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?

Explorations & Perspectives: Teach Your Fellow Undergrads Next Fall

Explorations and Perspectives are small seminars for first-year students designed and led by upper-level undergrads who teach in teams of two. Students choose a group as one of their advising options.  Explorations can delve into any topic; Perspectives topics have a media focus.  Applications are due March 18, 2016.

Perspectives: Race Representation in TV & Film

Perspectives: Race Representation in TV & Film

Who teaches an Explorations or Perspectives? One answer is juniors and seniors who are passionate about a topic and want to help guide incoming first-years.  Some work with an advisor to plan out a syllabus, and some were inspired by a class they took. Still others go on to teach in the spring through the ExCollege’s peer teaching program.


Here’s what three leaders have to say:1454438455825

“Through the Perspectives program, my best friend and I had the opportunity to design and teach our own class about something we were both passionate about: advertising. We discussed, dissected, and digested advertisement campaigns and strategies through class discussion, debate, creative projects, and a guest speaker. As a peer teacher, I not only learned from my own research and experience, but I learned the most from my fourteen first-year students. Over the course of the semester, we became a family, and Tuesday nights became the highlight of my week.” – Kate Sienko, Perspectives leader, The Medium is the Message: The Evolution of Advertising in America

George Killian

I took an Explorations as a first-year about alternative education, and I remember it as a great experience: it was a way to break into the college world with these two upper classmen who could help you out and a bunch of other freshmen who were all going through the same thing.  It was this fun, more relaxing, outside-the-box class.  So when my friend asked me to be a co-leader, I thought back to my experience and thought, yeah, I’d like to be that mentor/advisor for someone like I had had my freshman year.” – George Killian, Explorations leader, Food & Society

The Perspectives class I taught last semester was such a success and reinforced the idea that I can do this, I can come up with my own ideas and teach about something that I’m passionate about.  I wouldn’t be teaching my own class now if it had not been for this Perspectives experience.  It’s opened the door to my ideas of what I can do later in life.  I’ve been interested in film, I’ve been interested in clinical psychology, but then when you add the idea that I can also be an educator – the intersectionality of those skills and all of my interests – it just opens the door to what I can do in my life in the future.”1381841_10201792729767595_34118891_n (1)  Sam Kitchens, Perspectives leader, Intro to Horror Film; current instructor for EXP-0053 Horror Film: Why We Make & Consume ItHorror

Check out all the info and download an application on our website.  Feel free to contact us at excollege@tufts.edu if you have ideas for an Explorations or Perspectives course that you want to develop.

A Pocket for Joseph

Everyone knows the feeling at some point… Your sock and underwear supply is running dangerously low and you just can’t put it off any longer. So, off I went last night to the nearest Laundromat – a fantastic spot on Somerville Avenue that has Wi-Fi and free drying!

Eventually, after some mumbling and grumbling, I had all my clothes in washers and I began to stare at the soapy colors going round and round. My grouchiness quickly disappeared when I suddenly remembered a children’s book my mother read to us.

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 4.53.15 PMA Pocket for Corduroy recounts the misadventures of a curious teddy bear. After seeing how his owner, Lisa, wears pants with pockets, Corduroy is determined to find cloth at the Laundromat to make his pocket. He is left behind at closing time, gets into some mischief overnight, and is reunited with Lisa the next morning. And, of course, Corduroy gets a pocket to hold a name card, just in case he gets lost again!

After reminiscinghqdefault about my own teddy bear – which my mother obviously sewed a pocket on to – I wondered whether the author was inspired during her own trip to the Laundromat. It would make sense, I suppose, but who else found similar inspiration?

Don’t ask me why, but my first instinct was to Google, “TED Talks laundry.” Sure enough, a global health expert and data analyst, Hans Rosling, spoke in 2010 about the washing machine being the greatest invention of the industrial revolution.

