Selecting ExCollege Courses

Over 100 proposals were submitted by candidates eager for the opportunity to teach in the fall semester. In just a few short days, the ExCollege Board will be meeting to determine which 22 of those courses will be offered to Tufts students. But how exactly do we go from the 100+ proposals down to 22?

The Life of a Proposal

 

 

The ExCollege and the Future of Higher Education

Today we began our 50th anniversary celebration weekend with a conference on the future of higher education. One of the conference highlights will be reflecting on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how their presence will impact the traditional university. During the Fall 2013 semester, the ExCollege created a Quidnunc that allowed students to take MOOCs and discuss the experience with a group of peers. Ken Garden, ExCollege Board Chair and faculty member in the Religion Department, participated in the Quidnunc and shared his thoughts with us on MOOCs.

Written by Ken Garden, Religion Department and ExCollege Board Chair

2013-2014 has been a particularly eventful year at the ExCollege. In addition to our usual offerings of innovative and timely classes taught by practitioners, academic instructors, and students, we are celebrating a half century of the ExCollege at Tufts. The event will be marked by two exhibits on the ExCollege’s history, a gala held on April 12th, and a conference on the future of higher education on April 11th. The longevity of the ExCollege and the outpouring of support for its 50th anniversary speak to the vital role it plays in the life of the Tufts community.

Higher education is in the midst of one of its biggest experiments in years in the form of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. The New York Times dubbed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” That year, Google’s Sebastian Thrun started a new company, Udacity, to offer free online university courses to as many students as wanted to enroll in them. He was so confident of the promise of MOOCs that he predicted that within 50 years there would remain only a small handful of higher education providers, the rest of the world’s universities having been swept away by this new “disruptive technology.” Stanford sponsored a new MOOC consortium, Coursera, and Harvard and MIT followed suit, launching EdX later that year.

It seemed fitting that the ExCollege should join the conversation on the MOOC. A group of Tufts students and I, including our own Board member Kumar Ramanathan (A’15), set out to look into this experiment ourselves, each of us enrolling in a MOOC. Between us, we enrolled in courses on topics ranging from contraception, to the hero in ancient Greek literature, to irony in the writing of Søren Kierkegaard, to the history of architecture, to the letters of Paul.

Our experiences in many cases echoed what we had read about the MOOC experience. Having paid nothing for the course and with no non-virtual connection to the instructor or other students, several of us stopped taking courses that didn’t interest us and enrolled in other ones. Online multiple choice quizzes, discussion boards, and peer-graded essays were a pale substitute for classroom interaction and instructor-graded assignments. While we all saw a real threat to companies that sell university courses on CD or DVD, we saw no mortal threat to the traditional brick and mortar university. Sebastian Thrun came to a similar conclusion at the end of 2013, declaring that his own Udacity had a “lousy product.”

Still, we also saw ongoing experimentation with the MOOC and all of us felt we learned from the courses we took. It will be interesting to see what it evolves into and what kind of role online courses, massive or otherwise, come to play in higher education.

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TuftsNow also reflected on the ExCollege’s exploration into the world of MOOCs with an article written by Gail Bambrick.

Neuroscience and the Movies

Last fall, Emily Hueske and Steve Ramirez submitted a course proposal aiming to fuse together the worlds of neuroscience and the big screen. After a rigorous course selection process, their proposal was selected to be taught this spring! They’ve had an incredibly successful semester thus far, and they took a few minutes to reflect on the early weeks of their truly experimental classroom.

“Why is it that Jason Bourne can remember how to maneuver a car at 120mph, how to disarm an assailant in a second, and how to land properly after jumping off a building, yet he can’t remember his own name or past?”

 This is one of the first questions we were asked while introducing our experimental course on neuroscience and Hollywood. The answer lies in a remarkable property of the brain’s multiple memory systems, but the first week was just a teaser. To learn the full answer, we asked our students to join us on a semester-long tour of the brain’s structures and functions, but viewed through the lens of Hollywood. We were beyond thrilled at the turnout on day one and immediately realized a wonderful nugget of truth regarding the multi-disciplinary culture at Tufts: only at the ExCollege could such a symbiotic relationship between movies and neuroscience exist and be taught.

When you think about it, Hollywood has infused some of the most influential scenes in cinema with neuroscientific backdrops: Neo uploading Kung Fu to his mind; Cobb incepting an idea within a dream; Tyler Durden’s true alter-ego; Jason Bourne’s high-octane amnesia. A common thread that ties these movies together is the idea that the brain is the mind’s physical substrate through which ideas, memories, and personalities can be artificially enhanced or distorted. Each week, we use neuroscience as an arc to weave in and out of what Hollywood often gets right or wrong. Every class is sprinkled with movies clips, culturally relevant and science-tinged scenarios that are to be addressed in groups, and, of course, adrenaline-friendly discussions.

