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.

Reflection on Creating Change

Renee’ is a member of the ExCollege course, Contemporary Issues in Transgender Studies, taught by Ladawn Sheffield, and Renee’ wrote the following reflection as part of an assignment. Ladawn had her students participate in “Community Exploration and Engagement” by attending an LGBTQ event and prepare a reflection paper on their experiences.

Renee’ Vallejo reflects upon time spent at this year’s National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change, held in Houston, Texas.

By Renee’ Vallejo

Self-love. Affirmation. Empowerment. These three words express how I felt throughout my time at the National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change in Houston, Texas. There were many important things that I took away from the conference. First of all, I met Laverne Cox and what an amazing, inspiring human being she is! As the keynote speaker I could not wait for her to walk out onto that stage and own the crowd with her words and presence-and that she did. From this, I realized the true importance of feeling strength in my ability to highlight my individuality. Self-acceptance begins with me being aware of my uniqueness-with speaking and living my truth.

Renee' with Laverne Cox at Creating Change.

Renee’ with Laverne Cox at Creating Change.

Out of the twelve or so workshops that I attended the one that left me as fulfilled as I have ever been was a workshop on self-love held by the Brown Boi Project. One of the discussion groups I participated in was about how one should maintain self-care when feeling alone. Fear used to determine how I lived my life, but after hearing so many different stories and witnessing the flow of so many tears, I now believe in facing everything assertively and rationally. As individuals, we must learn to take the time to pause and remind ourselves about all the beautiful things that we are. Learning is teaching and teaching is learning. I know of nothing more valuable, when it comes to the all-important virtue of authenticity, than simply being who I am. The journey of self-love is eternal for all.

All of the discussions and thoughts that occurred during this conference personally reminded me of the constraints of “rebelling” within society. Rebellion implies going against the norm, and the norm is in constant flux based on changing times, social movements and generational gaps. For this reason, many people feel that the strides LGBTQetc groups have made imply that “nontraditional” sexualities have become some type of norm. That would mean that the stigma of rebelling by being part of one of these groups has been lessened in some way, but that is sadly not the case. When it comes to rebellion, there is always a new way that one can deviate and be considered an outsider, especially in terms of sexuality. I believe there to be no original of any sexuality because although people may identify with the same label, that label may not mean same thing to them. We make the labels, the labels do not make us. We are all unique and that is how our sexualities originate- from within.

My experience with rebellion has been one of weighing consequences against the glorious benefits of liberation. As a teen, I prioritized social acceptance, but was unsure about being embraced if my internal were to match the image of myself that I desired. Ultimately, I became dissociated from the reflection I saw each day. I could choose to live in this duality, or merge the reality of my experience with life around me in an attempt to be comfortable.

My appearance is one that lands on the masculine side of the spectrum, although I am female bodied. While most people view this as rebellious, I merely believe that policing bodies or allowing myself to be policed is unacceptable. We are worlds of queerness and social status apart from one another. It is fascinating to me that people can use the exterior to judge or determine what aesthetics are appropriate, yet simultaneously, I could never envision my interior encased in any other skin than that which I possess.

Visibility is key if we are to be inclusive of all identities, but sitting back and listening to others is just as important as speaking. Sit up. Speak up. Listen up. “Loving trans people, I believe, is a revolutionary act. And I believe when we love someone we respect them and we listen to them; we feel that their voice matters and we let them dictate the terms of who they are and what their story is” – it could not have been said any better by Laverne Cox.

French in Motion

Carolyn Fidelman joined the Experimental College in 1989 as a Visiting Lecturer. Her course, French in Motion, broke out of the traditional language course mold by having students study uniquely French body language and body communication.

In an interview with the Daily, Carolyn noted, “A study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian once revealed that only seven percent of communication involves the spoken word. It’s a little embarrassing that French courses have been concentrating on that seven percent for so long. Students are coming out of three or four semesters of basic language instruction feeling unprepared to speak in Paris.” Her class, of course, also sharpened students’ grammar skills, but the increased focus on unspoken body language allowed for a new dimension in acquiring language skills.

By the end of the semester, her students gained a deeper understanding of how body language allowed for an even better and more dynamic use of the spoken French language.

Tufts Daily, March 1989

Tufts Daily, March 1989

The ExCollege continues the trend of innovative language courses with our Spring 2014 classes Translation Practice and Theory and Medical Spanish. Translation Practice and Theory is open to any student with a proficiency in any language, and students work with a mentor and instructor Ellen Elias-Bursac to learn the necessary skills for translating a variety of materials in their chosen language.

Medical Spanish focuses on students looking to deepen their knowledge of Spanish medical terminology. Instructor Josep Vicente often has his students act out doctor-patient scenarios in class!

5 Signs You’d Make a Great Peer Leader

1.  You love to talk about Tufts and everything Jumbo.

Does your heart race just a little bit faster when you see an opening to talk about Tufts? Have you been guilty of talking up your favorite program on campus or discussing a controversial campus policy at 3AM in your dorm’s lounge?

That’s the kind of passion that we’re looking for in our Explorations and Perspectives Peer Leaders. As a Peer Leader, you’ll be guiding a group of wide-eyed, excited, nervous, and awesome first-year students through their first semester at Tufts. Everything will be new to your students, and they need an experienced hand to guide them through the bombardment of new information, people, and places. You’ll also be leading them through orientation week, and a love of Tufts and sharing your knowledge will certainly make your students feel more at home on the Hill.

2.  You love to learn.

Our Explorations and Perspectives seminars are not like other Tufts courses. Our Peer Leaders have a certain degree of knowledge regarding their course topic, but the seminar is meant to be an exploration of learning for both the students and the teachers (how cool is that?). You’ll not only be engaging your students, but they’ll be making you think more deeply about the topic at hand.

