Skip to main content
School of Arts and Sciences

Peer-Teachers of the Experimental College

Monday, October 6, 2014

ExCollege offers a unique and rewarding way to learn

Emily Carlin, Alexandra Allport, and Teighlor S. Bonner

By Alexandra Erath (A16)

ExcollegePeersEmily Carlin, A14, and Alexandra Allport, A14, meet with Teighlor S. Bonner, A14, during the ExCollege class "Is the Nook a Book? Let's Take a Look"

ExcollegePeers Alexandra Allport, A14, and Emily Carlin, A15, teach their fellow undergraduate students during the ExCollege class "Is the Nook a Book? Let's Take a Look"

ExcollegePeers The ExCollege class "Is the Nook a Book? Let's Take a Look"

(above photos: Alonso Nichols, Tufts University)

The Experimental College, or ExCollege, has been an integral part of Tufts University since the program was founded in the mid-1960s. Offering an eclectic mix of courses with an ever-changing curriculum, the ExCollege brings experts in various fields to teach each semester.

ExCollege Director Robyn Gittleman believes the program plays an important role in expanding Tufts' existing course offerings. "Tufts is a small school and we provide a way of enlarging both the faculty and the curriculum," says Gittleman. "We try to offer new courses that don't fit well within traditional departments."

But the ExCollege provides students with more than just the opportunity to take interesting and unique classes for credit. Each spring, the ExCollege offers Tufts undergraduates the opportunity to spend a semester peer-teaching a self-designed course on a topic about which they are passionate.

The process of becoming a peer teacher is quite selective, as the ExCollege receives dozens of proposals and can offer only a few student-taught classes. Applicants must submit a sample lesson plan and a detailed syllabus, and undergo several rounds of interviews with the ExCollege Board. This spring, six undergraduates were selected to teach four classes.

What draws these students to the idea of teaching a college class? Seniors Emily Carlin and Zanny Allport, co-teaching a class about reading and technology, "Is the Nook a Book? Let's Take a Look", were drawn to peer-teaching through a mutual interest in how technology is changing the way we read. Senior Andrew Hunter, whose class focuses on Western travel literature, thought the peer-teaching program would be an excellent foundation for his plans to continue in the field of education after graduation. "I wanted to get experience putting together a class and lessons," explains Hunter. And there's sort of high stakes here at Tufts, where people want to be learning a lot."

A teaching highlight for Hunter this semester was an essay networking event he organized, which he describes as similar to a cocktail party, but more literary. "Everyone brought their own mug and we drank tea, mingled, and talked about our essays," says Hunter.

Senior Lauren Traitz, co-teaching a class on the politics of drug prohibition with junior Jonathan Green, enjoys a game with her class in which she and Green pose a question and then toss a stuffed animal to a random student, who answers and then tosses it to someone else. "We've had some amazing conversations this way," says Traitz. "It's a way of getting everyone to contribute."

Senior Kyle Shurtleff's class, YouTube: Business and Creative Success, draws from his personal experience; he has published more than 250 gaming videos and amassed more than 85,000 subscribers to his personal YouTube channel. Shurtleff says he enjoys seeing his students working on content in a wide range of topics and still learning so much from each other. "I have some students focusing on gaming, comedy, lifestyle, and yet we can share advice and strategies with each other," he adds.

All six student teachers describe their experiences as rewarding, and say they would do it again in a heartbeat. Traitz says it's very gratifying to be able to share a topic of interest with students, and that what he has learned goes beyond delving deeper into their subject. "When you take something you know and make it accessible to other people, says Traitz, "you learn a lot about what you know and what you don't know."

But there are unique challenges as well for the peer-teachers, who agree that instructing fellow students presents certain obstacles. "It can be challenging to have authority over people who are your age, to know what's appropriate and what's overstepping," says Traitz. "You don't want to be insensitive, because you know you wouldn't appreciate that treatment yourself. Nonetheless, you don't want to be taken advantage of, because you've put so much work into this project and because it wouldn't be fair to the students who work really hard."

"Unlike a professor, I don't have a title or position to establish authority with," agrees Hunter. "It's about building a relationship based on respect and mutual responsibility to the course, which is invigorating." After supervising the peer-teaching program for several years, Woolf and Gittleman concur that the student teachers share a few common characteristics.

"They all want to give back," says Woolf. "Many of them were students in a peer-taught class, and they thought it was great and wanted to teach a year or two later."

The "secret heart" of the peer-teaching programs is the lasting impact on the student teachers, says Woolf. "It's one of those moments where you're staring at yourself in the mirror, figuratively and literally, and you figure out what you're made of," he adds.

"Many students tell me it was the highlight of their entire Tufts experience," agrees Gittleman. She also believes that the ExCollege's peer-teaching program says just as much about the university as it does about the student-teachers. "Most schools don't have anything like it. And I think that says something about the university, that Tufts truly respects its undergraduates."

All of the current student teachers enthusiastically recommend that students take ExCollege classes, and encourage undergraduates to look into teaching their own courses. When asked if she had any advice for students considering peer-teaching, Allport smiled. "Be confident," she says. "Because if you're interested in a topic, chances are there are people at Tufts who are interested in it, too."


Related article: ExCollege Celebrating 50 Years