A 21st Century Leap for the ExCollege

live-1003646__340What is by far the fastest growing sector at Tufts?

No, not the number of national championship sports teams, although that would be a good guess. And no, not the number of Comp Sci majors, even though that’s another good guess.

The answer is graduate students. Yes, while their presence still may be hard to discern, in fact the graduate student population on the Medford campus has doubled in ten years — to nearly 2500. Now that’s a significant change.

And while grad students have always had a presence in the ExCollege as instructors, the sample has been small and in a certain sense accidental.

It was high time for us to get out ahead of the curve. So when the graduate school came calling early in the year, looking for our help, we jumped at the chance.

Three initiatives emerged.

The first, which in hindsight, seems like a no brainer, was perhaps the most “radical.” For fifty years the ExCollege’s governing board has been comprised of equal numbers of faculty and undergraduates. Indeed, when the ExCollege was given a permanent charter as a department back in 1979, this organizational structure was explicitly spelled out.

As the new director of the ExCollege, I felt it was the right time to add a graduate student to the board. So it fell to me to determine whether or not I would push to break with tradition or maintain our mandated status quo. Would there be “strict constructionists” among the current board members? Or would they be willing to interpret the charter in a manner that reflects the unforeseen changes in the student body?

Happily, there was nothing to fight about. The board quickly and unanimously voted to add a graduate student representative. And based on recommendations from the Graduate Student Council, Seth Rothschild, a PhD candidate in Mathematics, was accorded the honor of being the first ever.

The second and third initiatives both grew out of new trends in graduate education.

On the one hand, it seems that more and more PhDs are looking to build careers outside the academy, hoping to take their highly specialized skill set into every major profession one can imagine. For this cohort, the need to experience on-the-ground training has become critical. With this in mind, the ExCollege, in partnership with the Graduate School and Alumni Relations, started a new program, one designed to meet this need, called Professional Development Fellowships wherein advanced grad students will shadow a professional for a week over winter break.

On the flip side of the coin, those grad students who want a career as academics have found that, unlike years past, their experience and/or training as teachers has become a key factor in the university job market. Addressing this issue became, I think it’s fair to say, our most important endeavor this year. With the blessing of the Graduate School, we established the Robyn Gittleman Graduate Teaching Fellowship program for advanced graduate students looking to develop solid teaching skills.

Named in honor of our Director Emeritus, who devoted her professional life to furthering the cause of university teaching, the program attracted an impressive cohort of applicants eager for the experience. It also won a Tufts Innovates Grant (which is given to help kick start new ideas), secured additional funding from the Janover Family (who support our Voices from the Edge lecture series), and has already garnered gifts from alums who want to contribute in celebration of Robyn’s career and passions.

13255917_10153778740892572_2489340888281956062_nCome the fall, the inaugural class of eight advanced graduate students will teach courses in the ExCollege and will meet with me, individually and as part of a regular roundtable discussion, in what we’ve come to call “curated” teacher training.

Stay tuned for updates as to how this “experiment” goes!

Why Are We Still Lecturing?

university-105709__340Is the traditional college classroom and its main instrument, the lecture, under siege by the forces of change? Given all the research on learning in the last twenty years, how archaic does the classic image feel of an instructor at a podium, or pacing back and forth, with a series of overheads (or these days PowerPoint presentations) projected in large while he or she imparts wisdom to an audience numbering in the hundreds?

And yet, for all the talk of “disruptive education” and for all the estimable experiments going on at colleges across the country, change seems only to be nipping at the heels of tradition.

Take, for example, MOOCs, often heralded as the vanguard of a revolution in higher education. No one can deny their phenomenal growth. By one authoritative count there are over 4000 MOOCs being offered to a billion students worldwide. One must applaud the sheer numbers and marvel at the striking desire on the part of humans to educate themselves. However, if you scratch the surface, what do you have? A billion students being lectured to.



Is it purely a function of the medium, the fact that MOOCs are videotaped or streaming presentations? Perhaps. Certainly the signal from a single fixed camera is infinitely easier to set up and control — compared, say, to three cameras (one wide shot of the room, one audience shot, one close up of the speaker) and the requisite editing or live switching a multiple camera setup necessitates.

Or is it a function of cost? The typical single fixed camera set up is by far the least expensive and can be easily and cheaply reused for any number of courses. In a number of instances, such a setup is totally automated. The speaker simply pushes a button.

Clearly, common sense tells us that both these factors come in to play. And yet, I submit that they’re not the essential elements driving this deeply embedded reliance on lecturing.

So what are the drivers? For MOOCS and for much of what passes for teaching at brick and mortar colleges?

First of all, the lecture is a form of teaching designed for people who aren’t trained to teach. I know this sounds like a strange and perhaps harsh thing to say about my colleagues. But most university faculty are trained to write scholarly papers, articles, reports, and books. Few if any received guidance or critique on teaching when they began their careers. Left to their own devices, what did they do? They emulated their professors. From their training in research, they knew very well how to organize and assess information and craft an argument. And lecturing allowed them to package research as presentation. A perfect fit!

