Dressed casually in baggy pants and a pullover shirt, the class instructor dumps his backpack down on the table. He's young, maybe twenty-five, and wears wire-framed glasses and a well-trimmed beard. "What's up?" he asks, raising his right hand in a friendly, almost embarrassed half-wave.
Expecting him to follow standard procedure and begin class by outlining his policies on attendance, late papers, grading, and such, I snap to attention when he announces that the class would decide the attendance policy by popular vote. As he proceeds to ask for nominations, twenty students utter a collective, "Huh?"
"Come on," he says, "who has a nomination for how many classes you should be allowed to miss?" One student in the back of the room sheepishly offers, "Five?" "Good, five," the instructor says, noting it on the blackboard. "Anyone else?" Another student, with more certainty in his voice, says, "All of them." Once again, the instructor makes note of the nomination. After waiting a few moments for more suggestions, the issue is put to a vote. "All of them" defeats "five" resoundingly; we can now miss as many classes as we want without official repercussions. I realize at that moment that Christopher Bickel is an instructor like no other.
A graduate student in the sociology department at the University of California (UC) at Santa Barbara, Bickel maintained this democratic approach to teaching throughout the ensuing course. Rather than beginning each session by saying, "Here's what we're covering today," he would ask for his students' input--for example, "Should we talk about the American Eugenics movement or go over the midterm?" And if he had decided to take roll on a given day, he would have found nearly perfect attendance. He never did, of course. He preferred to spend class time teaching.
Christopher Bickel has spent four years as a teaching assistant within the UC system--a system he decries as "autocratic" and equates to a prison. He doesn't make this comparison without experience; he spent two years working as a volunteer in a youth detention facility in Washington state. In both the educational and correctional institutions, Bickel has studied the ways that authority figures seek to gain control and the reactions of the controlled people. His research eventually cost him his position at the youth facility when the administration decided he was digging too deep.
I sat down with Bickel to discuss his experiences within both systems and the...