Students shape course offerings as members of the ExCollege Board

Howard Woolf, director of the Experimental College, poses for a portrait in his office on Feb. 22. Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily

Since 1964, the Experimental College (ExCollege) has been an integral part of Tufts’ academic experience. Students have the opportunity to be involved in the ExCollege in plenty of ways. In addition to taking courses, students may become first-year advisors, as well as designing and teaching courses. However, a lesser-known way for students to get involved is by serving on the ExCollege Board.

The ExCollege Board selects the courses and the lecturers for the ExCollege, according to ExCollege Director and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Howard Woolf. The board is made up of six undergraduates, one graduate student and six faculty members, with year-long, one-year renewable terms, Woolf said. 

“Students are full voting members,” Woolf said. “When we get [course] proposals in from outside, which is how we find the people to teach our courses, the students become involved initially when we, the staff, make a first cut.”

Woolf explained that this first cut involves the ExCollege staff narrowing the applicant list down to those who meet a certain standard and who offer a course that is rigorous enough for Tufts students. Once the first cut has been made, the remaining applicants are set up for interviews.

“Each of the students on the board will be part of an interviewing committee, so they will be teamed up with an outside faculty member, not a faculty member on the board,” Woolf said. “A faculty member on the board will be teamed up with an outside student.”

These student and faculty interviewers who are not on the board are volunteers who have expressed their interest. Once the interviews are completed, the board meets together to discuss all the candidates.

“[Each interviewing committee will] interview four or five of the applicants and report to the whole board,” Woolf said. “Then, [the board] will meet once late in the process to go through all the materials.”

Once all the applicants have been discussed thoroughly, members of the board will vote on the courses that the ExCollege will offer. According to Madeline Oliff, a sophomore and board member, the board received a little under 100 course applications this year which it had to weed down to just 15.

Woolf explained the criteria that the ExCollege uses to choose its courses and lecturers.

“We are looking for people with expertise and passion … What an applicant needs to do is get [us] excited. He doesn’t have to convince you that this is something that you should know, he just has to convince you that this is something that would be interesting to learn,” Woolf said.

Additionally, student board members will pay close attention to how the applicant interacts with the student interviewer.

“I’m interested in if they’re asking me questions, because at the end of the day, they don’t need to impress the faculty member, [as] they’re going to be teaching students,” Oliff said. “So, we want them to be able to connect with the students and excite them.”

Oliff is also interested in the content of the courses that applicants are proposing.

“I think of the ExCollege as expanding education outside the four walls of the classroom, so I love to see interdisciplinary, multimedia homework and work,” she said. “I also like to see field trips and out of the ordinary things that really liven up two and a half hour classes at night.”

In addition to selecting ExCollege courses for the following year, student board members join a working group in the spring.

“[This group] is essentially the five students on the board, plus two of my staff, plus any students who we know that are really interested in a particular issue that we’re dealing with,” Woolf said.

The working group plans and organizes several on-campus events. Most importantly, this group is responsible for planning the ExCollege‘s signature Voices from the Edge lecture series.

“Every year we have the Voices from the Edge lecture series, where we bring one speaker in,” Oliff said. “And we [reach] out to student organizations that would be interested in bringing their people in.”

At the end of the year, the working group also works closely with the new incoming board for the following year, preparing them for their responsibilities, according to Oliff.

The significant role that students play as board members reflects the central objective of the ExCollege. According to Woolf, student involvement is key to the success of the ExCollege.

“[The ExCollege] should be a place where students [not only] have a say but also have a responsibility as well. And, choosing the courses that 1,500 of your classmates may take, is a good responsibility,” he said. “This is how we walk the walk: Students play a vital role in not just helping us but in fact in shaping what happens.”

Woolf’s beliefs are echoed by student members of the ExCollege Board.

“I’m really passionate about education, and I’ve long been vocal about my opinions that the way we think about teaching and learning deserves reconsideration, which I feel the ExCollege does,” senior Sara Newman,board member, said.

The ability to serve on the ExCollege Board is an attractive opportunity for many students because of what the ExCollege has to offer. After falling in love with her Explorations course her first year, Oliff knew she wanted to continue being involved in the ExCollege.

“I was really excited to be able to carry on [with] what I had gained so much from,” she said.

Furthermore, students are enticed by the opportunity to have their voices heard.

“I felt drawn as a freshman to a place where my voice as a 19-year-old would be considered as seriously as a faculty member’s,” Newman said.

Prospective student board members must first fill out an application form about their interest in the ExCollege and criteria for a good ExCollege course, in addition to sending in their resumes.

Then, according to Woolf, students will go through a two-step interview process: First, they will interview in front of the current student board members. If successful, they will move on to a second and final interview in front of the entire board. Interviewees will be judged based on a few criteria.

“They must convince the [board] that they have, first of all, enough of an interest in what the ExCollege is doing, but also that they can hold their own,” Woolf said. “It doesn’t mean that you have to talk all the time, it means that you have to be a good listener, and when you have something to say, be able to articulate your position.”

According to Woolf, an unprecedented five seats will be open on the board for the 2018-2019 academic year, as current members are graduating or studying abroad next year. Applications will be due on March 5.

While students on the board play a large role in the success of the ExCollege, the time commitment is reasonable.

“[The students] may meet once a week for a few weeks if there’s something going on, and they may not meet for a month if there’s really nothing going on. But the average meeting is a couple of times for an hour or during one of the open blocks every month,” Woolf said.

While student board members do not have to devote too much of their time, they are able to make a huge impact. Newman emphasized that student involvement is essential in allowing students’ voices to be heard and represented, and it allows the ExCollege experience to be best tailored for students.

“It is incredibly important to represent the needs and interests of Tufts students in decisions that are made on our behalf,” she said. “This is one of the only direct avenues that I’m aware of that allows students to speak for themselves and as representatives of their fellow Tufts students. We know best what we need, and student voice is taken seriously on the board.”