Student leadership sparks resurgence of Free University

While Winter Study typically  is a relatively relaxed month, students choosing to participate  in  Free University, however, are uncharacteristically busy. Free University, a program that allows students to act as “professors” of a subject that they feel passionate about, puts on classes ranging from “Toga Dance” to “The Art of Eskimo Warfare.” Though it first began as an independent student organization, over time, Free University has evolved into a program organized and supported by College Council (CC).

Over the past couple decades, the College has watched Free University diminish from an organization that attracted hundreds of students to an institution that only hosted classes with a handful of students attending. However, this Winter Study premiered a promising new beginning for the organization. After a one-year hiatus, Free University 2012 was directed by Harry Gilbert ’14, who oversaw roughly 15 student instructors as they created a course syllabus, found classroom space and conducted their classes. The enthusiasm of student instructors, CC members and Gilbert demonstrates that the group is prepared to work harder in order to make aspects of the program more accessible to the entire campus.


The first recorded year of Free University was in 1988; the program was originally modeled after programs at similar colleges. While 15 courses were offered this year, in the past, as many as 63 courses have been instructed in a single period (“Hundreds registered for Free U.,” Jan. 15, 2005).

In 2004, CC took control of Free University after a student group declined to continue work on the project, bringing in long-forgotten aspects such as a course demo fair, free t-shirts and multiple official organizers.

CC members Mike Guo ’05 and Peter Tosirisuk ’07 managed the program in the early 2000s in order to ensure its continuation, with Guo lobbying to add the program into CC’s responsibilities (“Free U. offers eclectic mix of Winter Study course options,” Jan. 20, 2004). Most recently, Free University has been run by a manager or director that has been directly appointed by CC.

Free University was institutionalized last year, and new additions to the program were discussed under the leadership of former CC co-presidents Emanuel Yekutiel ’11 and Ifiok Inyang ’11.

“Manny and If have always talked about how Winter Study is a great time to explore things that you don’t have time for from students who have made it their passion and sometimes have no other venue for sharing it,” CC Secretary Krista Pickett ’13 said. “They wanted it to be free, somewhat structured classes during Winter Study that if there was a cost for materials, it would be subsidized by CC. Everyone could take a part in Free University and you could teach anything,” she said.

Zach Evans ’12 was the director of Free University during Winter Study 2010. “I was on CC and was asked by the [then] CC co-presidents Jeremy Goldstein ’09 and Peter Nurnberg ’09 to run the program,” Evans said.

Evans noted that during that time the program had little direction, and so he sought to work more closely with CC officers to ensure its future success. Evans also created an extensive manual to provide guidelines and advice for the future Free University directors. “I’d like to think it helped,” he said.

Leadership and CC involvement

Harry Gilbert ’14 was appointed this year’s director of Free University by CC a month and a half before the beginning of Winter Study. “I got an e-mail from Zach Evans asking if I was interested in doing Free University,” Gilbert said. “I’d never heard of it before.”

Gilbert began preparations for his role by “trying to create excitement” for the program. The previous year, Free University was not offered due to an oversight by CC, and thus many students, especially first-years and sophomores, were not familiar with the program. “What I thought would best generate enthusiasm for Free University courses was communicating through WSO, putting posters up in Paresky and sending out all-campus e-mails,” Gilbert said.

The advertisements for Free University called for student instructors interested in teaching to submit a five-sentence course description, choose a course meeting time and book a location or classroom through the Event Management System, the College’s room-scheduler software. Gilbert would then work with the student instructors to figure out funding and ensure the feasibility of the proposal. While the original deadline for submissions was Dec. 20, Gilbert moved the deadline back to Jan. 2 in order to accommodate students preoccupied with finals, allowing more students time to craft an excellent proposal. After finals period, “the e-mails slowly tricked in,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert added that he thought the number of course proposals submitted was astounding. However, he did not reject any of the classes proposed. “I didn’t expect this many courses, and I don’t think that there is really a limit to how many Free University courses there could be. I also don’t think there’s a problem with a course with only five to six students,” he said.

Gilbert also revamped Free University’s Willipedia page after receiving all of the student proposals. He published the current course catalog, along with a description of each course, onto the site so that students could browse through all of the selections. Additionally, course catalogs from previous years were linked to the page.

