Knowing and Believing in John Steinbeck

Written by Madeline Hall (A13), who co-taught the fall 2012 Explorations seminar “Steinbeck’s Humanity.”

Teaching my Explorations seminar was perhaps the single most beneficial academic choice I made at Tufts; the curiosity and depth of the student’s inquiries shed greater light on the worth of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden than I could have ever guessed. Further, they held a mirror to my own experience at Tufts, launching my mind perpetually to the past of my own freshman year. Be it a trope or not, their genuine and committed involvement in the class taught me more about myself than any class in which I had ever been enrolled.

East of Eden served as my spiritual text from the day I finished it. Completely taken by the story of family strife, Biblical mystique, and the rage between good and evil, East of Eden quickly became the text by which I lived my life. The depth of its contents and every thematic helix that spiraled from its plot made the book an ideal candidate for intensive study. This logic made the absence of East of Eden from virtually every syllabus on Tufts’ campus that much more puzzling; how could it not be taught, with its rich understanding of the intricacy of human conflict and confusion?

My conviction in the book’s offer of salvation was shared by my Explorations seminar co-teacher, the friend who initially encouraged reading the book in the first place. Bolstered by our mutual love of the literature, we crafted a syllabus in the comfort of our own confidence – this book was the best, and surely others would feel the same, right?

Cue the crippling doubt that consumed me on the first day of class. Standing in front of the students called to mind what standing in front of a firing squad must feel like; the intimidating circle of first-years, armed with skepticism and adolescent insolence, were perfect soldiers suited to destroy my flimsy defenses. My understanding of body language became so acutely attuned to each student’s minor movement that a crossed pair of arms suggested utter disinterest and a yawn condemned my every effort to teach.  I was certain of their suspicion as a result of my own disbelief: how did someone decide I was qualified to teach?!

As the semester passed and the students consumed the book, though, my own incredulity abated. I understood that they were as new to college as I was to instruction, and that our respective efforts had brought us together in this class. I knew the book, knew my own passions and abilities, knew the worth of the course; all it took was the introduction of the students, eager and incredibly bright, to turn this knowledge into true belief in myself.

Even now, I cannot fully grasp my good fortune. Perhaps, as I have done so often, Steinbeck can speak more clearly to my greatest marvel in regards to this experience: “It is one of the triumphs of the human that he can know a thing and still not believe it.” I know the class has changed me; I simply still cannot believe it.

Teaching Perspectives

Written by Samantha Tye (A13), co-teacher of the Perspectives seminar ‘Films of Genocide.’

I can only imagine the thoughts going through my students’ heads the first time that we met as a group. Sofi Shield and I started out full speed ahead asking for names and dorms and hometowns. We wanted to hear about summer adventures while we simultaneously spewed out advice. I knew we were talking a mile a minute, but our excitement to meet our freshmen was too strong to contain. After about ten minutes of our premature advice-giving, one brave student raised her hand and asked, “Wait, isn’t this a class about genocide?”

I guess it wasn’t clear to our freshmen that during orientation week we would act as their advisors; help them get acclimated to campus and registered for their first semester. The stark contrast between new school year excitement and the somber topic of genocide added to the hilarity of the moment. Sofi and I burst out in laughter, realizing how absurd we must have seemed. The class was sitting patiently, ready to delve into crimes against humanity, and there we were, blabbing about our favorite professors. We quickly explained the misunderstanding, and our students joined in with laughter of their own. Needless to say, this broke the ice and set a wonderful tone for the remainder of our semester together.

It is hard to say what my favorite part of each week’s class was. Even as the semester went on, our freshmen never ceased to amaze us with their insight and perspective on the films we watched. They expressed wonderful commentary about portraying genocide through film and thoughtfully spoke about ethical dilemmas within the genre. I truly believe that I learned as much as the students did about genocide films. Sofi and I learned even more about being leaders, working with others and conducting a class.

On a simpler but equally enjoyable note, our weekly check-in at the beginning of each class was refreshing and allowed for continual relationship-building. I think all of us—teachers and students alike—really appreciated the twenty minutes we took to shares highs and lows of the previous week. We got to congratulate successes and suggest solutions for troubles. Our classroom environment was unlike that of any “traditional” Tufts classroom experience. Sofi and I were much more our students’ equals rather than their superiors.

Sometimes, when Sofi and I would be drawing up lesson plans, we would refer to our students as the “little ones.” We would quickly correct ourselves, however, because it didn’t feel right to establish that much distance from our students. Far before the end of the semester, we realized the “little ones” were first and foremost our friends and peers.

Explorations: An Experience that Enhances a College Career

The following blog post comes to you from John Dame, current junior and co-teacher of the fall 2012 Explorations class NCAA: Athletes, Sports, and Money. 

In the spring of 2012, my classmate Jon Sobo approached me about teaching an Experimental College class that coming Fall. I had taken a class taught by my peers as a freshman, but I was fairly skeptical about teaching. The class I took my freshmen year was extremely productive but I was not sure I could handle leading a classroom on a weekly basis. Jon and I are heavily involved in the football program at Tufts, which marginalizes our schedules quite a bit. Therefore, I was concerned I was not going to be able to pledge enough time to the class due to our other commitments.

However, we were able to put forth a lot of energy into the course. We decided to teach about the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), doing classes on everything from recruiting and coaching to life as a Division I athlete. We arrived on campus in late August and engaged in extremely helpful training, learning how to teach the class with its long length of two and a half hours. After the training, we participated in orientation with our students, which was a rewarding experience. The opportunity to spend time with our freshmen on their first day away from their parents was valuable. We immediately became the people they looked to on campus, as they did not have anyone else. This allowed us to form some great relationships with our students.

Once orientation ended and our students settled in, they formed a great relationship with each other. Aside from teaching, this was the most enjoyable thing about running an Experimental College class for freshmen. On the first day, they were awkward, scared, and antagonistic towards each other. However, by the third week, students were bringing in birthday cakes and decorating our classroom for their peers. Their relationships quickly developed and they relied on each other as they endured their first few months of college.

Overall, the teaching experience worked perfectly. The students were respectful each week and we achieved our goals by the end of the course. Each student received a well-rounded education on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and they all delivered excellent final papers that displayed their knowledge of the subject. Each of them took the class very seriously and also made sure to let us know that they appreciated our efforts in teaching them. We had little to no problems in our class and it was an incredible experience that made me value my teachers and the Tufts community even more.