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School of Arts and Sciences

The Experimental College

Friday, September 26, 2014

Excollege Celebrates 50 Years of Student Empowerment and Innovation in Education

ExCollege Class on Mountaineering

By Molly Keady, A14

Over the past five decades, the ExCollege has re-defined the ways of learning and teaching and has challenged institutionalized forms of education.

ExCollege Director Robyn Gittleman offers her input at the Strategic Planning meeting on Lifelong Learning and Alumni Engagement in 2012. (Photo: Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

In the early 1980s, Sculptress Bernadette D'Amore taught Carving in Wood and Stone. Here she she examines a work in progress with its creator, Dave Marchant (A84). (Photo: Tufts Criterion )

Nick Levin (A11), center, critiques an anchor mounted to some chairs by, from left: Brianna Seapy (A11), Jacob Borodovsky (A12), Jess Madding (A11) and Daniel Meer (A12) in the ExCollege class on mountaineering he is teaching with Ryan Stolp (A11). (Photo: Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Rashad Malik Davis (A13) and John Lewis (A13) at the Fall Explorations and Perspectives Training Dinner (Photo: ExCollege)

"In the ExCollege, I had a voice at the table. I felt known there. It was an extremely important part of my time at Tufts," recalls Deborah Jospin, J80, of her participation in Tufts University's Experimental College, or the ExCollege, as it's informally known. More than 35 years since her introduction to the ExCollege in her freshman Explorations seminar, Jospin still emphasizes the fundamental role that the program played in her Tufts experience.

For fifty years, the ExCollege has inspired and empowered students such as Jospin. Over the past five decades, it has redefined the ways of learning and teaching and has challenged institutionalized forms of education.

In the early 1960s, former Tufts President Nils Yngve Wessel considered ways in which he could energize Tufts' faculty and invigorate departments. He sought to transform that which he considered "a good, grey school" into a distinctive and innovative institution. President Wessel eventually decided on a program that would allow professors to teach courses outside of their departments, and in 1964 he assembled a faculty committee to create a model for the program. The committee succeeded, and in the fall of the same year, students could sign up to take a comparative literature course with Tufts' new Experimental College.

Tufts faculty were the sole instructors in the ExCollege until 1965 when Ruth Babson, civil rights activist and key figure in the Boston busing crisis, taught as the first visiting lecturer. Babson's involvement served as the spark that led to the ExCollege as it is today, a program taught mostly by visiting lecturers who are professionals in their respective fields.

Students have also played a fundamental role in the ExCollege since its early years. In 1966, faculty voted to have students on the board, and students have had a voice in choosing the courses and instructors ever since.

The ExCollege's peer-taught courses, which were instituted in the late1960s, epitomize the student-centric focus of the program. These courses not only allow juniors and seniors to try their hands at teaching, but they also encourage the type of independent and experimental scholarship that defines ExCollege. "The educational philosophy [of the ExCollege] is about leaders asking questions rather than providing answers. "We want the students to go get the answers themselves," says Howard Woolf, Associate Director of the ExCollege.

When the ExCollege began its Explorations freshman seminar program in 1972, Tufts juniors and seniors - assisted by a faculty advisor - undertook the dual responsibility of instructing and mentoring incoming freshmen. Over the past several decades, Exploration seminars have treated a wide variety of themes, from topics in literature to an examination of road trips in American culture. Explorations was so successful that the ExCollege introduced Perspectives in 1988. Perspectives is a peer-taught and peer-mentored freshman seminar that focuses on media-related themes, and like Explorations, is a source of unification for incoming freshmen.

According to Woolf, studies have shown that students who take Explorations or Perspectives feel better adjusted to college life, academically and socially. He notes that many freshmen hit a roadblock when their first set of midterms rolls around. According to Woolf, the peer-led seminars offer the moral and academic support that freshmen need to "survive and flourish."

The effects of the ExCollege have been lasting for Jospin, now an attorney and consultant for businesses and nonprofit organizations. She attributes her passion for "mentoring young people and helping them sort out their next steps" to the support she received as a student from the ExCollege.

Freshman seminars are an important element of the ExCollege, but they represent only a fraction of what the program has to offer. The ExCollege aims to enhance the undergraduate curriculum by offering courses not covered by departments and serves as an "incubator for new programs," says Woolf. According to Kumar Ramanathan, A15, an ExCollege board member, the board seeks to "push the boundaries of existing pedagogy" as it selects instructors and courses.

Of the 80 to 120 applications it receives each semester, the board chooses approximately 22 to 24 instructors to teach their proposed courses. Ramanathan describes these courses as "timely, new, and cutting edge." and "a way to channel frustrations with traditional academic standards." Ramanathan points to Positive Psychology and Social Marketing as two courses that draw high enrollment numbers year after year. As an ExCollege student, one of Ramanathan's favorite courses was Investigating Somerville, an investigative journalism class that led to his work being published in the Somerville Journal.

