Reece Marshburn sits down at a piano in the back of Room 314 in Reed College's Eliot Hall and begins singing a Sun Ra song. "Talkin' about nuclear war. It's a motherfucker," he belts out, and seven wobbly voices sing the refrain back to him. This is not your average music class.
The sing-along was part of Marshburn's presentation about civically minded pop music, just one "class" offered during Learning is Fun and Dangerous, a five-day event organized by Sam Gould of the Red76 art collective as part of Reed Arts Week earlier this spring. The free, public event incorporated workshops, lectures, walking tours, films, meals and conversations in an attempt to "investigate past and possible future models for alternative educational frameworks," according to Gould.
Though it could have easily been as inaccessible as a hipster show at Dunes, Learning is Fun and Dangerous provided participants with offbeat discussion topics in a vibrant and unusual learning atmosphere. Cooley Gallery curator and director Stephanie Snyder gave a walking tour of the eerily untouched home of David and Katherine French, both well-loved anthropology professors at Reed who have passed away (David in 1994 and his wife just last year). Everyone was confused and mystified to find a .38 Special Secret Service revolver and a box of bullets in their fridge (the couple died of natural causes). Novelist Matthew Stadler gave a stirring presentation about Vedem, a zine created by teenage boys in the Terezín concentration camp during the Holocaust.
The free event highlighted a feeling that seems common in Portland, where nearly 40 percent of people over 25 hold a bachelor's or higher degree. Locals want to keep learning and we want to do it in unusual, cheap ways.
While Reed Arts Week may have been a fleeting opportunity to explore what Gould refers to as "more fluid models" of education, it's certainly not the only place around here where people can learn in unconventional ways that are both fun and "dangerous" to the status quo. There are plenty of unusual classrooms around town where workshops led by self-taught DIY-ers often cost next to nothing.
The DIY Lounge offers cheap classes in arts and crafts such as felting, collage and basic sewing, in addition to its popular small-business series. All of the classes are held at local art supply store Collage on Northeast Alberta Street.
"I like being able to share things I've learned with people because when I started [my own business], there weren't a lot of resources...I learned a lot of things the hard way," says Torie Nguyen, who teaches the Lounge's quarterly biz series. Nguyen, who holds a business degree from the University of Oregon, sells her handmade Totinette handbags and accessories online and at craft fairs, and, for $40 per class is happy to teach other people how to specifically make their creative endeavors more lucrative.
The price tag and the strong creative focus underlines one of the main differences between alternative classes and more traditional forms of adult education. According to the Oregon Community College Association's numbers for 2004-2005, continuing education generates over $146 million in the state each year. Portland Community College offers an 11-week general small-business management class for $219, while classes at the Oregon College of Art & Craft range from $75 to $400. PCC also offers more inexpensive crafty classes, but it's hard to see why anyone would choose to shell out $48 for a four-hour class on felting when they could pay half that for a similar class at the DIY Lounge.
Of course, the DIY Lounge isn't the only place to go for alt-ed options. Those who can't afford PCC's $85 online writing workshop may want to think about starting their own, like former Dangerous Writers group member Liz Taylor did with DykesWrite! at In Other Words bookstore in North Portland.
In Other Words, which grew out of the Women's Community Education Project, offers many ongoing classes and discussion. "[We are] trying to bring knowledge and knowledgeable people into the community in an accessible way so that a person can come and learn in a setting that isn't intimidating," says In Other Words board member Johanna Brenner.
Another hotspot for offbeat, DIY education in Portland is the School and Community Reuse Action Project, a nonprofit funded by donations from area businesses. Past SCRAP workshops have included how to make a messenger bag out of floppy disks or a blank journal out of a library book. (Classes are usually about $20 for two to four hours.)
If you learn better with a coffee or beer in your hand, head down the road to the Waypost coffee shop ("Coffee Talk," WW, Jan. 31, 2007)—the 10-month-old cafe's Live Journalism and Experts series features speakers and films on everything from drug legalization and cooking with medicinal herbs to deconstruction philosophy. Most of these events are free.
Perhaps the longest-running DIY education project in Portland is the Freeskool, an organization that emphasizes sharing skills and knowledge in a "non-hierarchical" atmosphere. The Portland Freeskool has been around on and off since the late 1980s and now offers instruction in everything from "feral movement" to plant propagation. Workshops are free or by donation, and classes meet in coffee shops, community centers, parks and people's homes. The Freeskool is even developing a way to teach people how to organize and run their own free school model.
"I feel like we're going back to something very basic," says Freeskool organizer Leah Goldman. "It is radical in a way because it's not an institution; it's totally decentralized."
For even more info about DIY education, tune in to Julie Sabatier's "DIY, Portland" show on KBOO 90.7FM at 10 am Thursday, May 17, or podcast it via iTunes. Additional content available at myspace.com/julieontheradio.