The Student-Run Course
by Lee Altenberg
Full version for the SEAC-Earthworks Student Environmental Action Guide
© February 17, 1991
Among the most potent instrument students have devised to empower their activism is the student-run course, in which students create their own full-credit courses in which they can do research on the urgent political and social problems of the day, as part of real world campaigns to address them.
Students in the vast majority of universities have no power in setting the curriculum, and are forced to take classes which may be irrelevant to them, while their interests in urgent political and social issues can be addressed only outside the classroom. In a number of universities however (e.g. Stanford, UC Berkeley), students won programs where students create and run their own courses for full academic credit. A wide variety of programs -- "free universities" or "experimental colleges" -- burst forth in the late 1960s and many continue today. The programs which have proven most fruitful in contributing to lasting social change have had the following characteristics:
In their content:
- Students, faculty or community members can initiate and organize the courses outside of any departmental restrictions.
- They are action oriented. The work in the course is done not for personal edification, but because someone actually needs the results of the research, writing, or skill acquisition, in order to deal with real social or political issues.
- The course are run collaboratively by all the participants. The organizers of the course set the stage by defining its broad task so that the participants can share in a common goal, but within that, democratic governance of the work is necessary to unleash individual energies, commitment, and insights.
- The results of the course work are published, publicly presented, or otherwise made widely available.
In their administration:
- They are full credit courses, with the status of electives (no hard limit to the number a student can take).
- Students can obtain credit for organizing the courses as well as taking them.
- There is a support staff and guidance literature to transmit the knowledge about how to organize an effective course.
- The courses are not scattered throughout departments but are offered within a single, highly visible program, whose purpose is to cultivate such courses.
- They are run within the University, but democratically administered. The program falls under some academic administrator's auspices, but its policies, development, staff hiring, and course accreditation are determined by a democratically selected boards containing students, faculty, and appropriate community members outside the campus.
- There are funds available for publishing and making widely available the results of the research, or presenting a program or other result of the work of the course.
FRUITS OF PROGRAMS IN STUDENT-RUN COURSES:
- A complex educational community generates many unplanned opportunities and potentials.
- Development of personal skills and abilities: group organizing, cooperative skills, ability to imagine and implement alternatives, to change the rules of the game.
- Networks of acquaintances and trust.
- Opening up new career possibilities to students.
- Engage students in acts of consequence in their learning.
- Integrate students' academic program with their social concerns.
- Provide a means to channel the university's immense resources toward the urgent political and social issues of the day.
- Provide a firm factual basis for activist efforts, for arguing policy changes, and for innovative problem solving.
- Create "free social space": where ideas and aspirations that are unsanctioned and inadmissible in other social situations (classrooms, dorms, on the job, in the media, churches, public political discourse, etc.) can be openly broached, shared, reflected upon, and acted upon; and where new understandings can be developed among a group of people, who learn to work together, and can continue to work after the conclusion of the course.
This is the prototype program in student-run courses. It was organized by two grad students and one undergrad in 1969. Some of the direct fruits of different SWOPSI courses over the years include:
The Congressional Science Fellowships, the campus recycling system, stopping the Pescadero dam, stopping logging in a local forest, Synergy House (see Ecological Living Groups), the book More Other Homes and Garbage: Designs for Self-sufficient Living, the campus South African divestment movement in the U.S., and the Stanford Center for Arms Control and Disarmament.
To create a recycling program on campus, students in 1977 organized a SWOPSI on solid waste management in order to produce a business plan for their recycling operation. With solid research in hand, they campaigned to launch their recycling enterprise as a business project of the student government . The students voted in favor, and in a few years the program was one of the biggest campus recycling programs in the country. Students involved in the program have gone on to run recycling programs in Palo Alto, Philadelphia, Cornell, the University of Chicago, and Duke University.
Another SWOPSI was initiated by a professor who noticed that logging was devastating the forests near his home. He teamed up with a grad student to organize the workshop, and with 13 other students, they produced a 100 page report documenting the ecological, economic, and political aspects of logging in their counties. After the report was published and press releases and summaries sent to government officials, environmental groups and the media, the county planning commission and board of supervisors called an extraordinary joint session to consider the logging question. SWOPSI participants made a presentation of their report before a large turnout of loggers and citizen groups. As a result, legislation was introduced and passed in California to allow local counties to restrict logging, followed by local ordinances that brought the logging to a halt.
