Kim Kardashian may be the reigning queen of selfies, but even she could learn a thing or two from UC Berkeley senior Lydia Tuan, who is teaching a class on what lies behind the compulsive self-portrait snapping phenomenon.
“An obsession with selfies can be explained by a desire for perfection,” says Tuan, who is majoring in rhetoric and comparative literature. “People want to create the self they want others to see, but they also want to create the self that they themselves aspire to be.”
“Selfies,” which starts for the first time on Feb. 5, is among more than 150 student-run, faculty-sponsored courses in the Democratic Education at Cal program, more commonly known as DeCal.
Popular DeCal themes this spring range from TV shows with cult followings, such as House of Cards, to nostalgia for childhood passions such as Japanese animé and Harry Potter. New to DeCal this spring are classes on the ABC comedy series, Modern Family, the search for extraterrestrial life, and early Bob Dylan, among other topics.
A democratic legacy
Founded in 1980 by UC Berkeley education professor John Hurst and a group of conservation and resource studies students, the DeCal program has served as a bellwether for student trends for more than 35 years.
Other college campuses have implemented similar programs, but Berkeley’s, whose roots can be traced to 1960s campus activism and the call for more student voices in the undergraduate curriculum, is easily among the first. About 3,000 Berkeley students sign up for DeCal classes each semester. Students who develop and run the classes are referred to as facilitators.
“DeCal really gives students a chance to take something they’re passionate about that they may have seen as separate from their academic lives, and integrate that into the academy,” says Elizabeth Keithley, who provides training, resources and advising to current and prospective DeCal facilitators as a director at the Student Learning Center.
To teach a DeCal class, students must secure a faculty sponsor and provide a well-thought-out syllabus that demonstrates their understanding of the chosen topic. Courses are offered on a pass/no-pass basis for one or two academic credits and can be taught by one, two or more students.
Classes that dissect popular TV shows are always a big draw.
“As a political science major, I’m really fascinated with how government works,” says Siena Guerrazzi of her DeCal on the Netflix series House of Cards, which she is co-leading for the second time with political science senior Kamran Ali, an intern for U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee.
Meanwhile, Sid Mirgati, a junior majoring in molecular and cell biology, is deconstructing contemporary family structures through the lens of Modern Family.
“I thought about my other favorite shows like Friends or Big Bang Theory, but I realized Modern Family covers a larger variety of issues that are still not considered norms throughout the country,” Mirgati says.
And, in its third semester is a DeCal on the widely beloved films of animator/director Hayao Miyazaki, whose credits include My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle.
“A highly controversial message tucked away in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is that Japanese modern culture can be symbolized by prostitution,” says co-facilitator Evan Ho, a junior majoring in molecular and environmental biology.
Revisiting childhood passions
Evergreens on the DeCal landscape are Pokémon and Harry Potter.
“For many students our age, Pokémon is something that we have fond memories of from when we were young. We’re also kind of at that age when we miss things from our childhood,” says Cal Pokémon Academy co-facilitator Jason Kuo, a junior majoring in chemical biology and math.
Ditto for the four-member teaching crew of “UC Hogwarts: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” Launched in 2007 and voted the best DeCal by the Daily Californian student newspaper in 2012, the DeCal recreates Quidditch, the Yule Ball, and the Triwizard Tournament.
“We dreamed of getting our Hogwarts acceptance letters on our 11th birthday and joining Harry in his adventures,” says Chaddy Georges, a senior majoring in political science. “This DeCal gives us the opportunity to get that acceptance letter just a few years later, and live out the fantasy we always hoped for.”
Alison Lafferty, a junior in English and Italian studies, recalls painstakingly modeling a cake after Ron Weasley’s home, the Burrow, for her final “UC Hogwarts“ project.
“The cake fell over at 3 a.m. after about five hours of baking and construction and we had to give a presentation to the class with a broken, collapsed cake,” Lafferty says.
Out of this world
DeCal newcomer “Aliens” is the brainchild of physics major Isabel Angelo, who came up with the idea during a recent internship with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View.
“I honestly had a fantasy that scientists at SETI would show me an alien that NASA’s been hiding for 30 years and make me swear to secrecy I wouldn’t tell or something,” she says. “But then when I got to SETI, someone during a lecture mentioned Roswell and Area 51 and everyone just laughed and moved on.”
“I was pretty disappointed because I really have a lot of trouble reconciling conspiracy theories with scientific theories and this showed that there is really a lack of inclusive dialogue that integrates both of these approaches,” she adds.
For example, she says, at SETI, there was much discussion about ways to detect aliens, such as Dyson spheres, megastructures that could theoretically capture a star’s energy.
“You really don’t need a room full of esteemed scientists to think of something like that as much as you need creativity,” she says.
Bob Dylan’s youthful angst
Another DeCal novice is “Bob Dylan’s Lyrics: 1962-1966,” created by math major Aja Klevs. She fell in love with the revolutionary poet and music legend at age 11 while watching Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, then read her mom’s copy of Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles Volume One.
“This book launched me into a 10-year obsession, propelled by my teenage angst,” Klevs says. “At this point I have read over a dozen books and articles and watched just about every film related to the man.”
Klevs wants her students to look beyond Dylan’s gruff exterior.
“Many people have a perception of Dylan as an old grouchy man who mumbles about politics to the sound of a poorly played guitar,” she says. “Yet by 1966 he was a 25-year-old drug addict with an electric guitar, performing psychedelic ballads at huge concert-halls, backed by a blues-rock band … To me, this Dylan embodies the essence of youth and angst.”
DeCal classes don’t just revolve around pop culture. In its second semester is a DeCal on marijuana reform, co-run by political science majors Anthony Miller and Eileen Ollivier.
“As current medical marijuana patients, we understand the importance of destigmatizing cannabis and advocating for its legalization,” Miller says.
From selfies to Knitting 101
Going strong since spring 2014 is “Knitting 101,” which typically draws 40 to 50 students, most of whom are avid about their craft.
“Knitting is often perceived as a hobby for grandmas and girls, and too old-fashioned for college students,” says co-facilitator and microbiology major Samantha Wong. “But this definitely isn’t true. Knitting is a way to promote creativity, design one’s own patterns and be productive during study breaks.”
Meanwhile, those who sign up for “Selfies” won’t be learning the best angles to attract more Instagram followers. Instead, they’ll be assigned readings that “presuppose some familiarity with media and literary theory.”
And don’t expect Tuan to share a self-portrait. “I don’t take selfies,” she says.