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

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.

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!

Sex on Campus: As Learning Leads to Action

Next week, the ExCollege will be making its decisions regarding which classes will be offered to Tufts students in the fall! Mimi Arbeit went through this process last semester, and before jumping into the classroom, she wrote about what she hoped to bring to her students. Now teaching ‘Sexual Wellness on College Campuses,’ Mimi demonstrates the type of ExCollege instructor dedicated to establishing a vibrant and innovative classroom for her students in order to expand upon their current experiences at Tufts.

Written by Mimi Arbeit, Visiting Lecturer

I’ve wanted to teach at the Experimental College since I first accepted the offer to join the MA/PhD program at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development here at Tufts. And I knew what I wanted to teach, too. I even had the name of my class: Sex on Campus.

I came to Tufts after spending two years as the sole Health teacher at a middle school in Quincy. I loved teaching Health, and I really loved teaching the Sex Ed portions of Health. I loved being the one cool and collected person in the room while explaining the human reproductive system in detail. But I was also keenly aware that there’s a lot that I can cover with college students that I couldn’t cover in that middle school classroom.

Prior to my first job as a middle school Health teacher, I was, in fact, a college student, much like the people taking my class. I was a student on a campus with its own sexual culture that, over the course of four years, I observed and tried to understand. But what helped me most in college both personally and professionally was becoming a sexual health advocate—hearing from, counseling, and teaching my peers about how to engage in safe and fulfilling sexual experiences and relationships while at college.

And that’s exactly what students in my class will learn to do. I’m not an undergrad at Tufts and this isn’t my campus, so I can’t tell you what’s going on or how to understand it. In my class, the students will collaborate with each other to describe the sexual arena at Tufts as they understand and experience it. Then, they will weigh the strengths and limitations of various research and theories that might help explain what is going on and why. Furthermore, throughout the semester each student will work step by step to plan and prepare an advocacy project designed to optimize some aspect of sexual wellness on campus in some specific way.

I can’t wait to see what my students share with each other and how they choose to impact and contribute to their community here at Tufts. I can’t wait to see how much I learn, personally, from teaching the class.

We could even extend our impact beyond ourselves and beyond our campus. Scholars from many disciplines are paying increased attention to the sexual behaviors and attitudes of our nation’s college students, and they are making all sorts of claims. Journalists, activists, psychologists, sociologists, public health researchers, and other scholars argue over whether hooking up is “bad” for young women, whether hookup “culture” contributes to high rates of sexual assault on college campuses, or whether long-term relationships “should” be a priority for college students. What is the value in these arguments? Whose agenda are they actually serving?

I think all of these questions are distractions from real conversations about sexual justice and communal wellbeing. I think that Tufts students—that my students—need to talk back to these scholars and tell them about the complexity of sex, relationships, safety, and decision-making on campus. In order to do that, students need the opportunity to assess the institutional and cultural forces that constrain and facilitate what they want and what they do. And then, together, they can think critically and creatively about how to promote positive possibilities for sex on campus that make room for themselves and others in a multiplicity of ways.

And I consider it a pleasure and an honor for me to be starting that process with them.

Round 3 at the ExCollege

Written by Sarah Moser, currently teaching ‘Asian Cities in the 21st Century’

This January marks my third semester teaching a course at the Experimental College. I quickly became a fan and promoter of the ExCollege and its unique set of offerings. For me, teaching at the ExCollege is an amazing opportunity to explore topics relating directly to my research interests and expertise that I would not ordinarily get to teach at other institutions. I have taught my fair share of first year requirement courses, and while there is a sound logic behind having a core curriculum for majors, I find my ExCollege courses to be particularly energizing. Designing a one-of-a-kind course that overlaps with my current research and consulting experience is a breath of fresh air that stimulates my research and gives me a chance to integrate the most current and leading-edge material into the classroom.

The main thing that keeps me coming back is the students who take ExCollege courses. I have found Tufts students to be energetic, passionate, engaged in the world around them and rarely shy to take up a debate. They do not take ExCollege courses to simply fill a requirement, but to learn in some depth about a topic that is not offered in any other department. Because my own interests and background are interdisciplinary in focus, I structure my course content to be as interdisciplinary as possible, with readings from urban studies, planning, anthropology, geography, environmental studies, architecture and more. As a result, my classes tend to attract students from a variety of majors and nationalities. In one of my ExCollege classes we did a tally and discovered that there were more languages spoken by people in the class than there were people in the class!

This diversity of views, backgrounds and life experiences greatly enriches the discussions in the class. And it is the class discussions that form the core of each ExCollege class I have taught. From what I have experienced, Tufts students are keenly aware of the value of class discussions and are active learners. Jumbos are generally not the students who are content to sit quietly in the back row and just take notes. Out of the muddiness, confusion and at times tension of classroom discussions emerge flashes of understanding, of new insights, of original ideas and true critical thinking.