Some of the environmental publications students produced in SWOPSI include:
Logging in urban counties. 1970.
The politics of technology: activities and responsibilities of scientists in the direction of technology. 1970.
The Pescadero Dam and San Mateo County coastside development. 1970.
Pesticide exposure and protection of California farm workers. 1971.
Balanced transportation planning for suburban and academic communities. 1971.
Designs for alternative life styles: better homes and garbage. 1974.
Rapid transit and the public interest. 1974.
SWOPSI has been a catalyst to social activism in many other areas as well, with publications including:
Privacy and student records at Stanford University. 1970.
The Relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II. 1970.
Second Careers for Women Conference at Stanford University. 1971.
DOD sponsored research at Stanford. 1971.
Position paper on Stanford University's investments in corporations operating in South Africa. 1977. (Students did this research to organize a direct action campaign for university divestment. It culminated in 294 arrests for civil disobedience, which spread the campus divestment idea across the country in 1977.)
How the social environment influences curriculum change. 1979.
The Internationalization of Apartheid: the role of the United States. 1985.
HOW TO CREATE A PROGRAM OF STUDENT-RUN COURSES:
Build a constituency for the idea: a core of people who are committed to bringing it to fruition (this can be as few as 3 or 4); a body of students, faculty and staff who will offer support and do some work toward it. Find faculty who are involved in political and social issues (e.g. physicists consulting on arms control) who have no outlet within their departments to teach this side of what they do.
Research ways the program could most readily be incorporated within the existing structure, and which administrators would be agreeable to having it under their auspices.
Find out what economic resources are needed to launch the program, and research what resources within the university could be channeled to it, and what outside resources could be obtained (e.g. SWOPSI began with a Ford Foundation grant).
Develop a campaign to get approval of the program with all of its essential components intact. What is required depends entirely on the responsiveness of the administration to student initiatives, and the rules of decision making within the university. The main components of a campaign would include, as they became necessary:
- A well researched proposal, including sections on the success of such programs at other campuses, a practical plan for instituting the program within the administrative framework. Especially important is to frame the proposal in terms of how the program will embody the stated goals of the university, and to draw upon the elements of the program that already exist within the university in different forms.
- Negotiation with the necessary administrators, compromising on secondary points, holding out on essential points, innovating ways to harmonize your and their interests.
- Publicity: getting local coverage of your efforts. Administrators will know that their actions with respect to the project will be of public interest; potential supporters will learn about it and be able to join your efforts.
- Getting endorsements from key constituencies: student government, faculty council, key faculty, interested student organizations, people at other campuses.
Once such a program is instituted, it will give to students an instrument for their own empowerment that will continue to work for generation after generation of student body. It is a project that will give birth to innumerable other projects, and can fundamentally alter the political landscape of the student community.
SWOPSI Instructor's Handbook. See Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues, below.
"Public interest science in the University: The Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues," pp. 196-207 in Joel R. Primack and Frank von Hippel, 1974,
Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena . New York, Basic Books.
- Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues, Innovative Academic Courses, 120 Sweet Hall, Stanford University, CA 94305 415/725-0107.
Democratic Education at Cal, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720
Center for Common Security, P.O. Box 275, 35 Spring St., Williamstown, MA 01267 413/458-2159.
Meadowcreek Project, Fox, AR 72051 501/363-4500.
Student Community Involvement Program, Institute for Environmental Studies, 311 Pittsboro St. CB# 7410, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7410, 919/966-3335,-2358.
Escape Field Studies Program, University of Oregon, M-111 ERB Memorial Union, Eugene, OR, 503/686-4351.
Center for Participant Education, 251 Union, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32302, 904/644-6576.
ASUCD Experimental College, 260 South Silo, University of California, Davis, CA 95616-5981, 530/752-2568.
Learning Alliance, 494 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, 212/226-7171.
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