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From Comics to Contract Bridge: ExCo Kicks Off its Second Semester

Sophomore Molly Mitzner and freshman Katie Winokur are both resident Harry Potter fanatics.  Lucky for them, Wake Forest’s Experimental College (ExCo) offers a course on J.K. Rowling’s fan favorite where they can meet other HP enthusiasts and engage in muggle-free conversation each week. 

Molly Mitzner, a French and Math double-major, explains why she enrolled in the course: “I’m a big fan of Harry Potter, so a class where I could learn more and discuss aspects of the books and movies seemed really cool.”  

ExCo, a student initiative which launched last semester, seeks to offer interesting and invigorating courses that attend to the creative and intellectual curiosities of Wake students, faculty and staff.  The courses, though not for academic credit, meet for one hour each week for 10 weeks throughout the semester and often require homework – yes, homework – according to senior English major Aubrey Sitler who has spearheaded the initiative.

As innovative and entrepreneurial as Wake students can be, ExCo is not a homegrown idea.  Rather, Experimental Colleges were popular during the ‘60s and ‘70s at colleges across the nation, rooted in the same concept then that it is now: students, faculty, staff and often community members should be able to teach or learn about subjects not otherwise offered in their university curriculum.

“Students wanted more academic flexibility,” says senior Anna Butler, who now teaches an ExCo course at Wake.  “It was the end of the hippie movement.”

In 1968 Wake Forest jumped on the nationwide bandwagon at a time when its rigid university curriculum did not allow for much creativity.  Wake’s Experimental College lasted only a number of years before the University installed a J-term in the early to mid-70s which gave students the opportunity to take more creative courses for actual academic credit.  The J-term disappeared after a short five years.

Over the last 50 years, Experimental Colleges across the nation have come in and out of existence; however, the initiative’s lasting legacy is loosening the rigidity of the 1960s college curriculum, allowing for more academically creative courses.

Some colleges still boast successful Experimental Colleges, namely Oberlin College, UC-Davis, University of Southern California, and Tufts University.  The ExCo at Oberlin, for example, offers 117 courses this semester.

While Wake’s ExCo is just awakening after a 30-year hiatus, there is already much promise for the future.  Nearly 80 students signed up for one of the five offered courses last semester alone.

This semester the courses are as follows: Gaga: A Study; Harry Potter: An Intellectual Approach to an Overnight Classic; Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery; Understanding Comics and Sequential Art; and Basic to Intermediate Contract Bridge.

Although they teach very different courses, the ExCo instructors all share one thing in common: an extensive knowledge of a particular subject and a want to spread that knowledge to others. 

For example, senior History major Anna Butler offers a class on Harry Potter.  She cultivated her love for the seven-book series years ago and even ran a Harry Potter club with her younger brother, sophomore Duncan Butler, in high school.  

According to Butler, her ExCo course at Wake is a “mesh of talking about Harry Potter intellectually and playing games about it for fun.”  Titled “Harry Potter: An Intellectual Approach to an Overnight Classic,” the course not only analyzes the book as a form of entertainment but as a cultural phenomenon. 

Butler organized the course, for which she provides a syllabus, with a certain liberal arts push each week, whether that is English, Political Science, History or even Sociology.   

“For the week on Religion, we compared two articles that discussed the role of a god (more specifically a Christian god) in Harry Potter,” says Butler.  She elaborates:  “One half of the class read an article on the presence of god that was argued by a Christian journal, while the other half of the class read a Newsweek article about how the absence of a god in Harry Potter is reflective of modern society.”

Freshman Katie Winokur, who plans on double-majoring in Communication and Political Science, reacts to the course’s intellectual value: “Now, as I go back and re-read the books, I am not just reading it for the plot, but I am picking up on the references to Greek and Roman mythology and paying attention to how certain characters fill archetypal roles.”

In the future, Butler foresees her course, as well as others, growing.  ExCo is a good place to harvest the over-achiever nature of Wake students, she says.

“I think that the Experimental College is a cool way for students to learn better how to participate in discussion and find key points in certain articles, which can then be applied to their classes,” says Mitzner, who would “definitely consider” taking another ExCo course if the topic were to be of interest. 

Winokur echoes her classmate’s sentiments:  “[ExCo] classes allow you to take an unconventional topic that you are passionate or curious about and dissect it in an intellectual manner.” 

For more information, the Experimental College will be holding an information session Wednesday, January 26th from 5:00-6:00 PM in Pugh Auditorium.  All students, faculty and staff members are welcome.  Register here.

Kelsey Garvey is a junior English major at Wake Forest University. Her upbringing in Connecticut, otherwise known as country club land, inspired her to write in order to escape and locate something more. Writing has also acted as her outlet to dabble in subjects far beyond her my intellectual capacity: art, culture, design, fashion, photography, and music. Other than reading Vogue and Vanity Fair cover-to-cover, Kelsey enjoys frequenting the blogosphere, speaking franglais in daily conversation, and laughing at her own pathetic jokes. Feel free to email her with any questions or comments.
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