, and examine syllabuses from other classes you've taken. You could also have a syllabus-writing party with some fellow hopeful instructors (like Brandi and Stephen, who will be teaching an advanced continuing swing class this spring)!

5. Apply to teach your ExCo. There's a pretty snazzy application from the ExCo committee. I decided to handwrite mine, out of love for my topic.

6. Have an interview with the ExCo committee. This is not as terrifying as it sounds. My interview was with Jake Myers, and we talked about my syllabus, how I plan to conduct my class, and what sort of problems I foresee and plan to solve. I asked him a ton of questions, too. It was an incredibly productive interview.

7. Receive an email congratulating you on your class's acceptance. Then jump around a bunch and high-five everyone, singing "ExCo! ExCo! ExCo! I have an ExCo!" Or maybe that's just me.

8. Reserve a room for your class. This is pending, since Oberlin's professors get first dibs on classrooms. I'm hoping for no problems since my class is one night a week in the evening; it's a less in-demand time for a majority of classes.

9. Become completely overwhelmed at the ExCo fair. Hundreds and hundreds of people show up to the ExCo fair in the Root Room every semester. I've heard stories of over 150 people attempting to sign up for a 15-person class. Woah. That's gonna happen?! It'll be interesting to be on the other side of the table this year.

10. Choose your students. There are two options: random lottery or application-base, though I've seen combinations therein. I'm planning on an application to see how my potential students observe the world, a mini-challenge of sorts. You'll have to come to the ExCo fair and fill it out to see. You may or may not be informally branded with cameras as well.

11. Teach! EXCITEMENT!

12. Gush about how cool ExCos are. Self-explanatory, I think.

Right now, I am somewhere after step 7, which is where this blog post comes in. Consider this a teaser/plug for the ExCo fair in February, on Wednesday the 9th, from 6-8pm in the Root Room in the Carnegie Building. I'll be there at a table covered in photos and cameras, I'm sure. Also, a camera-shaped stamp that stamps cameras. I will stamp your hand if you come visit me!

Secret: camera-inspired things are an obsession of mine. I bought this stamp (and borrowed this photo) from my favorite site, Photojojo!

Responses to this Entry

Three things:

1. Marilyn Johnson, who wrote This Book Is Overdue!, is an Obie. (I thought you'd appreciate that.)

2. The first class I ever taught was an ExCo. At least three of the dozen or so kids in that class became college professors. Just sayin'.

3. How did everyone in your generation come to believe that the correct spelling is "Woah" (rather than "Whoa")? Where did that spelling come from? I'm serious--does anybody know?

Posted by: David on January 12, 2011 10:58 PM

(A few minutes later.)

I found this blog post, which speculates on the "woah" question:


Neither it nor the subsequent comments answer the question, but they're pretty amusing. I'm still wondering why everybody your age seems to have adopted the "woah" spelling--I'd never seen it in my life until about 5 years ago.

Posted by: David on January 12, 2011 11:10 PM


1. Well, then, it makes sense that I found it in the "recent new books" section of Mudd, then!

2. ExCos, teaching teachers everywhere :D What was your ExCo?

3 (and continuation). I figured it might have something to do with lazy internet typos, but I also only associate "whoa" with the horse command and "woah" as an exclamation of WOW. Also, I think the spelling "whoa" looks strange. Too many curves at once or something.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 13, 2011 9:25 AM

I am surprised you did not mention the "Butchering as a Biology Lesson" that happened every 2-3 months. You and Ben had these miniature white plastic chairs, which lived in the shed, that had a sole purpose, for you two to sit and observe the dissection of the innards of the rabbits that were our carnivorous fare. Imma would try and call you both away, but you wouldn't have it. You learned the parts of a mammal's body and then ate them.

Posted by: Abba on January 16, 2011 2:49 PM

I love this post. It is truth.

I totally use "Whoa!"

Posted by: Aries on January 18, 2011 10:07 AM

Woah! I love this post! :D

Posted by: Che on January 18, 2011 10:47 AM

So I had no idea you were teaching this ExCo and it's my first choice for the spring! And it'll be my very first ExCo. Not that I'm hinting that you somehow make sure I get into this class..BUT I want to get into this class so bad!

Posted by: Chinwe on January 25, 2011 12:23 PM

@Abba - Thank you, again, for putting things into perspective. I can always count on you for details.

@Aries - ExCos are fab. Yes.

@Che - Thanks!

@Chinwe - I'm so psyched that you're interested (even before you knew I was teaching it, I'm excited that you want to learn more about photography)! Speaking of, I need to get on some last-minute planning! Preparation time!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 26, 2011 10:19 AM

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