Spaceship Earth

photo courtesy of NASA

You may have wondered, who is that woman sitting in Howard’s old office scrolling through photos on NASA’s website?  I’m Amy Goldstein, the new Assistant Director at the ExCollege, and I’m thrilled to be here.  When I think about the Experimental College, I can’t help thinking about Spaceship Earth. That was the class I took in college that was the closest thing to an alternative, ExCollege-type course where I went to school.  Spaceship Earth was interdisciplinary, team-taught, and didn’t have a textbook – radical for the time!  We covered everything from global warming (referred to back then as the “greenhouse effect”), to sustainable agriculture, to the global population explosion.  Of course, Tufts now has an array of classes and programs on environmental topics and sustainability that I couldn’t have imagined when I was an undergrad.

The professor who created Spaceship Earth was a bit odd and truly memorable, and I’m indebted to him for encouraging my interest in social justice.  Even though I ended up an English major who went on to law school, it was Spaceship Earth that set me on a course of questioning the status quo and using tools like law to address inequality.

It’s amazing how one class and one teacher can have such a life-long effect.  That’s what we specialize in at the ExCollege.  I hope you’ll ride Spaceship Earth on over to 95 Talbot and say hello!

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.

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



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.

Preparing for our 50th Anniversary

2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Experimental College at Tufts. In preparation for a series of events this coming spring, we’re very busy sorting through old course books, posters, newspaper articles, instructor bios, and so much more in order to put together a comprehensive look at the past five decades. Diving into such a rich and complex history produces some wonderful ExCollege artifacts that need to be shared! As we come across these interesting ExCollege facts, figures, and photographs, we’ll be sharing them on our blog.

Here is an early sampling of photographs discovered going through old reports created by the ExCollege.

Processing Applications!

Now is the time of year when we are actively gearing  up for Fall 2013 courses. The journey is a long one for the courses proposed, and right now we are at the point where we will be interviewing candidates for the 22 positions open in the fall. Check out this infographic to see the steps required for choosing upcoming ExCollege classes!

The Next Beky


Are you a Tufts senior looking for a job for next year? Consider being the next Program Assistant for the ExCollege. The Program Assistant position is a full-time, academic-term, paid position with benefits. The Program Assistant is involved in all aspects of the ExCollege operations, from course selection to filmmaking equipment management and much more! For an application, contact the current Program Assistant, Beky Stiles, at or 617-627-3384. Applications are due on April 12th.