Daniel Curtis-Cummins, faculty director for ExCo, stands in front of his residence in Alameda on April 9. ExCo is a newly developed learning community, allowing students to take classes taught by their fellow students, or teach a course themselves. (Leila Figueroa / Golden Gate Xpress) (Leila Figueroa)
ExCo: SF State’s hidden gem
SF State’s Experimental College offers unique courses, a unique opportunity for undergraduates to teach
Editor’s note: The story’s lede has been revised on April 10, 2021, to reflect SF State’s seven official colleges, with the university’s Experimental College being the eighth unofficial college.
SF State is home to seven colleges — from the historic College of Ethnic Studies to the Lam College of Business. Unknown to many, however, is an eighth unofficial college: SF State’s Experimental College.
Colloquially known as ExCo, the Experimental College traces its roots to the free-spirited 1960s, a decade characterized by its radical ideas on justice and self-expression. During its half-decade run from 1965 to 1969, early classes included such anomalous topics as meta geology, eastern religious studies and humanistic psychology.
But ExCo is also deeply rooted in social justice, with Black, Asian or La Raza studies courses offered, reflecting civil rights issues of the era and laying the foundations for the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies in 1968 following the campus’ historic student protests.
With its revival in 2017 by the Division of Undergraduate Education and Academic Planning, ExCo offers a unique experience within the school: the chance for undergraduate students to both earn credits and teach classes to their peers on the topics of their choice.
One of those undergraduate students is Remy Chartier, known to their students as R.C., who teaches a course on fanfiction, examining it as one would any other literary form.
“Being a creative writing major, I was seeing a lot of elitism in what qualifies as real writing,” Chartier said. Through the class, Chartier seeks to destigmatize non-traditional forms of writing, as well as encourage students to write fanfiction of their own.
The course studies the history of fanfiction’s mass dissemination, from erotic Star Trek zines in the 1980s to its current presence on the internet. “We dive a lot into what it looks like to write fanfiction and how that interacts with — in particular right now — an online space,” Chartier said.
Undergraduate student-teachers like Chartier still need support, and that’s where Daniel Curtis-Cummins, ExCo’s current faculty director, comes in. He sees the program as a means of expanding the scope of classes at SF State. “Anything progressive goes, anything radical goes, anything socially conscious goes,” he said.
This philosophy is in line with ExCo’s offerings during its inception in the civil rights era and its eventual contribution to the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies.
ExCo was shut down after the student body that started it graduated and new, more moderate leadership took over, which did not include a provision for ExCo in 1969, and going forward — the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies served as a compromise, carrying on part of the program’s legacy. It was brought back due to student interest and headed by its former director, Kathy Emery.
His job is also to get the word out and highlight what ExCo has to offer, since the program by its very nature depends on student engagement. “Part of what ExCo’s success hinges upon really is visibility,” Curtis-Cummins said. To that end, he hosts a YouTube channel where he interviews various ExCo teachers about their thoughts, experiences and hopes for the program.
A recurring face on the YouTube channel is that of Charles Harris, teacher of personal branding and communication course, to whom Curtis-Cummins gave credit for promoting ExCo teaching as an alternative to internships or student organizations.
Harris was an early upstart, having gone through the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a year-long program meant to foster adolescent entrepreneurs, at 15 before consulting and doing marketing and PR internships at 16. His class tries to make branding and communication relatable by teaching them in the context of popular media.
“Using media and connecting it with your own branding strategy, I found, within our generation, helps people figure out what they want to do and find an influencer that they would like to embody,” Harris said.
Like most ExCo classes, he applies intersectional analysis to the subject. He sees race as one of the many factors one has to consider when entering the job market, and he works to use his course as an opportunity to examine the experiences of people of color in both finding value within themselves and showing it to the world.
“I do think it’s important, especially in this day and age, to understand who you are and how other people may perceive you,” Harris said. “We really try to pick and choose case studies that are not a stereotypical, traditional, white male persona or perspective.”
ExCo requires something more of its students: the willingness to engage academically with their own — not in a traditional teacher-student relationship, but rather as peers. Its faculty offer courses that span from the thematic analysis of Studio Ghibli films to autism acceptance and appreciation to a class on BDSM culture being offered in Fall 2021.
Ultimately, Curtis-Cummins wants to see students sign up to teach their own uncommon classes. “The possibilities are endless,” he said. “And that’s what I love about ExCo.”
The deadline to create a course is April 9; Curtis-Cummins claims the application process can be completed in as little as 10 minutes. Any interested undergraduates can apply to teach their own subject at https://ueap.sfsu.edu/exco/teach/application.