A 21st Century Leap for the ExCollege

live-1003646__340What is by far the fastest growing sector at Tufts?

No, not the number of national championship sports teams, although that would be a good guess. And no, not the number of Comp Sci majors, even though that’s another good guess.

The answer is graduate students. Yes, while their presence still may be hard to discern, in fact the graduate student population on the Medford campus has doubled in ten years — to nearly 2500. Now that’s a significant change.

And while grad students have always had a presence in the ExCollege as instructors, the sample has been small and in a certain sense accidental.

It was high time for us to get out ahead of the curve. So when the graduate school came calling early in the year, looking for our help, we jumped at the chance.

Three initiatives emerged.

The first, which in hindsight, seems like a no brainer, was perhaps the most “radical.” For fifty years the ExCollege’s governing board has been comprised of equal numbers of faculty and undergraduates. Indeed, when the ExCollege was given a permanent charter as a department back in 1979, this organizational structure was explicitly spelled out.

As the new director of the ExCollege, I felt it was the right time to add a graduate student to the board. So it fell to me to determine whether or not I would push to break with tradition or maintain our mandated status quo. Would there be “strict constructionists” among the current board members? Or would they be willing to interpret the charter in a manner that reflects the unforeseen changes in the student body?

Happily, there was nothing to fight about. The board quickly and unanimously voted to add a graduate student representative. And based on recommendations from the Graduate Student Council, Seth Rothschild, a PhD candidate in Mathematics, was accorded the honor of being the first ever.

The second and third initiatives both grew out of new trends in graduate education.

On the one hand, it seems that more and more PhDs are looking to build careers outside the academy, hoping to take their highly specialized skill set into every major profession one can imagine. For this cohort, the need to experience on-the-ground training has become critical. With this in mind, the ExCollege, in partnership with the Graduate School and Alumni Relations, started a new program, one designed to meet this need, called Professional Development Fellowships wherein advanced grad students will shadow a professional for a week over winter break.

On the flip side of the coin, those grad students who want a career as academics have found that, unlike years past, their experience and/or training as teachers has become a key factor in the university job market. Addressing this issue became, I think it’s fair to say, our most important endeavor this year. With the blessing of the Graduate School, we established the Robyn Gittleman Graduate Teaching Fellowship program for advanced graduate students looking to develop solid teaching skills.

Named in honor of our Director Emeritus, who devoted her professional life to furthering the cause of university teaching, the program attracted an impressive cohort of applicants eager for the experience. It also won a Tufts Innovates Grant (which is given to help kick start new ideas), secured additional funding from the Janover Family (who support our Voices from the Edge lecture series), and has already garnered gifts from alums who want to contribute in celebration of Robyn’s career and passions.

13255917_10153778740892572_2489340888281956062_nCome the fall, the inaugural class of eight advanced graduate students will teach courses in the ExCollege and will meet with me, individually and as part of a regular roundtable discussion, in what we’ve come to call “curated” teacher training.

Stay tuned for updates as to how this “experiment” goes!