Kacey Taylor and Charlotte Rea taught "The Portrayal of the U.S. in International Film" this past fall.

Kacey Taylor and Charlotte Rea taught “The Portrayal of the U.S. in International Film” with a group of highly motivated freshmen.

3.  You don’t back down from a challenge.

Being an Explorations or Perspectives Peer Leader is a lot of work. You design your own course, get intensive training from some pretty great people at the ExCollege, work your way through orientation week with your 14 freshmen, and then go through 4 more months of learning, teaching, and being awesome as you explore your course topic with your students.

But at the end of it all, you’ll come away a stronger teacher, mentor, academic, and friend. You get the full support of us here at the ExCollege, other Peer Leaders, and (perhaps most importantly) your students. The bonds created through this program have literally lasted throughout lifetimes, and the slight challenge of planning, training, and teaching is 100% worth it.

4.  You have a knack for the creative and the innovative.

With “experimental” in our name, it’s kind of a giveaway that we want to provide our students with an innovative, interactive experience in the classroom.  Our Peer Leaders introduce over 250 freshmen every year to this mindset of the ExCollege, and they never fail to amaze us.

Since you design your own course as a Peer Leader, you get to experiment with teaching methods, topics, projects, discussions, and so much more. So get creative! Try something new, and explore the different ways that you can inspire your students.

David Nunez-Ariza and Jeremy Gross taught "Hip-Hop as Culture" this fall, and they painted the cannon with their students when they discussed the history of graffiti.

David Nunez-Ariza and Jeremy Gross taught “Hip-Hop as Culture” this fall, and they painted the cannon with their students when they discussed the history of graffiti.

5.  You take the time to listen.

It’s important to underscore the fact that you’re not just a teacher in an Explorations or Perspectives classroom. You’re also there to act as a mentor to all of your students—helping them traverse the freshmen year terrain and supporting them whenever they encounter an especially difficult obstacle. Whenever your students come to you, you need to listen closely in order to provide the best support.

Over the years, students in Explorations and Perspectives classes praise the availability and openness of their Peer Leaders. That stems directly from our Peer Leaders’ abilities to actively listen to students and balance their roles as instructor, mentor, and friend.

If you want to join the Explorations and Perspectives experience as a Peer Leader, then apply today! All applications are due on Wednesday, March 12.

Questions? Contact us at the ExCollege by calling 617-627-3384, emailing excollege@tufts.edu, or dropping by the office at 95 Talbot!

The ExCollege brought me to Tufts, and the ExCollege has kept me here.

Written by Kumar Ramanathan, A15

“Wait, what ExCollege class are you taking?”

This is a question I have asked friends, friends of friends, and strangers in Dewick more times that I care to count. My personal investment in each and every class comes as a surprise to some, but in every case I’ve heard fascinating and enthusiastic stories that make me proud to be a member of the ExCollege Board.

kumar

Kumar Ramanthan:
A15 and ExCollege Board member

I first met the Board in April last year, walking into the conference room as the perpetually nervous freshman that we all remember being. What struck me immediately was how friendly the group that faced me was, and how passionate they all were about making the ExCollege the best place it could be. Each member of the Board has their own interests and quirks, but all of those come together to make the right kind of mix that a place as eclectic as the ExCollege needs.

Being part of this team has been a wonderfully positive way to impact the lives of those around me. From organizing the Election Night Extravaganza to debating over the last two classes to be approved, each meeting is unabashedly and wholeheartedly directed towards making Tufts a better and more fun place. Most of all, being surrounded by such dedicated faculty and students has made me look at and appreciate Tufts in whole new ways.

The ExCollege brought me to Tufts, and the ExCollege has kept me here. My time in the Board is one of the most rewarding, fascinating, and fun experiences that Tufts has offered me, and I can’t wait to keep doing it.

The ExCollege is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 Board. If you’re interested in applying, download the application from our website. All applications are due February 21.

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.

A Look at Medical Spanish

Written by Benji Cohen, A11 and summer graduate intern

Background: In 2008, a Tufts student approached the ExCollege with an idea. As a soon-to-be medical school student, he wanted to put his Spanish skills to use with his patients. However, he felt that his more traditional Spanish language education did not give him the full skill set necessary to interact with people as a medical professional in a hospital.

The ExCollege gave the student the opportunity to reach out to prospective instructors for a course entitled “Medical Spanish,” and the student received a few applications from interested individuals. Ultimately, Josep Vicente was chosen as the “Medical Spanish” instructor. Josep Vicente, an interpreter at many local hospitals, sought to meet the immense demand for Spanish-speaking health professionals.

First Taught: Fall 2008.

Status: In the Spring 2013 semester, Josep taught Medical Spanish for the sixth time. The demand for his course among the student body has only increased over time.

What Made it Special: Buttressing the established curriculum at Tufts, Medical Spanish is a practical outlet for Spanish language learners. Josep does more than just provide students with the necessary language and vocabulary training. Through a series of role-playing exercises, his class is imbued with a strong cultural emphasis in order for students to practice how to interact with, while simultaneously assisting, individuals who may not be fluent in English. According to Josep, this dual focus is key because in medical interpretation health professionals must understand both the verbal and the non-verbal cues from patients. As the Latino population in the United States continues to grow, Medical Spanish can literally mean life or death.

Reflection: A Tufts Daily editorial in 2008 applauded Josep’s class for reflecting “the type of cultural fluidity that has come to define our country, while also allowing [Tufts] to adjust to the times.” The editorial lauded Medical Spanish for embodying “what a Tufts education is all about.”