Experimental College: from personal finance to songwriting

By Kelly Page
pagekell@grinnell.edu

There’s only one place at Grinnell College where one can take classes about how to brew beer, freestyle, write songs or be wealthy: the Experimental College, commonly referred to as ExCo. Students and community members can sign up for five-week courses taught by Grinnell students about anything they think is interesting. It’s a unique opportunity to delve into topics that are not officially offered at the College, sharing the experience with other people who possess a similar passion to learn with a community in an exploratory peer-facilitated setting.

Christian Clark ’18, who has been the ExCo coordinator since last spring, sees ExCo as a way to engage with his passion for teaching and to be part of a unique program.

“It’s definitely a lot of hard work,” he said, “but I enjoy it because I personally want to become a teacher so that was instantly something that I gravitated towards.”

Many of the students who become teachers for ExCo see it as a way to bring information to other students that they feel people should know — information that is not typically provided in the college curriculum.

“ExCos are a really great opportunity for students to identify gaps in the Grinnell curriculum and take the initiative to fill those gaps,” said Philip Kiely ’20, who is teaching a course this semester entitled Personal Wealth Maximization in which he teaches strategies for money management, which students can employ after college. Kiely focused on streamlining his course to make sure those who attend his class learn things that will be useful to them.

“I’ve read a lot of books about it,” he said, “and I know that there’s a lot of bad information out there, so I wanted to sort of filter that out. It’s something that everyone needs to know, but, to be honest, it’s really boring and it’s really inconvenient to figure out, so if someone’s going to teach personal finance to you, that makes it a lot easier.”

Oscar Buchanan ’21 also knows the difficulty of figuring out what information is important enough to take up one of his five ExCo meetings. He is teaching a class about songwriting.

“A lot of it was thinking back to what I had learned in the past and what would be valuable, and it’s hard because songwriting is a very niche course and you have to figure out what’s going be useful, so I spent a good amount of time just working through everything I knew, figuring out what of this information about songwriting isn’t easily available.”

Buchanan says that he wants to make some of the resources that helped him learn songwriting available to Grinnell students.

“There’s a really great music community at Grinnell, and we have music courses for instrumental virtuosity, like learning your instrument and music theory, but when it comes to writing your own music, there’s a gap. I’ve been writing songs for a long time and my dad was a songwriter. I also grew up in a choir that worked with songwriters and I got to talk to them all the time, and having that support was super useful and I want to make that sort of network available here.” Similarly to Kiely, Buchanan is working to fill a gap in the curriculum and to share his passion with others.

Clark sees sharing a passion for inquiry as an important factor of ExCo.

“I think it’s just, in general, a really cool experience to get to teach people things you’re really interested in, and there’s always someone else who’s interested in that same thing. I think something that keeps people from doing an ExCo is this idea that maybe no one will sign up. That’s never actually been the case. There’s always a ton of people who regularly sign up for multiple ExCo classes and are really engaged,” Clark said.

ExCo is a powerful way for students to spread ideas and expertise, drawing from a knowledge base that they have sometimes spent years gathering out of sheer interest. Students very intentionally decide what they feel is important to share with others. It is a unique opportunity to learn new things in a new way.