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Ex College class brings in political bigwigs to teach students about Massachusetts politics

Published: Thursday, April 5, 2007

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 13:08

Even though most Tufts classes are taught by individuals with academic and professional achievements, Marian Walsh's Experimental College class, "The Massachusetts Legislative Process," is still anything but average.

Walsh is the assistant majority leader in the Massachusetts State Senate and a fixture of Boston politics who was named "One of Boston's 100 Most Powerful Women" by Boston Magazine in 2003. Throughout the semester, she has used her unique political experiences and real world connections to teach her students about politics from the perspective of influential, active politicians.

The class covers typical government class material, such as how a bill becomes law, but also brings local politics to the students through weekly guest speakers who discuss political issues, share stories or engage in lively debate.

"These speakers are all experts in whatever topic we're looking at that week, whether having been involved in the actual votes or simply having a wealth of knowledge on the topic," said senior Aaron Mehta, who is a student in the class.

The diverse and often influential list of speakers over the semester has included a former Massachusetts House Speaker and the Director of the Massachusetts State Department of Labor, among many others. Walsh also invited her students to join her at a fundraiser earlier in the semester, where they could rub elbows with influential Massachusetts politicians.

"Tufts is the ideal environment for this kind of class, with its commitment to public service and application of academic knowledge to life after Tufts," Kevin Miller (LA '05), Walsh's teaching assistant, said.

Walsh said she tries to focus the class on two-sided, even-handed debate and political awareness.

"How do we - right or wrong - participate in advancing justice in our culture?" she said. "It's by participation, by knowledge, by listening, and by commitment." Walsh added that self-education, voting, and sharing informed opinions all count as "a real civic contribution."

Walsh also emphasized the importance of informing students of the issues from multiple points of view. "In most conversations there's more than two sides, but I try minimally to provide two," she said.

Sophomore Kevin Lownds recalled a class earlier in the semester focusing on stem cell research. Walsh brought in State Senator Bruce Tarr, a proponent of stem cell research funding, and lobbyist Evelyn Reilly, who opposed stem cell research on ethical grounds, to speak about the stem cell debate.

"The class heard both perspectives on an incredibly divisive issue, and also gained a greater understanding of the process by which these concerns are balanced," Lownds said.

Walsh cited this past Monday's class, which focused on the gay marriage debate, as another example of her two-sided approach. Walsh, herself an advocate of gay marriage rights, invited ACLU activist Holly Gunner and former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran, who introduced an anti-gay marriage state constitutional amendment to the Massachusetts legislature in 2004, to speak to the class.

"I wanted the class to see the other side of this discussion; what made someone so powerful, so knowledgeable, come to that conclusion and to use all his skill and power to have a constitutional convention and almost be successful," Walsh said.

The 2004 amendment came within two votes of passing.

Walsh has devoted classes to many other issues that dominate local, state and national politics today, including the ongoing discussions about the minimum wage, the death penalty and the legality of gambling.

"Basically, turn on the news at 5 p.m. and any major legislative issue you'll see talked about on the local channels, we're tackling," Mehta said.

Junior Susan Rydz, another student in the course, said that the class readings often focus on recent articles on the issues being discussed in the classroom. She said Walsh's own personal and political knowledge made the news stories she reads easier to relate to real life.

"Instead of just explaining the readings, Senator Walsh connects the articles with her own experience as a senator, which helps bring it all to life," she said.

Both teacher and students alike were also keen to emphasize the nature of the class as a two-way conversation.

"Senator Walsh has been very upfront with us from the start and treats it as a discussion class, instead of simply lecturing to us about the wealth of topics she's familiar with," Mehta said.

Walsh also emphasized that the class was not just about conveying information and ideas, but also about sharing them. "How did that happen? Should that have happened? What should happen? How do you feel about it? It's a real blend of information, conversation, and hopefully inspiration," she said.

The result, Miller said, is a class that is unique - even by Tufts' standards.

"While there have been classes specifically about the Massachusetts political system before, this class delves into new territory with the detail and breadth of the subject matter," he said. "Judging by the way that the class has been going, I think that it would be great to continue bringing the real world experience of political action into the classroom."

Lownds agreed that the continual interaction of lawmakers and experts with students is what makes the class special.

"While I've learned quite a bit about these specific issues, the class really provides a practical, personal understanding of the legislative process," he said. "You don't get that from an article on JSTOR."

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