“One of the ways enthusiasm was created was on the Willipedia page,” Gilbert said. “There were previous course catalogs that showed all types of old courses, like how to play Halo or queer German cinema … All these topics that students had specialties in that they don’t get to express or share as often. Free University gives these students an opportunity to do that.”

Gilbert commented that the instructors were very independent in organizing their courses. “It really was on the students,” he said. “I organized and directed [the program], but they put together their proposal, course and rooms, and some of them did individual advertising.”

Currently, Gilbert is soliciting feedback from instructors on their experience with Free University and does not yet have a clear grasp on the number of students that attended the program this year. “Some of [the classes] were overenrolled, some of them were not,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s just an advertising issue or the subject matter not being interesting. I’m not quite sure why some courses thrived and some courses floundered.”

Gilbert added that since the program is situated during Winter Study, a time period notorious for relaxation and a brief hiatus from the academic pressures of the College, “You have to strike a fine balance with Free University. There’s that whole Winter Study mentality … if you even have a Free University course twice a week, some people think that’s a lot simply because it’s Winter Study.”

The only negative that Gilbert perceived in this year’s Free University was the lack of specific or individualized course advertising, yet he added that this option was not made explicitly clear to instructors. “I didn’t perceive this as my responsibility [at the time],” he said. “I would tell them to advertise for their own courses if I did this again.”

Gilbert went on to say that some classes suffered from low attendance, which was “frustrating” to instructors, and that more advertising in the future could possibly raise the awareness on campus of these courses.

“Free University is a wonderful tradition [that] I hope continues to grow in the future,” Evans said. “Harry did a superb job in coordinating everything for Free University this year.”

Courses offered for Free University 2012

This year, 15 different courses were offered during Winter Study, ranging from diverse and peculiar topics such as “The Land of Equestria,” which focused on the world of My Little Pony, to catchy titles like “Pimposophy and Pimpology.” One of the most popular classes was “Cookin’ by the Book,” instructed by Andrew Kung ’12, whose class was reportedly overwhelmed with a large number of students eager to learn. Charlie Sellars ’13 taught the popular class “Making Mash-ups,” which also had high attendance.

Some students chose to focus on practical yet interesting topics, such as Son Le ’14 who instructed a course on computer maintenance. “Working at the OIT help desk since my freshman year, I’ve heard various complaints about interrupted wifi connection on Macbooks and Windows laptops running slowly or getting viruses,” he said. “I decided to address the most popular issues with my Free University class, hoping to teach attendees how to resolve issues on their own.”

Le focused on learning techniques that would save students a trip to the OIT or a dip into their savings for purchases of expensive extra software. “I called it [learning] ‘with bare hands’ in the Free University catalog,” Le said.

Though Le’s class only had one attendee, Meredith Sopher ’14, this enabled him to use one-on-one tutorial and step-by-step demonstrations that would not have been possible in a large classroom setting. “I had hoped that there would have been three to four more [attendees],” he said.

Le was glad for the opportunity to share his computer skills. “I love teaching about these so-called computer tricks simply because I know they have immediate practical application,” he said. Le said he hopes to teach the class during next year’s Free University cycle but plans to expand his curriculum to include more topics than simply computer maintenance.

Several classes, such as a course on contra dance conducted by Annie Moriondo ’14, and a tae kwon do class taught by Nathan Schine ’13, focused on a more physical, unconventional course curriculum that attracted a diverse group. “I’ve been teaching tae kwon do on campus since freshman year,” Schine said. “I thought that the Free University format would reach people who otherwise might not consider taking tae kwon do.”

Schine’s class boasted one of the larger attendance records, with up to 12 students enrolled. “It was about the right number,” he said.

Schine stated that he has only received positive feedback from attendees and even thinks that several of his Free University students will continue taking lessons during the semester at his bi-weekly classes. “I would definitely do [Free University] again,” he said.

Other instructors seized Free University as an opportunity to enter thoughtful dialogue about more conceptual issues that pertain to students on campus. Andrea Lindsay ’13 and Sara Finkle ’14 journeyed down this path, jointly teaching a course titled “Visioning” that explored the concept of visioning and its relation to activism and envisioning the world. The pair had been discussing the topic back-and-forth and decided it was time to expand their dialogue to the campus through Free University.

