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Experimental Knowledge

Campus | February 4, 2013

Established in 1964, the Experimental College at Tufts was created in response to students’ demands for nontraditional courses beyond the regular curriculum. One of the only departments of its kind in the nation, the ExCollege has become a defining feature of the Tufts experience. It’s a place where students and professors can teach on equal footing, where students can learn about everything from Pokémon to American Superheroes, and where the arts — like comedy and poetry — can thrive in an alternative environment. Importantly, undergraduates hold significant sway in the administration of the ExCollege: students are full voting members on the governing board, students hold committees to evaluate the courses provided by the ExCollege, and students teach courses entirely on their own. As the ExCollege’s website appropriately explains, “It would seem safe to say that, after almost 50 years as a vital, thriving part of the university, the Experimental College is no longer an ‘experiment.’” Last semester, 615 Jumbos enrolled in 46 ExCollege courses. As students of the ExCollege, various members of the Observer staff decided to share what courses they’re excited about and what they love about the ExCollege.

The Editing Process in Fiction Writing
Though Tufts has a plethora of creative writing courses taught by published professors, these classes can often be time-intensive and focus on producing large quantities of work. “Editing Fiction Writing” gives students the opportunity to hone the specific craft of editing their writing in a more relaxed pass/fail environment. Editing is what separates novice writing from professional prose. As Stephen King explains, “To write is human, to edit is divine.” By the end of the semester, each student will complete a carefully edited short story. Taught by senior Libby Eilbert, the class maintains the close-knit vibe of a student writing club, supporting the relevancy of creative writing at Tufts. The necessity of every word in every sentence is questioned until only what is both essential and stylistic remains. Often this is the most difficult, yet most neglected, aspect of writing. – Aaron Langerman

A History of Piracy in the Modern World
This is a course not just for pirates (at heart) but for landlubbers as well. Everything you want to know about pirates is answered, and even things you didn’t care to know are discussed. The course examines pirates and privateers of the Caribbean, the Maghreb, Somalia, and even modern day digital piracy. In true ExCollege style, Tufts students debate topics that range from whether or not pirates operate outside of the classical worldview proposed by Cicero to why Captain Henry Morgan is on a rum bottle. In an informal environment where ideas that go against historical record are encouraged, students challenge their understanding of piracy and what it means to reject societal structure for a life on the high seas. As an outgoing senior, I realized that sometimes you just have to take a class on pirates to really appreciate your Tufts education. – Kyle Carnes

Investigating Somerville: A Hands-on Approach to Reporting
Each semester, ExCollege classes have energized and enriched my Tufts experience, tying together personal passions and academia and introducing me to powerful ideas in exciting new ways. Designed to give students a hands-on experience in investigative journalism, this course is co-taught by an investigative journalist-cum-academic and the editor of the Somerville Journal. As an aspiring writer and journalist myself, the class I need most for my future career is being taught outside of mainstream academia. Tying in an academic and theoretical understanding of investigative work and journalistic writing with a deep connection to our local community, this class offers students an opportunity to apply their learning immediately and productively by finding and writing a Somerville-based story. As with all good ExCollege classes, what excites me the most is that I don’t quite know what it is I’m going to learn yet, but I do know that it will be challenging. – Kumar Ramanathan

The Corset and the Crown: The History and Politics of Fashion
From the corsets of the 18th century to the miniskirts and bellbottoms of the 1960s, fashion clearly affects how we remember history. But does that relationship go even further? Have the fashion trends of eras in the past affected the course of human events? This course attempts to answer this question among many others. “I believe that clothing affects the individual’s daily experience and reflects core aspects of culture,” teacher Alexandra van den Berg explains. “I want to share what I’ve learned and get people to see fashion as more than just a frivolous art form.” In my opinion, this class represents the true purpose of the ExCollege: taking a topic in which students are interested and relating it to the useful world of academia. It offers the information that someone might learn in a fashion school or a focused art program, but it’s all backed up by Tufts’ liberal arts purpose. – Gracie McKenzie

The Art of Improvisation
The ExCollege is known for encouraging more participation than some traditional offerings, but some courses take hands-on to a new level. This semester, two members of Tufts’ improv troupe Cheap Sox are banding together to bring their skills into the classroom. Senior Rachel Schoenbrun, one of the teachers, explains that she “wanted to teach a course about improv because I wanted to share the lessons and gifts that it has given me.” Improv is about more than just entertainment; it’s been shown to help in the real world, from the job interview to the boardroom presentation. Schoenbrun is excited to see the larger impacts of her teaching. “Selfishly, I love to know that Adam, my co-teacher, and I are making a difference in the Tufts community,” she says. “I feel the most alive when I’m doing things I’m passionate about, and teaching and doing improv with this ensemble that Adam and I are building is and will continue to be a blast.” – Gracie McKenzie

Critical Theory and Personal Decision Making: Sex, Ethics, and Anarchy
One of the most unique and exciting offerings from the ExCollege is the opportunity to teach a class, which is available to all undergraduates. Senior Brandon Archambault has been interested for a while in “the application of critical theory to the ethics of sex and romance.” Though we learn complex intellectual theories in our Tufts’ curriculum, we rarely apply that knowledge to our daily lives, especially to something as fundamental as our sexuality. After “hundreds” of conversations with his friends, Archambault wanted to take a class on the topic, but found that Tufts didn’t offer one. Instead, he’s now leading a seminar. He says, “there’s a frankness and an implicit respect you can get between your peers that takes a lot longer to forge with a professor, if it ever gets forged at all; hence, why the Undergrads Teaching Undergrads courses (especially ones with material as heavy as this) actually work.” Deciding to teach this semester may have been “a gamble,” but Archambault says that his students “seem to enjoy it so far, which is encouraging and inspiring. Having a group of people in a room together, all contributing their own angles is revelatory.” – Gracie McKenzie