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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

58 years later, Tufts ExCollege continues to inspire higher education

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The ExCollege is pictured on Feb. 22, 2018.

In June 1994, Ian Pilarczyk had just finished his second year of law school and was celebrating his birthday at an Irish pub in Brookline, Mass. As he sat with his friends, they watched a surreal, slow-speed car chase take place in Los Angeles on television. This event would ultimately unfold as the O.J. Simpson trial.

In April of the following year, Pilarczyk sat on a jury trial as part of an externship at the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown Boston. In the middle of the hearing, the bailiff passed a note to the presiding judge and everyone in the courthouse was promptly asked to evacuate the building. Once he got out, Pilarczyk heard people talking about someone who was attacking federal courthouses and buildings. The morning after, the Oklahoma City bombing took place, leading to the trial and conviction of Timothy McVeigh.

As a part-time lecturer at Boston University School of Law and former associate director at The Fletcher School, Pilarczyk cited these stories as the inspiration for creating his own class which examines the lasting legal, cultural and sociopolitical impact of great American trials.

Pilarczyk explores these ideas on his legal history blog, which tackles “sundry topics related to the majesty and mystery of law.” But to many students at Tufts, he’s better known for teaching Famous Trials in U.S. History, an original course housed in the Experimental College.

Founded in 1964 by then Tufts President Nils Wessell, the ExCollege was originally created as a program that allows students and faculty to create novel courses. According to Howard Woolf, director of the ExCollege, the experimental program was founded in a climate distinct from modern higher education. 

“At that point, if you wanted to try a new course in a new area, it was very difficult,” Woolf said. “So that was immediately what this group of faculty did. The first course ever taught in the ExCollege — it doesn’t sound very radical — it was comparative literature. But at the time, it was a giant breakthrough.”

Today, the program offers a range of courses in a wide variety of disciplines spanning “politics, popular culture, world religions, technology, law, communications, social issues, business, healthcare, ethics and more,” according to the university's website. From Video Games & Memory and Hollywood & the Courtroom to The Business of Sports and Podcasting for Change, classes span a world of subjects. 

After decades of history, the ExCollege continues to attract the intellectually curious and promote endless innovation with new and inventive courses each year. 

Woolf shared that, given the ExCollege’s emphasis on innovation, the board eventually realized that it needed a steady flow of instructors to make the program sustainable. 

“By ‘67–‘68, we had the first visiting lecturers, and we’ve continued to do that ever since. And it’s been striking how similar, over the years, that process has been,” Woolf said. “There’s a call that goes out to the Greater Boston community saying, ‘We have this opportunity to teach’ … [in] very few cases do we ever look for a specific course. We just say, ‘Send us what you think would be a great course for our students.’”

One of these visiting lecturers was Pilarczyk, who has been teaching Famous Trials in U.S. History since 2009. At Tufts,  he employs a teaching style that differs from how he lectures his graduate classes at Boston University. 

“When I teach a law class, I’m there to lecture, and we use the Socratic method and so there’s a lot of dialogues that are forced dialogue with students whether they want to or not. That’s not the approach I would use in the ExCollege,” Pilarczyk said.

Instead, Pilarczyk adjusts how he teaches at Tufts to better align with the mission of the program. 

“The ExCollege’s philosophy has always been to do something a little outside the box,” he said. “And I've always told people, ‘Look, if you're just coming to take a class where you expect me to talk at you for two and a half hours about law topics, that’s not going to happen. That’s not what this class is about.’”

Reflecting on the success of the ExCollege, Woolf introduced a broader pedagogical context behind experimental teaching and learning. 

“There had been a number of other places around the country, but the concept of a sort of new kind of college that was trying different things began in the late 1920s at the University of Wisconsin. A man named Alexander Meiklejohn wrote a book about experimental colleges,” Woolf said. “There [also] was a University Without Walls out at UMass Amherst … And there were places like Hampshire College, which began as a very radical school in that [it had] no grades, very arts oriented.”

By the ExCollege’s founding, there was ample exploration around what higher education should be, according to Woolf, and many developments in US colleges were political and tied to the counterculture of the ’60s.

Woolf explained that, in this context, Tufts differentiated itself from other colleges by straying away from political influence.  

“In a kind of ironic way, the ExCollege at Tufts was less so, and in hindsight, I think it was a good call on the part of the [founders],” Woolf said. “It was never just courses that were considered progressive or radical or left-leaning, right from the beginning. … The first computer courses that were ever taught at Tufts were taught in the ExCollege and I've always said over the years that it's a kind of an open vessel.”

The ExCollege is also unique for its student-taught courses. Selected student lecturers can either teach an advising course in the Explorations program for first-years in the fall or a course designed on their own for all undergraduates in the spring. 

“As far as we know, we are the only place in the country where undergraduates teach courses that count as regular electives toward graduation,” Woolf said. “They’re pass/fail, but that's on purpose. They count just as much as Chem 1 counts or any other course [at Tufts] … We keep looking and seeing if there's any place that does something like that and there are schools where undergraduates do some sort of teaching, but it's not at that level.”