“We wanted to engage with the idea in a sort of ‘workshop’ for ourselves anyway, so we thought we might as well open it up to whomever else was interested,” Lindsay said.

While attendance was not high, the pair was simply happy that anyone took the time to come at all. “We had three students at our first meeting and one student who kept meeting with us throughout January,” said Lindsay. “Some other people expressed interest, but because of the workshop format, it was hard to bring people in after the beginning.”

The syllabus was developed “as we went,” she continued. “What we ended up doing was using the first meeting to talk about the concept of visioning, do a quick brainstorm of our vision for the ideal world and discuss what came from that. Then we had ‘homework’ to write about a day in our ideal world and met to discuss that; then we worked on more comprehensive visions and met to discuss those as they developed. The class also attended the tea series that Sara organized, where community members shared their vision for the world and presented examples of their work that supported their vision.” Lindsay said that the pair had considered having readings to supplement their discussions but ultimately decided against it to keep the casual vibe.

Lindsay and Finkle were positive about their experience instructing the course. “We had lots of fun, and I might do it again, since it’s a project that was personally rewarding for me,” Lindsay said.

Funding issues 

One of the issues perceived by the past and present Free University directors has been the lack of clarity regarding funding. “Coming into Winter Study, neither I nor [the instructors] had a good idea of what sort of funding was available for Free University and how that funding could be obtained,” Gilbert said. “No one knew how to structure their courses [without funding information].”

Gilbert said that the only information about funding that he learned before beginning Free University was from a personal conversation with an upperclassman that had participated in a previous Free University, who mentioned that funding was available. “I didn’t receive any e-mails or official information regarding funding,” Gilbert said.

“I eventually contacted Francesca [Barrett ’12, CC co-president], Nick [Fogel ’12, CC co-president] and Jack [Noelke ’13, CC treasurer], and eventually they figured out [the funding] over Winter Study,” Gilbert continued.

Recently, a CC bylaw was approved that stated that each instructor would be given a maximum of $50 toward his Free University course, an amount of money that reportedly had been the unofficial quota over the years for instructors who approached CC requesting funding.

“There had been talk of whether to allocate $500 dollars, but we decided to just keep it at $50 per person, and if instructors needed more, then they could work with the Free University director and CC treasurer,” Pickett said.

Additionally, Evans has proposed a CC bylaw amendment to institutionalize and clarify the position of Free University director which will be discussed at an upcoming CC meeting.

Evans explained that one of the changes in store for the future of Free University is the addition of budgeting meetings between student instructors and the director to outline a financial plan for their desired courses. After compiling a budget, the student instructors will then work with the CC treasurer to ensure “speedy access” to funds.

According to Evans, CC will decide which courses should be funded due to their subject material; courses that do not require many gadgets may not receive CC funds. This process will be discussed and solidified at the upcoming CC meeting and will be advertised next winter.

While these changes came too late for this year’s Free University, Gilbert is glad for the changes in store. “We didn’t figure out [funding] early enough to make it as effective for this year, but for future years, funding should be made available from the get-go.”

However, Gilbert said he realizes that CC “can only do so much” in regards to giving out funding for courses. “If you need more money [than the CC quota], it has to come out of your own pocket,” he said.

The future of Free University

Evans also sees a bright future for Free University at the College with a couple tweaks along the way. “Now that funding is clarified for Free University and the manual has been updated, I think Free University will grow as a program, both in quality of programming and quantity of courses,” he said. Evans also proposed expanding the instructor format to include other College community members: “It would be interesting for faculty and staff to teach courses in the future,” he said.

Gilbert added that several students in the proposal submission process asked him if Free University courses could continue outside of Winter Study. “I’m not entirely sure if it would work,” he sad. “People are taking four classes, have sports, performances or whatever extracurricular activities they do, and it sounds like [Free University] would step on the toes of what clubs and organizations would do,” he said.

Nevertheless, Gilbert said he believes that Free University has built a strong base this year for the program to thrive and grow. He also credited the student instructors for carrying out the success of Free University this year. “I think that they deserve the credit for how well Free University did this year,” he said. “It was rewarding for me but probably more rewarding for them.”


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *