Ephs seek uncommon knowledge in Free University classes

William Hayes ’14 (left) assists in Wade Phenicie’s ’14 Free University course, “Become a DJ.” Christian Ruhl/Photo Editor.
William Hayes ’14 (left) assists in Wade Phenicie’s ’14 Free University course, “Become a DJ.” Christian Ruhl/Photo Editor.

Ephs looking to sharpen their knife-wielding skills this January are in luck. For anyone interested in cutting, chopping and slicing, there’s a class for that. “We do the practical stuff first,” instructor Sauman Cheng ’16 said. “We’ll talk about knives and knife anatomy, how to care for knives, and how, of course, to use them.” With the precision of an anatomy and physiology professor, she points to a labeled diagram of a Santoku kitchen knife.

“Knives: How to Use Them” is one of ten Free University courses offered this Winter Study. The program allows Ephs to coordinate and lead classes based on their personal interests – everything from twerking to poker to fencing. Some courses just meet once; others meet several times a week. After last year’s hiatus, the program has resurged with more enthusiastic support than ever.

“I’m shocked by how successful this has been!” April Jenkins ’14, the Free University program director, said. Jenkins was appointed by College Council (CC) to coordinate the program, recruit instructors to teach classes and find available rooms. According to Jenkins, between 70 and 100 people have already signed up to take one or more classes.

Jenkins has been taking a Free University class taught by friend Caitlin Yumori ’14. The course teaches students how to cook in their dorm rooms. “It makes me sad to think that so many people here are living off of Easy Mac,” Yumori said with a laugh. “So I wanted to give a cooking class where you could make everything in your own room.”

Yumori’s class meets three times, focusing on breakfast, lunch or dinner at each meeting. The class focuses on preparing on healthy, vegetarian meals. The first lesson taught students how to make frittatas in a microwave. “I just set up the ingredients, told people how to use them and then people took turns using the microwave,” Yumori said.

Yumori was pleasantly surprised that 16 people signed up for the class, many of whom she’d never met beforehand. “There were a lot of new faces at our first meeting,” she said, attributing the high participation rates to the universal nature of her subject matter. “I guess cooking seems like a pretty useful skill.”

Food certainly seems to be a hot topic for this year’s round of Free University courses. Cheng’s knife course also focuses on cooking. “My knives course is basically a ‘how to prep ingredients course,’” she explained, stirring an aromatic stir-fry of freshly chopped onions.

In the first lesson, she laid out the differences between  slicing and  dicing, the different strokes, how to hold a knife and – most importantly – how to hold the object you’re cutting. “Cooking can be simple and part of life. But for it to fit into your life in an efficient way, you need to have some skills down.”

Like Yumori, Cheng also had several strangers show up to her class. The group hit it off immediately and chatted animatedly as they collaborated on the class’s final project: French Onion soup with cheese toast.

While some of the course offerings attempt to impart basic survival skills, others act as training programs that help students attain specialized certification.

The DJing class, taught by Wade Phenicie ’14, prepares students to run their own shows on the College’s radio station, WCFM. “Students are brought into the station and are taught how to use our extensive and expensive equipment including switchboards, the phone and the transmitter,” Phenicie said. “We also give tips on how to make doing their show an easy and non-awkward experience.”

After two lessons, trainees shadow two live shows. Finally, they take a written exam on station policies and perform a “practical test” in which they run a mock show.

After completing this training, they become certified to broadcast their own shows for WCFM. “They come in every week and do their show. While many DJs have shows where they play music, there is also some talk programming at the station,” Phenicie said.

And some of the courses focus on other offbeat but useful life skills. Remington Damper ’14 is teaching a class on poker strategy. “I teach them something they can incorporate into their game right away to make them a better player,” says Damper, a poker guru who became interested in the game a few years ago when he was pledging a fraternity at Wayne State University. “After losing money, I went searching for information about the game . . . and learned the ways to beat the game,” Damper said.

Keeping his class confined to the Purple Bubble has been challenging for Damper. “I was hoping to take a road trip to a casino at the end of the class to teach live poker etiquette,” he said.  “I also wanted to be able to supply everyone with some of the more expensive equipment that helped me with studying the game. But the budget request was denied.”

For the most part, however, CC hasn’t had a problem finding funding for courses. “A lot of the courses – “Twerking,” for example – don’t require any funding at all,” Jenkins says. “And no one gets paid. The only reward is getting to share something you’re passionate about.”

Jenkins highlighted that anyone can teach a Free University course on any subject, provided that it’s not illegal. All instructors need to have are some sweet skills and the   willingness to share them with others. And with so many Ephs boasting an array of talents, there’s no shortage of quirky course content. As Jenkins puts it, “This is such a Williams-y program.”