It is these ‘flashes’ of collaborative thought and originality that make teaching so deeply satisfying. To me, the ExCollege is the ideal mechanism to engineer such moments. As professors, we are provided with the tools we need to teach to our maximum potential: a group of passionate and highly capable students and the freedom and creative space to teach to our strengths and interests.

I have taught a course called ‘Planned Cities: Power, Ideology and Identity’ twice over the past two years and am now teaching ‘Asian Cities in the 21st Century’. In my current class, we are examining cities in a broad variety of geographical locations and a range of themes, including ‘green’ cities, social / cultural / economic / environmental sustainability, ‘creative’ cities, heritage, tourism, etc. While we are still at the beginning of the semester, I can tell already that it is going to be another fun, stimulating and dynamic class. When students asked last week if we could celebrate Lunar New Year in class this February, I decided to add a component about Chinatowns in Asian cities to justify eating Chinese take-out in class as part of the festivities. Never a dull moment in ExCollege classes!

The Interview Subcommittee: A Must-do Before You Graduate

Written by Erica Rigby, A’15 and student interviewer

There’s something to be said when students are offered the chance to sit on the other end of the interview table, influencing whether the prospective instructor before them is going to drive home all of the ExCollege values we’ve come to know and love. Being on an interview subcommittee sheds light on the vast number of intellectuals in our world who can teach classes. For the student who volunteers, it’s a mere three hours in a morning or afternoon that suits your schedule. Being on a subcommittee reveals the best qualities of our learning community, and ultimately deepens your Jumbo pride.

The handful of enthusiastic Tufts alumni who propose courses, some of whom graduated in the 1950’s and 1960’s, provided the most touching moments for me as the student interviewer.  These folks brought you a huge grin. They entered the room garnered in Tufts jerseys and baseball caps, carrying a briefcase of photos from their glory days as a student here. When asked why they wanted to teach their course, they expressed heartfelt desires to be present on the big hill and give back to the learning community that enriched them as a youth. This one older, eccentric Jumbo came into the room with the idea to watch detective films each week and discuss them with students over popped corn. They are thrilled by the prospect of an intergenerational, intellectual Jumbo journey.

How will you treat the topic sensitively? Can you describe how you envision the 2 ½ hours your class meets once a week? What sort of student do you envision signing up for this?  How can we pull in students who are international? Does it aim to integrate humanities and sciences? How will this strengthen the student as an active citizen? Can we make this global? These are some of the things we pin on our prospective instructors when we’re learning their visions for the semester. Through the series of inquiries, the values of Tufts arise: social consciousness, active citizenship, interdisciplinary thought, and global mindedness. Being an interviewer in general brings you a deeper pride in this Jumbo nation.

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!

Musings of a 2nd Year Student Worker

Written by Marcy Regalado, A’15.

The Experimental College: an idea that bubbled into my mind when attempting to figure out what exactly this could mean to a small freshman looking for an ordinary student job on campus, though this was no ordinary department executing ordinary tasks. No, the Experimental College reconfigures the rigid frame of what courses a university may offer to its students. The interdisciplinary ExCollege courses allow students to dive into topics with a new lens or focus, assisted by the expert(s) teaching the class.

There are always people here pushing the envelope and reinventing the ordinary and the expected; people who bring attention to exciting topics and subtopics yet to be examined. Our instructors are the experts in their fields. Wouldn’t you want to have a full-access pass to the expert of a burgeoning subject that enables you to look at a topic through a unique perspective? Working behind the scenes at the ExCollege allows me as a student worker to get first-hand access to these fresh ideas—to the ideas that add an edge to a subject, draw attention to an obscure (but very important!) field, or build a bridge between two topics that you never would have thought possible.

Working for the ExCollege has given me a look into what education can really do. Education at the collegiate level becomes more of an investigation rather than a fact collecting anthology. The ExCollege brings the investigative topics that students deem important off of a piece of paper (the application) and into the classroom. It is fascinating to take part in the process of determining what course proposals will ultimately make it into Tufts’ classrooms.

We receive about 145 course applications for approximately 23 spots. Getting to work one-on-one with Robyn Gittleman (Director), Howard Woolf (Associate Director), and Cindy Stewart (Assistant Director) on these course proposals is always the best part of my job. It’s refreshing to be in conversation and working with adults that are looking out for the best interests of the students. The ExCollege openly welcomes the opinions of Tufts’ students, and the college respects, listens to, and considers all suggestions made. The course evaluations that we receive at the end of each semester are taken into account for future courses, and the ExCollege continuously uses these evaluations to enhance the student experience through new initiatives, programs, and classes.

My friends are always asking me what the ExCollege is doing, what courses we are offering, and what resources we have for Tufts students. The ExCollege is a department that puts the student first. It highlights interdisciplinary subjects.

It’s where ideas are made into challenging and insightful courses. The ExCollege gives me the privilege to be a part of a department that puts innovative ideas in the classroom for Tufts students to challenge themselves and to gain new perspectives.