The level of engagement each student brought to the table blew us both away. For example, early on we voyaged into the world of memory manipulation and Inception. After teaching our students the nitty-gritty science behind distorting real memories, we began our Socratic style dialogue.

Nearly every student had a unique, scientifically sound interpretation of Inception that neither of us had originally considered. This, simply put, was as delightful as it was enriching. It was a very real two-way street of insight between the students and us. Everyone was both student and teacher at a given point throughout the class. Indeed, having Hollywood and neuroscience both act as pedagogical tools to teach the Tufts community was originally experimental, but the results in this first pass have been an inspiring testament to the ExCollege’s mission.

In our class, we ask our students to digest the following: neuroscience currently is reaching a point where ideas are rapidly being plucked from the tree of science fiction and grounded in experimental reality. We believe that with our team-oriented approach to teaching and learning, suddenly Jason Bourne’s amnesia and its neural underpinnings are—like the mind—not just orderly, but intelligible.

ExCollege Beginnings

In 1953 when Nils Wessel began his tenure at Tufts, he set out to transform Tufts from a “good, gray school” into a “small university of high quality.” Wessel’s desire for concrete change on campus sparked years of committees, meetings, and investigative groups on the Hill; focusing efforts on change, innovation, and taking the kinds of risks essential to the vitality of an academic community. During the process, Wessel stated, “We discussed, argued, discarded, and amended a host of ‘brilliant ideas.’ Finally one day Sandy [Tredinnick], perhaps out of impatience, said to me, ‘OK, Bosso, if you had full say what would you do?’ I said immediately, without hesitation, ‘I would create an experimental college.’” That idea quickly took root, and the Experimental College came into focus in 1964 with the colloquium Contemporary European Novels, which was the first comparative literature class taught at Tufts and was open to the entire Tufts community.

President Nils Wessel Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, http://hdl.handle.net/10427/2354

President Nils Wessel
Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, http://hdl.handle.net/10427/2354

Fast forward 50 years, and the ExCollege now offers over 100 courses each year to almost 1,500 Tufts students! Over those 50 years, the ExCollege continues to represent Wessel’s original vision of a continually evolving, experimental institution on campus. Programs originally fostered through the ExCollege have even found their way into the main Tufts curriculum, showcasing the ability of the ExCollege to make a long-lasting impact on Tufts!

We’ve listed just a few of the languages, courses, and programs that began through the ExCollege:

LANGUAGES THAT BEGAN AT THE EXCOLLEGE

  • Hebrew
  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • Swahili
  • American Sign Language
  • Portuguese

PROGRAMS AND AREA STUDIES THAT GREW OUT OF THE EXCOLLEGE

  • Dance
  • Computer Science
  • Women’s Studies
  • African American Studies
  • Photography
  • Peace and Justice Studies
  • Institute of Global Leadership and EPIIC
  • Native American Studies
  • Communications and Media Studies

COURSES THAT WERE FIRST TAUGHT THROUGH THE EXCOLLEGE

  • History of Jazz
  • Race and Awareness within American Society
  • Homelessness in America
  • Death Penalty in America
  • Screenwriting

An Inside Look at Spring Registration

In 1964, the ExCollege began its journey at Tufts with over 60 students, staff, and faculty participating in one class: The Contemporary European Novel designed by Seymour Simches, Juan Alonso, and Sol Gittleman. This course was not only the first comparative literature course taught at Tufts, but also the first class dealing exclusively in modern literature taught in translation. Fast forward 50 years and the ExCollege houses over 50 courses offered for credit to Tufts students. This spring, almost 800 students enrolled in an ExCollege course, ready to dabble in the experimental and be immersed in the wonderful world of innovative, interactive education.

ExCollege Spring 2014 Numbers Vertical_small

 

Out of the 24 selected Visiting Lecturer courses, 11 filled to capacity with excited Tufts students. So what were these popular classes?

  • American Superheroes: Power, Politics, and Morality
  • 2D Animation
  • The Corset and the Crown: The History and Politics of Fashion
  • Medical Spanish
  • The Mind’s Eye: Neuroscience in the Movies
  • Positive Psychology
  • The Right to Privacy in Modern America
  • Experimenting with Philanthropy
  • On the Record: Communicating for the Government
  • Introduction to Sports Management (an online course)
  • Microfinance

Tufts students continue to amaze us with their ability to tackle challenging topics, projects, and discussions in the classroom, and we can’t wait to see what this semester has in store for our ExCollege classes!

Diving into ExCollege Course Selection

In less than one week, the ExCollege Board will convene to make the final decisions regarding what courses will be offered during the spring semester at our Money Meeting. The Money Meeting is an all-day meeting where the Board members vote on what courses should be offered to Tufts students for the upcoming semester. Their voting decisions are informed by faculty reviews of the course proposals as well as feedback received from interviewing the candidates.