Rosling’s quirky lecture was derived from his own experience, as well as a tremendous amount of research and data. He explained global energy consumption, the factions of the population who have access to washer machines, and how economic growth and electricity can ”turn a boring wash-day into an intellectual day of reading.” He specifically mentions how women were freed from the laborious task of hand washing clothes to pursue new goals – Rosling’s mother could now read to her children, educate them, and teach herself English.

Moral of the story: find somewhere to inspire your “Corduroy…”

Or, just appreciate your washing machine!53129_10150106209853312_4839683_o

Why Not Ride Your Bike to Florida?

tumblr_o15pnrQqAD1v0i8sgo1_1280What did YOU do over the holiday break?  Tufts student and Friend of ExCollege, Zhou “JJ” Zhuangchen rode his bike from Boston to Orlando to raise money for Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC). Here’s his blog, jjridesforrisc.tumblr.com, with beautiful photos of his encounters. Unfortunately, JJ found it necessary to punctuate his post with the hashtag, #suffer. Looks like it was worth it.  Congratulations, JJ!


This post sets the stage:

tumblr_nyue0hs4ht1v0i8sgo1_1280 I created this page for my winter bike ride from Boston, MA to Orlando, FL this December and January. The ride is roughly 1600 miles, terrain is unknown and weather could be horrible. I will be riding about 6 hours per day to cover about 80 miles, and hopefully finish the ride within a month.

As a prospective photographer, I am deeply concerned with the dangerous conditions that freelance photographers, writers, videographers and journalists working in conflict zones are facing. To be properly equipped to work in these situations, they have to pay thousands of dollars for training, which they sometimes simply cannot afford. I came across the organization RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, here is their website: http://risctraining.org/) a few months back. They are doing free training for freelance journalists to help themselves and others should the unfortunate happen in combat zones.

Since RISC’s training is free for participants, the amount of money RISC raises determines how many reporters can be trained. For each overseas workshop participant, RISC needs to offset roughly $1600 dollars of cost. I hope my ride can help at least five freelance journalists to receive the training–-thus, I set the goal of the fundraiser at $8,000.

Announcing the Birth of Spring 2016

Magic 2The ExCollege staff is in full throttle as we launch our 2016 courses tonight. Or is this a better metaphor: We’re proud parents who’ve nurtured our babies and now they must leave the nest.  It all began several months ago with the influx of proposals, then the gestational period of vetting, interviewing, and debating the merits of each course with students and faculty on our Board.  Elephant 2

The result: the birth of twenty-one visiting lecturer courses, eleven peer-taught classes, and a host of others offered in partnership with a range of Tufts departments.

Then we worried about how some of our children might find their way in the world: would a class on “Dope Fiends” (EXP-0037) find an audience while the opioid crisis is in the news?
Dope Fiends 2Does a course titled “Fatness: Body Politics in America” convey how size shapes opportunity, life chances, privilege and oppression? What type of student wants to analyze a different color each week (EXP-0016)?



Do people think they already know what it’s like for “Women in the Islamic Middle East” (EXP-0066), or would they leap at the chance to study with a visiting Iranian scholar? Is “The Lives of Scientists” (EXP-0020) really for biology students, English majors, chimpanzee lovers, or just someone looking for a true interdisciplinary class? Lives Scientists

We know there are a lot of film fans out there, but do they want to make films, learn the business of films, unravel the astonishment of magic and movies, or analyze the fascination with horror?

Filmmaking 1.1We’ve watched like proud parents as the enrollment for each of these courses has grown.  Now we want to know what YOU think.  Tell us what that first class is like.  We bet you’ll be astonished.  More importantly, tell your friends.


A Soothing Sense of Order and Peace

Did you know that there is a color of the year, every single year? A committee chooses “the color” for the upcoming year and dictates the color scheme for clothing, makeup, home goods, you name it. Now that is power. Business Insider reports that the process involves trench coats, suitcases, and confidentiality agreements.


The color of the year for 2015 was Marsala.

I first learned about the color of the year in college, when I had an Art History professor whose wife was on this mysterious committee. If you’re like me, you wait patiently for the color announcement each December and text your husband about it immediately. And if you’re like my husband, you don’t text back.