Robyn Gittleman, Director of the ExCollege, emphasizes the freedom that the absence of set curriculum provides. "We are open to any new, innovative, or interdisciplinary subject that would open up the students' education and give them the needed skills to be critical thinkers," says Gittleman.

The standards of ExCollege courses are as rigorous as those for any other course at Tufts. Students take surveys evaluating ExCollege professors and courses and ExCollege instructors must earn high marks in order to teach the course again. Some courses have been so successful over the years that they have been adopted by departments or been developed into a new program. The Peace and Justice Studies Department and the Institute for Global Leadership began with courses in the ExCollege before becoming autonomous programs. Currently, the ExCollege houses the Communications and Media Studies program (CMS).

As it brings in visiting lecturers to teach courses, the ExCollege creates invaluable relationships with communities beyond Tufts. Assistant Professor of Religion Kenneth Garden, Chair of the ExCollege board, notes the many benefits of having people outside of the Tufts community serve as the program's instructors. "The instructors the ExCollege brings in to teach are practitioners in their fields. They give a very different perspective on these subjects than [professors] would. They come with connections in the field, they can set up contacts in the profession, and they can help facilitate internships," Garden says.

Marcy Regalado, A15, a member of the ExCollege board and an ExCollege student, describes how she has benefited from having outside experts teach her classes. "[I've learned] that there are different types of ‘smarts,' different types of experts, and different types of resources available to better prepare [students] in preparation for their careers after Tufts," says Regalado.

The learning environments formed by ExCollege students and instructors benefit all those involved. Steven Sharobem and Douglas Martland, Assistant Attorneys General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have taught The Right to Privacy in Modern America for several years. Sharobem is firm in his belief that teaching with the ExCollege has made him and Martland better lawyers. "Honestly, we are stunned how much more we learn about the law through our interaction with Tufts students," Sharobem says. He adds that the classes "[make] us better lawyers and [afford] us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in discussions regarding the most important Supreme Court decisions in recent memory."

Along with visiting lecturers, the ExCollege also welcomes Tufts staff. According to Woolf, Rape Aggression Defense, Writing Fellows Seminar, and Research for Success: Using the Library for Thesis and Capstone Projects are three courses currently taught by Tufts staff who do not hold teaching degrees.

The ExCollege offers educational opportunities that extend beyond the classroom walls. The CMS program's Winternship Program offers January internships to students, allowing them to spend part of their winter break immersed in the media industry. With the help of the ExCollege and CMS, Regalado landed an internship at Filmmakers Collaborative this past winter. She describes her experience as "short, sweet, and valuable."

The ExCollege also offers the Quidnuncs (derived from the Latin, Quidnunc is a person eager to know the latest news), a program that allows juniors and seniors to use their academic experiences to explore current issues with their peers. Students in the Quidnuncs program are eligible for course credit and encourage the type of independent study that the ExCollege espouses. Ramanathan recently completed a Quidnunc with Garden and three peers in which he examined the rising phenomena of Massive Open Online Courses. "The ExCollege offers course credit to people doing important academic work," says Ramanathan. "It comes from the spirit of the ExCollege, the idea that there is nothing sacrosanct about credit. There is no formula for how we should do higher education."

In the upcoming years, the ExCollege will continue to offer courses that reflect topics of current interest and are important to students "We will continue to accommodate whatever is happening now," says Woolf. "Even classes that have been around for years are always changing because the world changes. Continuity, innovation, and content, those are the hallmarks of the ExCollege,"

Ramanathan is working to create further opportunities for student involvement in ExCollege programming. He is hoping that by next year, students will be able to hold student coordinator positions that are less demanding than board positions but still influential in the running of the program.

Regardless of the future development of the ExCollege, Ramanathan encourages students to take advantage of the program now. "We live in this time when college is inherently stressful. [Students] are wrapped up in debt and job insecurity and it's very easy to lose [oneself] in the grind of that. It's time to tap into a giant world of resources. The ExCollege is a space to think outside of the box in education, and it's a place to have that validated."


The ExCollege 50th Anniversary Events

For additional information, contact the ExCollege.

Friday, April 11 | 9:00am - 4:30pm | Coolidge Room, 2nd Floor, Ballou Hall
"Into the Future: Challenges to Higher Education in the 21st Century," includes a series of panels and roundtable discussions and a keynote address by Andrew Delbanco, American Studies professor at Columbia University.

Saturday, April 12 | 6:30 pm | Museum of Science, Boston, MA
Experimental College 50th Anniversary Gala  Dinner, memories and merriment to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Experimental College. For ExCollege alumni and faculty.


The Tisch Library is showcasing important moments in the history of the ExCollege.

The Slater Concourse Gallery in the Aidekman Arts Center is displaying a wall-sized timeline displaying the history of the ExCollege and how it coincided with important events in United States history over the past fifty years.