Each member of the Board, students, faculty, and ExCollege staff alike, receives equal voting power, an ExCollege policy that has carried on from the earliest days of the Board. The Board first met in May 1964 and quickly broke the established Tufts tradition by inviting 3 students to sit-in on Board meetings. By 1966, the Board unanimously agreed that the 4 student representatives on the Board would be granted full voting rights. From these early ExCollege moments, the ExCollege became a natural liaison between students and faculty while also functioning as an institution that both students and faculty use to shape the academic and social landscape of Tufts. Now our Board consists of an equal number of students and faculty (5 each) which allows for comprehensive discussions of programs, courses, and ideas from multiple perspectives.

The ExCollege continues to stand as a student-centric department, and we always want students directly involved in decisions that are made. This is especially true when the ExCollege dives into the process of selecting courses. We want to offer courses that challenge students, use innovative teaching methods, cover unique topics, and (of course) are courses that Tufts students want to take. As we head into the Money Meeting next week, the Board will certainly have some lively conversation about what should and should not be included in the ExCollege course line-up.  Our discussions and decisions are sure to lead to a great group of courses for Tufts students to take in the spring!

Our Taste of Tufts Series: A Full Re-cap

The Taste of Tufts series initiated in 2012 aims to bring together faculty, staff, and students through the sharing of the amazing and ground-breaking research being done at Tufts. This fall, the ExCollege welcomed 4 faculty members to speak about their research and to initiate dialogue with a diverse audience. We’ve compiled a detailed listing of all Taste of Tufts lectures from this past fall so you can get a glimpse into the awesome things happening on our campus!

Ben Hescott, Computer Science

Professor Ben Hescott from Computer Science spoke as the opener of our Fall 2013 Taste of Tufts series. Professor Hescott dove into describing how the protein-protein interaction network is a collection of thousands and thousands of pairs of genes in some relationship. He compared this network to a social network like Facebook, where the ‘relationships’ can be represented as a graph. Professor Hescott informed the audience that in leveraging that information, we can actually devise new algorithms for biological discovery. According to Professor Hescott, his research presents algorithms using the protein-protein interaction network to discover compensatory pathways in yeast. These pathways are life’s “back-up” system and can be found using only high throughput data modeled like a social network.

Cathy Stanton, Anthropology

Earlier today, Cathy Stanton of the Anthropology Department spoke at our second Taste of Tufts lecture of the semester. She described her work studying traditional communities that have made their home on land now owned and managed by the National Park Service. Stanton has studied groups as diverse as the factory-worker Polish immigrant community in Salem, MA, engaging in what she calls “salvage ethnography,” to looking at how a traditionally run farm operates in the context of contemporary agricultural practices in Columbia County, NY. Most recently, the National Park Service asked Stanton to study the community of seasonal residents on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor. Stanton said that although the traditional residents of the island were from three separate communities — Portuguese fishermen, summer residents who came to the island when cottages and hotels were built, and the officers and soldiers who were stationed at Fort Andrews on the island’s East Head — after five generations and years of intermarriage, the islanders now share a cohesive identity and sense of community that Stanton says is very much bound up in the unique place in which they’ve come together.

Read the full Tufts Daily article here.

Kelly McLaughlin, Biology

Earlier today, Professor Kelly McLaughlin of the Biology Department spoke at our Taste of Tufts lecture, discussing her work in developmental biology. McLaughlin works with South African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) as a model organism to study organ development and regeneration, specifically that of hearts and kidneys. According to McLaughlin, these frogs are ideal model organisms because they can be easily manipulated as embryos, their tissues can be explanted and transplanted, and because they’re transparent while developing, researchers can see their hearts beating and fluids pumping in their kidneys through their skin. McLaughlin’s lab looks at what effects turning on and off various genes within these frogs’ genomes have on their organ development. Some of the most fascinating work she’s done recently, though, arose after some of her colleagues asked her why so many frogs are disappearing. The answer? An herbicide called atrazine interferes with the frogs’ genetic pathways responsible for development, causing them to metamorphose into frogs before their bodies are physically capable of doing so.

Read the full Tufts Daily article here

Stephen Bailey, Anthropology

Dr. Stephen Bailey of the Anthropology Department joined us today for the final Taste of Tufts presentation of the academic year. Dr. Bailey spoke on his research looking at the growth and development of people living in high altitude climates. The majority of Dr. Bailey’s latest research focused on children living in Tibet. He and his colleagues looked at how elementary school children of different nationalities faired under the same environmental stressors. Going into the study, he stated that he and his team thought that adaptation to high elevations fell under the idea of “one size fits all” in that every human would adapt similarly to being at a high elevation. However, after diving further into his research, Dr. Bailey uncovered this to be untrue. Based on an individual’s genetic background, there are actually multiple ways of adapting to the high elevations both physically and physiologically!

Read the full Tufts Daily article here.