Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): Deep Springs College

By Clarice Tan (21A01C) and Matthew Ethan Ramli (21S03F)

Nestled in a desert valley in California is a small liberal-arts school—Deep Springs College (DSC). The size of each cohort does not exceed 15, and students, in addition to managing their academic work, are expected to participate in labour and governance to prepare them for ‘a life of service’. Redefining education, DSC views students “not as consumers but as creators of their education and as stewards of a joint intellectual project”. Raffles Press spoke to RI alumna Amelia Ding (19A01D) to find out more.

Why did you choose DSC?

It was application season, and my friend in KI class sent it to me as a ‘hipster philosophy school’ joke. I thought it was interesting, so I applied. 

There were two rounds of application. The first round asks for four essays, and the second round asks for a few more essays, and an application visit. I visited the college in February 2020, right before Covid outbreak, and I was intrigued. That’s why I’m here. I also applied to a few other liberal art colleges, but I was very fascinated by the idea of living in a small intellectual community. 

I was excited about the three pedagogical pillars of academics, labour and self governance, and I really wanted to be challenged by them. 

There are many things I would like to figure out, such as how an individual should relate to a community and the society at large, how I could relate to nature, how I think about labour, and what solitude could mean for me. Living in isolation could help me process [these things]. Deep Springs is also free—everyone gets a full scholarship, we don’t pay for housing, food, or tuition. 

Could you talk more about DSC’s location?

There is a certain surrealism to it because Deep Springs is the only place in the US that I’ve spent time in. The nearest town, Bishop, is an hour’s drive away, and students practice isolation policy during academic terms (meaning we don’t leave the valley—very convenient Covid-policy wise), and we’re a little village of our own. When I was on my application visit, I took a train from Los Angeles Union Station to Lancaster, and then the crest bus to Bishop, where I [was] picked up by a student driver. The trip took the whole day. 

Our isolated location means we are a very close-knit community. We live with staff and faculty and develop close friendships with them. We live close to animals—cows, horses, turkey, chicken, etc. We also live close to nature. Our Valley is in the Inyo-White Mountains of Inyo County, and we are close to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, near the California-Nevada state border. The mountains are beautiful, and I am still always in awe whenever I wake up to [the] sunrise. I think we are one of the best places in the world for stargazing, too. There is little light pollution, and on a summer night, it’s very common to see shooting stars.  

What are the lessons like? 

All classes are seminar style, and student-led. Classes are typically 1.5 hours. The professors will usually start us off with a short mini spiel of 5-10 minutes to frame the discussion, we will roundtable our interests, confusions, or questions about the text and start the discussion from there. Professors usually take on facilitative and not interventionist roles in seminars.

We exercise self-governance in employing faculty members and choosing classes. The curriculum committee evaluates applications, makes decisions to employ visiting and long-term faculty members. Faculty members will propose a few courses before every semester, which the entire Student Body will vote on during course night. 

We do tend to focus on disciplines and materials that are more seminar-conducive, such as humanities and social sciences. It’s harder to have good seminars for math and science classes. In the past two semesters, I took a mixture of social science and humanities classes. I took Politics of Punishment, Readings in (Post)Colonialism, Smith and Marx, The Cubist War, Aesthetics and Politics, Brothers Karamazov, Math Analysis, etc. 

Does the teaching style differ from RI’s teaching style?

It’s drastically different. I do appreciate the lecture-tutorial model in RI, and I think I have received amazing academic preparation. I think KI has equipped me with the basic tools to delve deeper into academic philosophy, and Literature has made me a much better reader and writer. 

But I think seminars in Deep Springs have changed my relationships with academic material. Lecturing as a form of instruction makes it such that all you have to do as a student is to comprehend and expand on what is being delivered to you. In seminars, I am no longer taught what to look out for in a text, but I am empowered to take responsibility for developing my own interests in the text. It’s a much more personal and intimate relationship with acquiring knowledge. 

Coherent to the egalitarian seminar format, in Deep Springs, class participation is a big part of grading. We don’t receive letter grades unless we request for it, and everyone receives detailed narrative evaluations on our performances and how we can be better seminar participants.  

Q: How is the labour experience like?

A: I love labour. It took me a while to get used to the intensity of labour, and take pride in my work. It is definitely very challenging, whatever your labour position is. 

Every student is committed to work 20 hours a week. We have different labour positions based on the semester and season, and we change labour positions every term so every student will experience a variety of labour positions. 

Among the roles, we have cowboys (we are a cattle ranch, and we have about 300 cattle), feed (feeding animals and collecting eggs from our chickens), bakers, cooks, farm, gardeners (planting, weeding, pruning and harvesting fruits and vegetables), mechanics (fixing washing machines, cars and tractors), and dairy. (The dairy person wakes up at 4.30am to milk the cows. They also make cheese and yoghurt, and occasionally butter and ice cream). We also have general labour positions, such as chopping wood for our fireplace in winter, groundskeepers, and librarians.

Student Cowboys work on the ranch as part of DSC’s labour program.

It was definitely physically challenging. In the beginning, it took me a while to find meaning in labour. Coming out of RI and wanting to further develop my interest in philosophy, I prioritised academics. I used to volunteer with Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) in RI, and I always thought of labour as either a meditative exercise that promises personal reflections, or a physical challenge that cultivates Homeric virtues. Labouring in Deep Springs challenged [these] preconceived notions. My labour position at the time was farm[ing], which was neither meditative nor instantly gratifying, and I took time to contend myself with the slowness and the repetitiveness of my work. For a while, I struggled to see a well-defined, intellectual value of labour. 