It’s not that I feel a need to follow trends or blindly obey authority; I find the entire phenomenon fascinating. You may think you’re choosing your new pants because you like the color, but what if the choice was never really yours in the first place?

Well, the benevolent overlords at Pantone have announced the color of 2016, and–whoa you guys–it’s two colors: Rose Quartz and Serenity. That is, a warm, soft pink and a cool, light blue. Leatrice Eiseman, Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, explains, “Joined together, Rose Quartz and Serenity demonstrate an inherent balance between a warmer embracing rose tone and the cooler tranquil blue, reflecting connection and wellness as well as a soothing sense of order and peace.” Does that sound paternalistic? Shhh. Just let it wash over you, like an embracing rose tone, or a tranquil blue.

Like a word for which you just learned the definition, once you know about the color of the year, you’ll start to see it everywhere. Will you buy something Rose Quartz or Serenity this year? Chances are that you will, whether you like it or not.

Rose Quartz and Serenity

2016 vision board for the Delpha-McClure family?

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.

The Fandom Awakens

Alright… after trying to avoid reviews and conversations about The Force Awakens, and after seeing it crush box-office records, I finally watched the newest installment of the Star Wars saga!SW-THE-FORCE-AWAKENS

Let me preface the rest of this post, however, by saying that I never really considered myself a Star Wars fan – in fact, I was always rather indifferent to it…

So much so, that before heading to the IMAX Theater at Assembly Row last night, I realized that I either didn’t watch parts of the franchise or couldn’t remember much of what I did.

Personally, The Lord of the Rings is the first film series I ever fell in love with. I was the ripe age of nine when The Fellowship of the Ring was released, and my best friend’s father brought us to every opening night. I proceeded to fall in love with the books and all the product tie-ins that followed the films.

I suppose that – unlike Tolkien’s Middle-Earth – I never had anyone expose me to Lucas’ galaxy far, far awastarwarspostery. And this was a stark contrast to the two people accompanying me last night. Howard Woolf, for example, can only be described as a huge sci-fi fan, as well as a Jedi Master at Tufts when it comes to anything film related.

Consequently, sitting next to a couple longtime fans cemented some high expectations! The pressure was on, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more focused during a recent movie.

But since I’m really not “qualified” to evaluate this or any of the Star Wars franchise, I’ll spare you my long-winded feelings about The Force Awakens. I will say, however, that my expectations were happily met.

More importantly, it also met the expectations of the two fans I was with! Episode VII seemed to stay true to its predecessors and the Star Wars brand, while also being open enough to welcome in new fans and leave me wanting more. I left wanting to delve deeper into Lucas’ universe and watch/re-watch its prequels. I even started watching some of the saga’s best moments online.

So what are you waiting for? If you weren’t a fan already, this is your chance to jump on board.

P.S. Don’t tell your little brother you’re going because he might throw out a huge spoiler…

Lesson learned…

What I Learned from Teaching a College Course on Social Media

ExCollege visiting lecturer Ben Rubenstein learned a thing or two teaching Social Media this fall:


student-created meme on clicktivism

Until recently, my teaching background consisted of a chaotic seventh-grade Sunday school class, and a volunteer gig as an English-only assistant in a Spanish-only adult computer course.

So when my friend Jesse Littlewood asked me to co-teach a course on social media at Tufts University’s Experimental College this fall, I felt totally qualified. Beyond my rigorous experience, I’d presented in his previous class with no ill effect on student evaluations. Why not push my luck?

As a social media manager, it’s my job to stay on top of trends that seemingly change every few days. This course offered a chance to move beyond the marketing blog echo-chamber (2016 is definitely going to be the year of Google+!) and spend thirteen weeks digging into the perspectives of digital natives whose every attention shift helps to shape the future of the social web. There was also the prospect of some extra income, but as any adjunct can attest, if I were in it for the money I’d likely be better off moonlighting at Trader Joe’s.

