Remembering the Experimental College…

ec… an experiment that worked

The ASUW Experimental College was established in 1968.  It was created by students looking for more interesting, relevant and – yes – experimental educational experiences. It was no coincidence that it came into being in the ’60s. a decade of experimentation, reform, revolution and change.

The EC was experimental in a number of senses. One was that when it was created, noncredit schools focused on learning for the fun of it, without the bludgeon of passing or failing grades to “force” the students to do well, were almost unheard of.  Another was the notion of affordable courses in which the students paid the teacher directly, which stayed true at the Experimental College till the end.  Most classes met on the University of Washington campus, a fantastic location. The school’s name itself started attracting both mainstream educators and a bevy of teachers and students with a decidedly experimental bent.

I offered a few classes through the Experimental College in the 1970s, dipping my toes into the teaching experience and learning how to present information in a way students seemed to like. By that time, there were dozens dozens of instructors at the EC, offering classes in a wild range of subjects.  (Rick Steves, known for his Travel with Rick Steves Radio Show on National Public Radio, got his start at the Experimental College.) 

In a sense, the EC dominated noncredit education in Seattle, in those early years.  There was no internet of course, and most registrations were in person; students would travel from as far north as Bellingham on the opening day of registrations each quarter to sign up for classes.  (I met some lifelong friends standing in line, waiting several hours sometimes for the opportunity to sign up.) The EC published almost 200,000 print catalogs a quarter, in its heyday, which could be found everywhere in Seattle – in coffee shops, cafes, libraries and doctor’s offices.

The EC’s name wasn’t completely random; the “experimental” aspect was in full swing in those early years. One of my favorite course offerings from the 1977 course catalog was “Winterizing Your Beehive.”  Another gave earnest advice on how to “Start a Communist Commune in Your Back Yard” (for fun and profit, I’m sure).  There were a few staid, mainstream instructors offering courses in traditional topics such as math, physics, astronomy and real estate, but loopy, unpredictable and zany classes were the order of the day, and the EC was the place to find them.

In 1979, after a break from teaching, I came back to offer a class in comic book illustration.  It caught fire, and I added courses in the fundamentals of drawing, painting, figure drawing, and other visual arts related to the work I was doing by that time as a graphic artist, illustrator and designer. Years later, when I began focusing more on my own writing, playwriting, and (still later), independent filmmaking, I developed classes in those subjects. 

The EC was a great place to try new things, develop new classes, offer an eclectic assortment of courses and learn in practice how the students liked them.  It helped me refine and develop my own teaching abilities, as the years and decades went by. I started out with one class and was teaching a dozen, by the end of my first two decades there.  Many other teachers traveled a similar path.

In 2002, I set up my own school, Classesandworkshops.com. I planned originally to use it only to promote my Experimental College classes, but soon began adding classes and workshops by other instructors. As the years passed, Classesandworkshops.com began growing and expanding, finding its own foundation as an independent educational program. The Experimental College had in a sense given birth to a new school in a roundabout way. (Classesandworkshops.com and several other schools in the Seattle area would not have existed if the Experimental College hadn’t given myself and other instructors an opportunity to develop and offer a wide range of classes as the years went by.)

“Do not go gentle…”

The Experimental College announced in the summer of 2016 that they would be closing their doors after this summer’s classes.  I wish them well, and am saddened to see them go. There is a possibility that they may return in the Fall of 2017,  after a restructuring, if the ASUW supports the plan to do so. If they do come back, whatever changes they make, I would love to see them stay true to their experimental roots. 

P.S. A few people have emailed me to ask if Classesandworkshops.com is affected by the Experimental College’s closing. The answer is, no. We’re a totally separate school; our enrollments have been growing at a steady pace, and we ended our affiliation with the Experimental College a few months ago, partly because we planned on offering more classes for the general community, not held on the UW campus. We’re now gearing up for our own fall quarter. Life goes on.