Even more central to the persistence of lecturing is its status as a “teacher centered” form of education. A power relationship is established, one that subordinates the student to the teacher. The teacher controls that which is of value, dolling it out in small pieces as he or she sees fit. Even when the teacher allows questions, they’re almost always sandwiched in after the end of the lecture for the day, almost always for clarification purposes, and almost never to call into question the teacher’s mastery.

Is there hope for the future? Will lecturing slowly give way to more interactive, participatory, and experiential forms of teaching and learning?


Perhaps so, if more educators take seriously the research being done on learning. For starters, there’s a 2014 study conducted by investigators from the University of Washington and the University of Maine that found “students in traditional lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning.”

Sooner or later, rather than requiring students to memorize and then regurgitate information, shouldn’t we be teaching them how to think?

Citizen Trump

candhapr08Almost from the beginning, American culture has thought of politicians as one rung up on the slime ladder from used horse, and then later, used car salesmen (and I use the masculine here on purpose). Perversely enough, however – and perhaps it stems from that uniquely American strain of unbridled optimism – every four years we forget and become immersed again in the festival of electing a president.

Now I know some of you are going to say, wait a minute, that’s exactly why Donald Trump is doing so well, because he’s proudly NOT a politician. And my response is: “Baloney.” Trump has never been an office holder, but he’s a politician through and through, and a pretty good one at that, assuming you define politics as I do: the art of running for office, not the business of governing.

citizen-kaneDuring the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, plays, musicals, and vaudeville acts latched on to politics as fit topic and fair game. At the same time, the theatricality of campaigning turned elections into another kind of entertainment. These twin impulses have continued on, famously, through movies about politics on the one hand (Citizen Kane, Nashville, The Candidate) and in the political arena itself — first with radio coverage and then with the medium that transformed campaigning forever: TV.

Which brings us back to Mr. Trump.

John F. Kennedy was the first politician who understood the power of TV. Bill Clinton moved that understanding forward in the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. But Donald Trump has taken it all to another level.

By training, experience and acumen, he not only gets that reality TV, along with its bastard child, YouTube, rule the media landscape, he also knows that, in many ways, they’ve set the tone for our culture. And he’s Citizen Number One in this brave new world. He thrives on it.

CELEBRITY APPRENTICE -- Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower -- Pictured: Donald Trump -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

CELEBRITY APPRENTICE — Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower — Pictured: Donald Trump — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Look no further than Trump’s use of “controversy” on the stump. It’s calculated, nuanced, carefully scripted and timed – all the while appearing to be haphazard — and as masterful as it was on his wildly popular reality TV show, The Apprentice.

In addition, rather than offer substantive positions, Mr. Trump has taken the politician’s art of sloganeering to a reality TV extreme.  Think about his wall across our southern border. It’s a striking, simple, and completely absurd image straight of the special effects division of any major movie studio. Hence it’s beauty. Presented over and over again, it becomes familiar and meaningful to many who want the complexities of a problem such as immigration to be swept away with one grand gesture, Like any good Marvel Comics hero could do.

But the most powerful aspect of Mr. Trump’s campaign is his channeling of the great Saturday Night Live stars. As with Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, or Bill Murray (to name just a few), Mr. Trump is a king of the “inside.” With nods, winks, gestures, a knowing smile, a shared catchphrase, he plays to his audience and with his audience, while at the same time playing (read “manipulating”) his audience. And the upshot is that “his audience” contains not only supporters, but the media (“mainstream” and otherwise), and all the rest of us, too.

Technology? Art?

I’m a cinematographer and photographer.

(Is the distinction even valid anymore? A topic for another entry perhaps.)

Early on I learned the hard way that, like it or not, the ability to create something anywhere near close to what I envisioned in my mind’s eye depended upon an understanding of the science involved in image making.

Rather than feeling put upon by what, for many people I knew, was an ironic impediment to their “genius,” I was intrigued by the fact that photography seemed to be a marriage of art and science – if only because, as such, it put the lie to the modernist dichotomy which governed my education.

In the analog days, this meant that, in order to have any hope of control over the look of an image, one would need to acquire at least a working knowledge of:

>> the physics of light, film, and lenses

>> the mechanics of the iris and the shutter

>> the chemistry of film development and printmaking

Those were heady times. There’s few things as magical as seeing an image appear on an exposed piece of paper, bathing in developer, in the red light of a darkroom. However, nostalgia needs to be tempered by one incredibly frustrating reality.

If the images in your head happened to be in color, good luck.

Affordable color processing options were of mediocre quality and frustrating to use. The high end color processing options (especially dye transfer printing) were beyond the means of all but the most successful commercial photographers.

Fast forward to the advent of Photoshop. Well before digital cameras reached a quality level that made them reasonable rivals to film cameras, photographers were using new computer-based sciences to transform their celluloid libraries into digital files so they could make use of the freedom that Photoshop afforded to realize their vision in living color.

Soon enough, digital cameras caught up to – and in many ways surpassed – film cameras. Today, small mirrorless cameras capture more information than the famous Hasselblad medium-format film camera which went to the moon – and do so for both stills and video.

