UC Berkeley News


DeCal helps students teach one another
To the delight of its staff and faculty fans, the program, with invigorated oversight, continues to flourish

| 11 February 2004

Mention DeCal to anyone on campus who isn’t an undergraduate taking a DeCal class, or a faculty member sponsoring one, and you’re likely to get an eye roll — or a wink — in response.

Still fresh in the minds of many is the controversy that erupted two years ago over the off-campus behavior of the student coordinating a DeCal course in male sexuality. In February 2002, the Daily Californian alleged that students in the course had observed its undergraduate facilitator having sex in a strip club. Though a faculty investigation concluded that the allegation was false and that other charges of misconduct in the article “involved distortions,” the brouhaha effectively colored the perceptions of many — despite the DeCal program’s long track record of success — regarding its utility to the university.

To the extent that those perceptions persist, say DeCal supporters, detractors are failing to appreciate the good work of the classes — all of them organized and facilitated by students — offered through DeCal. They are also, say many, failing to acknowledge the changes that have strengthened the student group over the past two years.

John Hurst, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and an originator of the program, says that while some of DeCal’s course titles (131 this semester) may sound flaky, “the overwhelming majority of courses have been carefully researched and wonderfully executed.”

DeCal is the nickname for the Special Studies 98/198 series of courses organized under the rubric Democratic Education at Cal. The program, which originated in 1980 as “Education for Democracy,” a class taught by Hurst, provides a means for students to develop courses. Student facilitators can focus on any subject they choose, provided they secure the support of faculty sponsors who will review and approve the syllabi they devise.

Students who initiate DeCal courses are not expected to be experts on the subject matters they examine. Their role is to spark discussion and lead their peers to ask — and answer — their own questions. The experience lets students explore an area of interest in a community of peers, and helps the student organizer develop leadership and facilitation skills.

The estimated 3,000 students who signed up for Special Studies courses last semester selected from a dizzying range of topics, from conversational Cantonese, identity issues for immigrants, and the state of civil liberties to turn-of-the-century Bollywood, the life and work of Dr. Seuss, and the (pre-Timberlake) choreography of Janet Jackson. Students take the courses on a pass/not-pass basis — a point that Hurst is at pains to emphasize to dispel the notion of some critics that students are giving one another “easy A’s.”

Last spring, at an end-of-semester debriefing session, 25 student course facilitators said that their DeCal experience had been among their most challenging and rewarding at Berkeley. That response was gratifying but not surprising to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Christina Maslach, a DeCal supporter. “As every faculty member knows,” she says, “teaching is one of the best ways to learn.”

The changing face of DeCal
In the past year, a concerted effort has been made to stabilize the student-run organization and improve its image. An advisory board of student course facilitators, faculty, and staff now collaborates to oversee the program. Last year the Student Learning Center, part of the Division of Undergraduate Education, created a staff position — the Undergraduate Course Facilitator for Training and Resources (UCFTR) — whose charge is to assist course organizers.

Says Vice Provost Maslach: “We have put in place a terrific set of new services to support Cal students who want to learn the ropes of designing and leading a course for their peers. I’m pleased to see the community that is emerging out of the program. The students themselves are setting a really high bar for quality in student-initiated courses. “

The six hard-working students to whom Maslach refers sit on DeCal’s advisory board. Along with that body’s staff and faculty members, they have recruited volunteers, secured increased ASUC funding, and developed new DeCal programs. Among the latter are SmallCal (limited-enrollment seminars) and IntensiveCal, month-long, one-unit courses that meet multiple hours a week to focus on a single subject.

Faculty sponsors can focus on curriculum
DeCal’s student board members have also stepped up efforts to inform faculty about the program’s benefits and what sponsoring a DeCal course entails. The board’s goal is gradually to address misconceptions about the program to increase support from faculty, enabling more students to gain facilitator experience.

The time commitment for a faculty sponsor depends on how much guidance the professor and student facilitator decide is necessary for the course. Ideally, notes UCFTR Polly Pagenhart, now that she is on board to field questions on such matters as assigning homework and running discussions, faculty sponsors will be freed up to spend more time as mentors in the key area of curriculum development, concentrating on their interactions with student course facilitators instead of on the nuts and bolts of course organization.
“There’s usually a formal, businesslike feeling when students meet with professors,” says Tyler Shores, a senior English major and DeCal board member, who will be facilitating “The Simpsons and Philosophy” for the third time this semester. “But as a student facilitator, you form a fundamentally different relationship with the professor, because now you go to [him or her] to learn about teaching.”

“Think of it,” says Polly Pagenhart. “These students are so motivated to share their enthusiasm that they’re willing to engage in an enormous amount of work, usually for little or no credit. Many are honing their takes on disciplines they plan to influence later as graduate students and professors. Who wouldn’t want to engage that kind of energy?”

For information on Special Studies courses, visit education.berkeley.edu/specialstudies/. The DeCal website, decal.org/, and that of the Undergraduate Course Facilitator for Training and Resources, slc.berkeley.edu/ucftr/ucftr.htm, provide background for those who wish to develop and obtain support for student-initiated courses.

On Saturday, April 3, the DeCal advisory board will sponsor DeCal Day, to draw together the DeCal learning community and explain Special Studies classes to interested students, faculty, and staff. Course facilitators will present brief samplings of their classes, with five to ten presentations each hour. For information about the event, contact decalprogram@hotmail.com, visit the DeCal office in 320 Eshleman Hall, or call 642-9127.

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