Our survey course, “Social Media: Participatory Culture and Content Creation,” pushed students to take a step back from the platforms they use every day to consider the larger context of their actions and their impact on relationships with peers, institutions, and society at large. It was one of 50 seminars on the ‘ExCollege’ fall schedule, competing for attention against diverse topics like Argentine tango, The Weather Underground, white supremacy, and improv.

Twenty-two undergraduates from a range of majors signed up, and from the first class it was clear we were all in for a ride. Racial inequity, gender identity, privacy, algorithms, filter bubbles…all of it came up within twenty minutes.
I’ll avoid the cliché of “the students taught me more than I could ever teach them,” but I did learn a few important lessons from the experience.

Read the rest of Ben’s post at:

What I Learned from Teaching a College Course on Social Media

Thank you, Ben and Jesse!  Instructors like you are what makes the ExCollege great!

Trunking Around

Guest Post by Jenna Sherman

Yesterday, at a local Lexington preschool, I spent the first hour of my Monday morning frantically changing in and out of costumes that were pulled from a blue, raggedy bag roughly the height of a small adult. In periodic blurs I transformed from a giant mole to a rocket ship to a firefly to finally an astronaut. This is a weekly, if not bi-weekly or sometimes even tri-weekly occurrence for me and my ten co-performers—with varying costumes each time, of course. The name of this quirky cohort is the Tufts Traveling Treasure Trunk, a children’s theater group by trade, but with a bit of everything else in between.



Contrary to popular belief this does not mean that we are a theater group comprised of children, though at times that definition is applicable, rather we are a theater group comprised of Tufts students who perform plays for kids in schools, daycares, and other places kids are likely to be. The plays we put on are written by one, or two, or a few, “trunkers,” as we call ourselves, and then staged, costumed, directed, and performed by all of TRUNK! (as we like to spell it) as a hilariously goofy and loving unit. Each semester we have two plays in our repertoire, carrying one over from the preceding semester; and interspersed between these plays, which last around 10 minutes, are segments (“segues”) as well as songs. These segues are short skits which contain base premises but which almost always involve improvisation that at times can have me laughing harder than the kids in the audience.

Though I was aware of this to some extent prior to joining Trunk, my main takeaway from every show, rehearsal, or other various form of a Trunk gather is that there is truly nothing more liberating than “acting like a kid,” by whatever definition that means to you. For me, it is losing all inhibitions, all hesitations. Whether it’s a noise, movement, or an idea, the opportunity to just put something out into the universe with no concern of correctness or scrutiny can yield boundless levels of creativity—especially in a group, but also individually. At least speaking for myself, it’s astonishing how much you can surprise yourself and exceed your own arbitrary expectations by simply diving into the unknown and rolling with it. And this opportunity is one that many of us do not have, or do not feel that we have, in college but also our entire lives besides, well childhood—where even then that freedom is not available to everyone.

And I feel that is what I find most inspiring about this group I’m in, comprised of incredible individuals who I continue to learn from daily, as well as all forums that encourage creativity among children: it shows kids that this sense of curiosity, imagination, weirdness, does not have to be lost with age. That those are not characteristics limited to a certain period of life. I feel this is vital as I continue to realize the extent to which I have been socialized to believe that—to conditionally think that emotion, vulnerability, and deviation from the norm is a sense of weakness rather than what it actually should be: empowerment.

Even still I often struggle to truly lose all fear of embarrassment and go out on limbs. It’s irrational fears that perhaps I am not being “the right type of creative” or not reaching a certain level of comedy. And I think a significant aspect of this is the fact that I’m not implementing this outside of Trunk in other areas of my life. At the end of the Monday show, a little girl came up to us and handed us a piece of paper with a scribbled rainbow and the word “happy” written on the outside. In retrospect I’m realizing how happy I was in that moment (that we got a drawing from a cute kid of course), but also that we were just goofing off and making up ideas on the spot and that it produced something not only enjoyable and meaningful for kids but also for ourselves and our own well-being. I want to hold myself accountable to do this more: to say yes to more, to take risks, to dive into discomfort and put myself out there—and especially to strive to be happy with whatever comes out of it.