So where am I going with all this? I recently had a chance to shoot with one of these magical machines, the brand new Sony A7rII. And while I will try not to bore you with the technologies that make this camera such an amazing tool, I do need to say that it offers the serious image maker a truly unique combination of extended dynamic range, amazing detail, and tremendous low light capabilities.

But rather than prattling on, let me share with you some images I was able to produce. And in my next post, I’ll go into more depth about digital imaging technology and how it’s exended the photographer’s and the cinematographer’s artistic reach.

PLEASE! Click inside each image to see a larger sized view. Doing so will give you a better idea of the camera’s technical capabilities, which are far beyond what can be reproduced online.

Oqunquit Rocks and Weed

Familly on Rocks


Halloween Boy

Mom, Apple Pie, and . . . Documentary?

As the new director of the Experimental College at Tufts, it’s my privilege to lead off with the first post on X, our updated blog. To this end, I want to share a few observations on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately: the surprising state of documentary these days.

Here at the ExCollege, for example, we’re offering a well-received course on doc theory taught by Natalie Minik, who’s a product of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. In addition, on Sunday, October 11th, we’re co-sponsoring the Tufts premier of Codename: Pirat, a film by Erik Asch about his father, Bob, the long time director of the Tufts-in-Tubingen program, who may or may not have been a spy!

And my colleague here in the Film and Media Studies program, Khary Jones, is part of the creative team that just brought He Named Me Malala to the screen. I mention “screen” quite intentionally, because the film is currently showing at suburban multiplexes around Boston!

On a personal note, I’m in the very early stages of launching a long-form project about a breakaway Jewish congregation in Chicago, called Mishkan, that’s attempting to meld progressive politics with folk culture and ecstatic practice.

It seems to me that all of this points toward a sea change in American culture. Over the last twenty years, people have started paying attention to films other than features. Yes, it built slowly. And yes, it would be fair to say that interest has waxed and waned. And yes, it might also be fair to say that – call it what you will – this renaissance, this golden age of documentary, owes much to a bookend set of necessary evils: “reality” TV and Michael Moore. (Reality TV and Moore both warrant further discussion, but I won’t take the time now to do so.)

Equally as important, I believe the ascendance of documentary has been driven, in a fundamental manner, by the digitization of media, a phenomenon that cuts two ways.

First of all, thanks to digital cameras and editing software, shooting a documentary at a quality level that audiences will read as “professional” is now within the reach of anyone who can cobble together a few thousand dollars. Once upon a not so distant time, that figure would have been a few hundred thousand, at least.

Secondly, cable and the Internet have exponentially expanded the need for “content” (horrible word, great concept). And “content providers” – HBO, IFC, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and so on – have rushed into the breach, providing the means to promote and distribute small-budget films at a magnitude unimaginable in the 80s and 90s.

Obviously, there’s much to work through. But for me, today, I’m left with these thoughts. We have a solid enrollment in the course. Erik’s film is garnering praise around the world. There’s funding and an audience within reach for my project. And you can buy tickets for Malala at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, and Showcase Cinemas in Worcester and Woburn, five or six shows daily, every day of the week.

Solve for X

X. Great band. The unknown. That something special. Where you are or where you want to be (as in marking the spot). Malcolm.


X. The distillation of Tufts University’s Experimental College. Fifty years old and still being born. Thousands of students, faculty, administrators, and alums. Courses that you won’t find anywhere else. Programs that pique the intellectual curiosity of the campus. A place where ideas are nurtured and sent off into the world.

X. Here. And how you’ll get to know us, what we care about, and how we think.

The View From Way Out Here

Part One in an Ongoing Series of Observations on the Current State of Filmmaking and the Film Industry.

The music industry figured it out, albeit kicking and screaming. But the movie studios refuse to see the handwriting on the wall. While they spend millions attempting to devise and disseminate protection schemes in their war against the internet, they’re fighting on the wrong front. The long-term threat to their hegemony — the highly centralized production and distribution system that we’ve known for nearly 100 years now as Hollywood — won’t be our ability to download studio films. Far more dangerous is the fact that Hollywood’s stranglehold on professional-level production and widespread distribution is withering away, bit by bit, inch by inch, day by day.
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TuftsFilmWorks Alum, Jason Moloney, is getting noticed and getting work in LA.

Since graduating last spring, filmmaker, graphic artist, and writer, Jason Moloney, has been, as he puts it: “really busy lately.” After doing a great deal of networking all last year, Jason made the move to LA over the summer, and he hit the ground running.

Jason landed his first gig as an Assistant Production Coordinator on Ex-Free, the indie feature produced, written, and directed by veteran African-American actress, Troy Beyer Bailey. He must have been doing something right, because once shooting wrapped, he was asked to stay on as Assistant Editor. After Ex-Free, Jason joined the team of the Fallout: Nuka Break web series as a Production Supervisor. And from there he served as a Production Superviser/Coordinator on Stuck, a new feature with Madeline Zima and Joel David Moore. As I write this, Jason has recently started work as a Production Coordinator on a new — and as yet unnamed — feature that’s in preproduction and will be shot in March. Continue reading