No work all play? A look at Berkeley’s DeCals

Concrete-Canoe_Michael-Drummond
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

The monotony of waking up and going to our registered classes — a routine that students have long been accustomed to. Classes are met with rolled eyes or the slap of a snooze button rather than excitement, as well as dread of and reluctance to attend classes that simply don’t seem worth attending. A common attitude toward learning is that it’s inherently boring and that fun is simply a rare byproduct.

School is boring, and free time is fun. Any overlap is luck. How often do we receive a perfect lineup of courses that walk this line? Is it possible?

At the intersection of formal education and the diverse out-of-class lives UC Berkeley students lead sits the DeCal — UC Berkeley’s outlet for student passion that allows individuals to design and teach courses themselves. Many view the DeCal, consisting of one to three pass/no pass units, as easy credits to cushion their rigorous schedules.

Initiated in 1965, Democratic Education at Cal, or DeCal, is meant to give students the opportunity to think critically about their education in a proactive way. It serves as an alternative outlet that caters to students’ special interests, whether they’re professional or recreational. Backed by faculty sponsors, student facilitators can teach practically any subject they want.

From a quirky class on Rubik’s Cubes to the intrigue offered in “Criminal Psychology,” DeCals are designed for those seeking a respite from the burdens of a UC Berkeley education. They enable students to take their education into their own hands, especially for those unsatisfied with what departments have to offer.

Turns out, when curated effectively, a DeCal can be far more than a couple of extra units and instead serve as a space where some students’ ideal model of a classroom can be put into practice.

Take the “ ‘Mean Girls’ and Modern Society” DeCal, based on the 2004 cult film. At first glance, this sounds like a great excuse to sit back and watch an old favorite once a week. But the course, co-facilitated by Kunal Kerai, a junior psychology and rhetoric double major, has instead been structured to exhibit how fusing pop culture with contemporary social issues can create interesting and stimulating discourse.

By examining topics such as body image, race, sexual identities and cultural appropriation through the lens of an iconic movie, students can digest longstanding issues within a familiar context for a technologically literate generation. The class’s core concepts are relatable but sound like what might be discussed in a sociology or gender studies course.

“It’s definitely hard to be a university that prides itself on social awareness when we just get ourselves stuck at Doe all the time,” Kerai says.

In the case of the DeCal “Concrete Canoe,” learning beyond theory involves literally going outside the classroom. Students use the principles of civil engineering to come up with the best design for a canoe made out of concrete. Though it’s a course that relies on engineering, the DeCal attracts students from all majors.

Sounds absurd, but the challenge actually ends up being incredibly instructive. Ensuring that a concrete canoe will actually float is a challenging task. The task of collaborating to make concrete float requires hands-on work and a capacity for experimentation — types of student engagement that are typically absent from standard lectures. The DeCal prepares students for the National Concrete Canoe Competition, an event sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“It’s pushing the boundaries of what we can do in civil engineering, so why not make a canoe out of concrete?” says Brooke Gemmell, a junior civil and environmental engineering major and a co-facilitator of “Concrete Canoe.”

But effective DeCals aren’t always breaking new ground — sometimes they seek to fill gaps in campus or professional resources. For those seeking career advice, DeCals can make up for the impersonal nature of classes through the peer-to-peer interaction they foster. Tai Tran, a fifth-year senior business administration major, facilitates the popular “Social Media, Marketing and Networking DeCal,” a course he pitched when he noticed a lack of marketing resources for undergraduates.

The “Social Media” DeCal helps orient students in their hunt for top internships and better prepare them for life after graduation. As a fellow undergrad, Tran can offer anecdotes from past professional experience that are recent enough to relate to — it’s enough to lend students the assurance they’re looking for. If one of their own did it, why can’t they?

“What I teach is basically what I learn on the job from Fortune 500 companies. It’s not really about me speaking from a book,” Tran says. “This class is built on my experience from the past four years, starting from an unpaid internship to where I am today.”

With assignments such as landing an interview with a marketing employee in the Bay Area, Tran ensures that his students work as diligently as they’re expected to in their future careers — far from an easy A.

When it comes to navigating your way around a large campus, it can be difficult to make friends in class. That’s where even noneducational DeCals seem to play an important role on campus, despite their somewhat frivolous content. Recreational DeCals that revolve around a specific hobby or interest, such as “Video Games and You: The Player’s Perspective,” guarantee that their students already have one thing in common with the entire class when they walk in the door. This sense of community can’t be discounted at a place such as UC Berkeley.

Not that all they do is play games — the “Video Games” DeCal examines concepts such as gamification, philosophy and anthropology of online communities in games. The class is evidence that even hobbies can be worth studying. Nathan Chong, a co-facilitator and senior computer science major, says that taking the class made him realize why he enjoys specific games, helping him gain a deeper understanding of his own personal activities.

Having student facilitators in place of accomplished professors shatters the barrier between student and teacher. The community atmosphere restored in DeCals makes concepts easier to translate or digest. Because of the degree of transparency introduced, everyone can be vulnerable together.

The variety of positive student experiences is evidence enough that DeCals do live up to the hype and aren’t actually at all hollow. DeCals show how students can learn from any subject material and any type of environment; there is no fixed notion of school. A personalized education encourages personal growth, and it’s possible only through engaging with our own interests. Learning doesn’t have to be dull — not if you don’t want it to be.

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