Compared to an Explorations course in the fall, students who teach in the spring semesters have more flexibility when designing the structure and content of their class. ExCollege classes in the spring are also more suitable for students who have specialized interest or knowledge in an area of study, according to Woolf. 

 “[The spring peer teaching] also works better for people who are really immersed [in a subject],” Woolf said. “I’ll give you a quick example, we had a student who applied to teach an Explorations [course] and he is brilliant and he’s very, very immersed in film theory and critical theory, [but] there is no entering student on Earth who would have understood a word of what he was going to say. And so we met and talked about doing it in the spring.”

Today, the ExCollege offers 15 courses taught by visiting lecturers, around 13 to 14 Explorations courses in the fall, and around seven to 10 peer-taught courses in the spring, according to Woolf. 

With any program dedicated to freedom and openness comes concerns of efficacy and quality control. For many, common questions surrounding this include ‘Do these classes ensure that unpopular ideas are not subject to censorship?’ or  ‘How does the program ensure lecturers entertain diverse viewpoints and refrain from imposing their own ideologies on students?’

Given its institutional history, the ExCollege is not unfamiliar with such concerns. In 1973, then recent Tufts graduate Marty Blatt taught a course called Zionism Reconsidered, which generated intense controversy and stirred up a heated debate on campus about the rights and responsibilities associated with academic freedom.

Aware of such concerns, Rachel Coll, a junior and peer teacher in the ExCollege, works to create an open space for discourse when teaching about contentious issues in her Visions of Peace Israel/Palestine class. 

“The first class was dedicated to how to have difficult conversations, and also, we did warm-ups and icebreakers on … people’s identities going into it ,” Coll said. “And so we did a lot of getting to know you [activities] within the class so that kids knew where each other was coming from. And also, we read a lot of handouts and exercises about how to have these productive conversations and why it's important.”

Coll shared that she recognizes her own prejudices and emphasized that she too is learning through teaching this class.

 “I think at the start, we definitely emphasized that we're just students like you guys and [that] we're passionate about this. We happen to know a bit more, but we're here just with you to learn,” Coll said. 

Like Coll, visiting lecturer Anne Georges, who teaches the ExCollege class Asylum and Refugee Law, explained that she aims to incorporate experiential learning into her course.

As an immigration attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, Georges makes use of interactive activities to inform students about the everyday lives of asylum seekers and the work immigration lawyers do.

 “So in trying to do that, we picked a couple of activities that would resonate well in that area. So the mock trial asylum that we did, we did a mock closing argument exercise as well,” Georges said. “And we wanted to sprinkle smaller, shorter exercises throughout the weeks just to give you an understanding of not only how to defend the client's case, but also how … the system as a whole and how it impacts the client.”

Georges teaches the class with her co-lecturer Maggie Morgan, managing attorney of the Immigration Unit at GBLS and former teaching fellow at the Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Harvard Law School. Together, they bring a unique perspective into the classroom as legal professionals. 

“I think our class exposes students to the realities of the immigration system a little bit more. We want students obviously to understand the foundational principles, but we want them to go beyond that,” Georges said. “What we bring in is that reality because we do this work on a day-to-day basis: We represent clients, and we hear their stories.”

Now that the ExCollege is no longer an “experiment,” it’s natural to wonder what the next steps are. In this regard, Woolf elaborated on the mission and vision of the ExCollege’s future.

“At the heart of bringing in all these people to teach, what we’re doing is kind of taking the temperature of what’s going on in the culture,” Woolf said. 

He commended the ExCollege’s cultural significance and cited its geographic advantage. 

“Anything that’s new, we’re getting proposals,” he said. “The year that Bitcoin broke, we must have had eight proposals. And so we keep reinventing ourselves every year, and we really do reflect what’s new and novel in the larger culture. I’ve often said we would not have survived if we weren’t in a place like Boston, where you have this really vibrant intellectual community.” 

Woolf added that another avenue of expansion for the ExCollege is to rekindle connections with alumni and build a stronger network system for current students. 

“We have somewhere over 4,500 alumni who’ve identified themselves as having a special connection to the ExCollege,” Woolf said. “People who are Jumbos are committed to helping other Jumbos, and we want to really make that something that is part of ExCollege, where we bring people back, have zoom events or just connect students and alums who have similar interests.”

Going forward, Pilarczyk urged the program to continue supporting students in pursuing interdisciplinary interests. 

“The ExCollege and Tufts in general [have] to continue trying to encourage students to take risks. And by that I mean, take classes … that fall outside your comfort zone,” he said. “There [are] a few classes that still stand out in my mind 25–30 years later, you know classes like underground economics, or social issues of biology or introduction to deductive logic. Those were classes that were outside of what I was studying and they were kind of scary, but they were wonderful.”