Sheep to Shawl, other non-traditional courses offer diverse learning opportunities

Amy Goldstein, who will teach the spring 2020 course: Sheep to Shawl: A Hands-on Exploration (EXP-0016-S), poses with her sheep fur on Nov. 21. Justin Yu / The Tufts Daily

Although course registration season at Tufts can mean stress over getting into classes needed to graduate, it can also bring excitement for new, unusual course options. In addition to traditional classes such as BIO 13 and ENG 01, Tufts presents unique class offerings through the Experimental College (ExCollege), as well as through the Environmental Studies’ Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lectures. These classes provide students with creative perspectives on topics ranging from Star Wars to immigration law.

Although many departments offer nontraditional, discussion-based classes, perhaps the most well-known come from the ExCollege. Amy Goldstein, assistant director of the ExCollege, stated that most classes through the department are three SHUs (semester-hour units) and letter-graded. Some of these classes can be used to fulfill distribution requirements.

“They don’t usually count towards major requirements as that is at the discretion of the department, but we do have some that get approved for distribution requirements. Coming up in the spring we have two courses that count as a natural science requirement and we have one that is approved for arts,” Goldstein said.

Through the ExCollege, students are able to take classes in a wide variety of subjects. For example, Goldstein is also teaching a course this upcoming spring called Sheep to Shawl (EXP-0016), which focuses on how textiles are created from raw fiber.

“It’s kind of like a hybrid of this arty hands-on course and also learning about the animals. It is a two-SHU course; part of it will be going to the farm and interacting with the animals and part of it will be learning all the steps it takes to go from raw wool to a final product,” Goldstein said.

Like many ExCollege courses, this class meets at the intersection of multiple subjects, in this case art, anthropology and agriculture.

“The purpose of this course is to think about how we’ve gotten away from knowing where our clothes and textile came from and connecting that to the animals and the steps that people have done for hundreds if not thousands of years to turn that fiber into something you can wear,” she said.

The “Sheep to Shawl” course is part of the visiting lecturer series within the ExCollege.

“For the visiting lecturers, anyone in the Boston area can apply to teach a course. We get all these applications each semester. It all goes through a vetting process with a board of students and faculty,” she said.

In addition to visiting lecturer courses, like the one Goldstein will teach, there are two other types of courses offered through the ExCollege: sponsored and peer-taught. Sponsored courses are set up to allow other departments who are not able to through the registrar’s office around the university to offer a course.

“For example, RAD is a self-defense class offered by [the] Tufts University Police Department. The ExCollege is already set up as an academic department, whereas the police department isn’t, so they offer classes through us,” she said.

The other type of class offered through the ExCollege is peer-taught. These are classes that are designed and taught by upper-class students.

“Peer taught courses are pass/fail. We do this so that students are never giving letter grades to other students,” she said.

Beyond the ExCollege, other unique course offerings at Tufts can be found in the Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lectures. This lecture series lasting the length of the semester is only taken for credit by 10 students, yet many more attend each talk. Sara Gomez, assistant director of the environmental studies program and the instructor for this course, discussed the community built through this lecture series.

“We have all kinds of people come to these talks each week and they are not just environmental studies students, we have engineering, biology and history students. There is a very strong community of people who care about the environment at Tufts and we see the series as a platform to meet other like-minded students, faculty or community members,” Gomez said.

Another purpose of this program is to provide students with examples of what types of careers lecturers have pursued with an environmental studies degree.

“We try to bring anyone from journalists to artists to policy-makers to researchers. We want to show people what it is like to work in environmental studies because it is such a broad field,” she said.

ExCollege classes and series like the Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lectures offer students unique opportunities, such as interacting with professionals in fields that interest them. When asked what she saw as the advantages of taking such classes, Gomez mentioned discussion-based learning.

“I think the best way of learning is by doing and taking ownership of something. I just don’t think that lecturing at someone for three hours is very effective at teaching a subject, so every time I teach, I make sure that at least 1/3 of the class is discussion-based,” she said.

Andra Preda, a first-year taking a two-SHU music class, agreed with Gomez. Two-SHU classes offer students opportunities to explore different areas of study that they might be interested in, without the added pressures of time commitment or weight towards overall GPA that a three-SHU class can present.

“I really like Javanese Gamelan because it’s a chill music class. I love that I get to learn a different type of music and culture but not stress too much about the class,” Preda said.

Amy Goldstein echoed Gomez when speaking to the most important aspect of an ExCollege or other two-SHU class, mentioning the participatory aspect.

“These classes are more project-based, usually it isn’t someone standing in front of a class lecturing. You won’t just have a midterm, a paper and then a final. Usually, there’s more interaction with the instructor, small-group work … students get to choose very creative projects,” Goldstein said.