The first lesson I’ve learnt in Deep Springs is that I should treat the three pedagogical pillars [as equals], and put my heart into all of them. To labour ‘with abundance of heart’ means to suspend my judgments temporarily, to surrender myself, to have faith in the project of Deep Springs and do a good job. In some ways, we are always serving the small community that we live in, and labouring clearly demonstrates how much we depend on each other. For instance, we learn and work together as a farm team to fix irrigation lines, and fill in for each other when we need to. Labouring has given me tactile knowledge of nature, and made me more comfortable with working with my hands. It taught me a lot about what solitude means, and what community means.

On that note—It’s probably hard for JC me to imagine not being able to choose my extracurriculars. In all honesty, we do not have a lot of leisure time after fulfilling the requirements of the pillars. One class takes up to 15 hours every week, and I am currently taking four classes. Labour takes 20 hours, and more if there are community labour projects. We have weekly self-governance meetings as a Student Body, and Committee Meetings. 

I see choice as a major difference between Deep Springs and other colleges. In most colleges (not so different from RI), you get to choose what you want to do with your time and everyone’s schedule is different. People’s experiences in college comes from their own selections. This kind of active filtering is not an option in Deep Springs for the most part, because of the demands of the community and the way the program is structured. 

Nevertheless, I have come to deeply appreciate how academics gives us common vocabulary to think about other aspects of community life, and how our experiences in labour and self governance illuminates discussions in the classroom. Another way of looking at it is we are not consumers of our education, and we see ourselves as not just students but also community members. An alum wrote this article reflecting on his relationship with higher education with institutions, which partially reflect my thoughts.

Q: How does self-governance work?

A: The student body is responsible for the governance of student life. This year, students researched Covid policies, and discussed our pandemic policies with the college president and the board of trustees. We have student body meetings every Friday at 8pm, where we vote on motions and have ideological discussions. There are different kinds of motions and discussions, ranging from going on a hike together to discussing the college’s investment policies. 

Within the student body, we are divided into four committees. We have ApCom (Applications Committee), RCom (Review and Re-invitation Committee), CurCom (Curriculum Committee) and ComCom (Communications Committee). I’m a member of ComCom, which is in charge of maintaining the college website, communicating with alumni, working on fundraising committees, and writing the biannual college newsletter.

Student Body Meeting in the Main Room.

Q: What is student life like?

A: Every year is a little different, because the Student Body (SB) is extremely small. I’m in the third co-ed class (DS ’20), and Deep Springs was all-male for a hundred years before that. Diversity wise, in DS ’19, 50% of students are people of colour, and 30% are international. The culture is very intellectual, very philosophical. Taking the current SB as an example, we have people interested in philosophy, political science, comparative literature, and agriculture. 

During seven-week school terms, we practice an isolation policy and we don’t leave the college. The valley itself is a totalising reality we live in. We are functional as a small community. We live on an alfalfa farm, we have animals (turkeys, chickens, horses, cows, cats, dogs, occasionally pigs and goats), we have our own garden, and we grow fruits and vegetables. In our leisure time, we play soccer, play music, go on long walks in the desert, and dance. I am getting into ceramics recently, and I am spending a lot of time in the art studio. 

On breaks, everyone has different break plans, including farming in Alaska, working on a mushroom farm, going home, taking a gap semester at other colleges, and working on research. 

Q: Were there any culture shocks?

A: I think it’s mostly subtle. I didn’t get an immediate culture shock because the community is very intellectual, so it’s not totally unlike my KI class. The difference was from engaging people academically to living with them full time, working and cooking together, taking responsibility for each other. There were subtle cultural things I feel like I’m influenced by. Now I speak more assertively, and I am bolder in voicing out my opinions and presenting my inquiries. I’m not sure if this outspokenness is Deep Springs’ culture or American. 

Q: What is the admission process like?

A: There are two rounds of applications. The first round includes four 800-word essays due early November. We usually get about 300 to 400 applications. ApCom, the application committee will read the essays and shortlist about 40 of them. The shortlisted applicants will then proceed to the second round, which includes four more 800 word essays and a visit to the college. 

Everyone is supposed to visit our campus every year in February, to see the college for themselves and try living with us. International students can also request for online campus visits. COVID has made this year different, and all the interviews were online. 

Q: What are your future plans?

A: I want to transfer to another college in America. I think most graduates choose to transfer to another college. Last year, the most common option was Columbia. Some other really popular options are University of Chicago, Yale, Brown, and Bard College Berlin. That’s where our graduates usually go to complete another two years of study and get a Bachelor’s degree. I loved philosophy and literature in JC, so I want to major in them.

Q: Who do you think should apply to DSC?

A: To be honest, I don’t think I have explained my experiences in Deep Springs well, besides the institutional and the aesthetic—and I doubt if I ever could. What I [can] say is Deep Springs is a transformative experience, and I am deeply grateful for being here. I think I’m more confident, more comfortable, more sure of myself, more honest with myself. I think I’m a better reader and writer; I think in a more nuanced way. I have learnt to always shoulder responsibility for myself and others. 

I’m always happy to chat with whoever’s interested in applying. I can be reached at yinuoding [at] deepsprings [dot] edu.

I’m guessing that Deep Springs will seem a little less exotic to people who have gone through the army. In short, if you’re looking for alternative experiences, if you’re interested in liberal art colleges, if you’re interested in philosophy (or another major that’s not immediately useful upon graduation), I think you should consider. It’s a good place to be—the valley is immensely beautiful. It will illuminate your college experience in a very different way. If you’re interested in liberal arts and/or philosophy, do check it out!

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