History on the Hill: The ExCollege transforms from experiment to Tufts institution

(Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) 4/21/16 – Medford/Somerville, MA – Chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and author of "The Third Plate" Dan Barber speaks with Sarah Janover in a conversation hosted by the ExCollege on April 21, 2016.

There’s only one place on campus where students can participate in such wide-ranging and timely classes such as “Human Development in the Digital Age,” “Rethinking Disability,” and even “The Bachelor & Society:” The Tufts Experimental College (ExCollege). During the ExCollege’s 53 years on campus, it has become a right of passage for Tufts students to join in on at least one of its unique courses. Moreover, its long history as a testing ground for new departments, interdisciplinary learning and controversial topics has brought new ideas and perspectives that have shaped Tufts’ academia and learning environment into what it is today.

The Experimental College, as stated on its website, was founded by several forward-thinking faculty members in 1964. According to its current Director, Howard Woolf, the ExCollege established its main purpose soon after creation.

“The core mission of the ExCollege was very quickly to bring in outside people to augment what was being taught by the regular department, and to … offer faculty in the regular department a way to test out courses,” Woolf said.

According to Robyn Gittleman, ExCollege director from 1975 to 2015, as the ExCollege became the main vehicle for departments to create and test new classes, the university saw the creation of team-taught interdisciplinary classes, where professors from multiple fields could come together to teach one course.

“[ExCollege] … quickly became an incubator for innovation,” Gittleman said. “It started with different types of courses such as team-taught interdisciplinary courses … Faculty from different departments taught literature courses together in English. Before that, the German department only taught classes in German, the Romance language or the French department only taught courses in French.”

Not only were new courses taught and tested in the ExCollege, but entire departments began as innovative ExCollege experiments. The Film and Media Studies department, for example was created as communications classes gained popularity amongst students.

“When I came in the 1970s, we already had courses on communications. First there were film courses, where you could study film. Then we started having filmmaking courses — before there was any video. So it was really making a film on celluloid,” Gittleman said. “Then, slowly communications moved into the 21st century and here we are.”

According to Woolf and Gittleman, many other departments have followed the path set by the Film and Media Studies department — Peace and Justice Studies, Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies were all first tested in the ExCollege.

Woolf asserts that such diverse fields of study could be created because the ExCollege has no limits on what could be taught inside its walls.

“Whatever students were interested in, we could do because we weren’t committed to only one set of issues, we were committed to provide the platform to deal with any issue that seemed important to our students,” Woolf said.

This attitude, Woolf emphasizes, meant that Tufts students had access to classes exploring political and social issues relevant to the current time period. In the 1980s, the ExCollege taught classes on apartheid and the anti-nuclear movement, as well as how to successfully navigate corporate America, according to Woolf.

In 1973, one of these classes, “Zionism Reconsidered,” provoked a controversy that, according to the ExCollege website, sparked heated, campus-wide debates on the nature of academic freedom.

“Zionism Reconsidered” was taught by Marty Blatt, who is currently a professor of the practice in history and the director of the Public History Program at Northeastern University, according to their website. At the time, however, he was a recent 1972 Tufts graduate with a passion for social justice. Blatt described the focus of his class as the role the Zionist project played in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The class was a critical examination of the history of the Zionist movement,” Blatt said. “It also looked at Israeli policies … [and] the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. We discussed and read about the difficulty in sustaining a democracy when there was such poor treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis.”

Blatt recalls that the class was controversial from its beginning — most of the students seemed to take a hostile attitude in regard to the material he was teaching. However, neither he nor his students were prepared for what occurred a few classes into the semester.

“A half of dozen people from the Jewish Defense League … burst into the classroom and started chanting … ‘Long live Israel!’” Blatt said. “They read a brief statement [stating] that this class was an anti-Jewish outrage and it needed to be shut down. And actually one of them spit at me, I remember.”

The incident was resolved when a student slipped out to get Tufts Security, Blatt recounted, who informed the protesters they were trespassing and would be arrested if they did not leave immediately.

Blatt describes how the protesters were met with anger from the students in the classroom, even though their political views seemed to align more with those of the right-wing Jewish Defense League than his own.

“When these people burst in, it upset the majority of the students because this was a class and these people [protesting the class] were saying this is illegitimate,” Blatt said.

Not only were the protesters met with anger, but Blatt attests that in the aftermath of the protest, the students who had before taken a defensive attitude toward the class were newly open to what he was teaching.

“This kind of activity often — not always — but let’s say sometimes, can have the opposite effect,” Blatt says. “It did in this [case], because the students then going forward were interested and engaged in a genuine way, and felt like ‘Well, we may not like what he has to say, or everything that he has to say. But he has a right to say it.’”

While this high-level controversy may not be typical, according to Gittleman, this deep engagement with contentious topics is one of the main benefits of taking an ExCollege class.

“If you’d like to sit in the back of a large lecture, then the ExCollege is not for you,” Gittleman said. “But if you like to be part of the classroom discussion where you can say ‘But I don’t agree with that’ or ‘This doesn’t make any sense, please explain that to me,’ if you’re in a class of twenty or fewer that is designed to give members of the class a chance to fully participate, then the ExCollege is for you.”

According to Gittleman, the ExCollege is one of a kind — no other school has an experimental college that allows professors and students to collaborate. She asserts that Tufts University and the ExCollege have a symbiotic relationship. Tufts is special because it allows the ExCollege to exist, and the ExCollege is special because it helps create the world-class education Tufts students expect.

“Tufts was always a nice school, a good school, but it wasn’t half as competitive as it is now,” Gittleman said. “I always say we’re sort of the whipped cream on top of the sundae. The basis of the university is great, but when you put the ExCollege on top of it, it makes it so much better, because it allows you to try new things all through your four years.”