The Experimental College (ExCollege) recently added a new course, titled “Hamilton: In Context,” for the spring semester. According to the ExCollege newsletter, the course will examine the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical” in today’s society. It will also cover American revolutionary history, analyzing Ron Chernow‘s biography of Alexander Hamilton, on which the musical was based. The newsletter said that Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon is co-teaching the course with Miguel Rodriguez Santos, a senior majoring in biopsychology.
According to ExCollege Director Howard Woolf, this is the first time that an administrator is collaborating with a student to co-teach a course. Although McMahon and Santos had been planning the course for some time, the application was submitted late due to the instructors’ individual commitments, Woolf said. According to Woolf, when the co-teachers sent in their submission in December 2017, all other courses for the spring semester had been finalized.
“But we’re the ExCollege, and we bend rules when it’s appropriate,” he said. “I told them to get us the syllabus as soon as they could, and we made sure to reach out to some of the board members about the concept. The consensus was, let’s do it.”
Woolf said that the ExCollege board is very careful in their selection process. He explained that they look for people who have expertise in and passion for their area of interest, even if they may not have previous teaching experience.
“We try to find instructors from outside Tufts as well, such as businesses, social service agencies, activist agencies and all the universities that have graduate programs. This makes the application very competitive, and it takes a very long time to read through each proposal,” Woolf said. “But by time we get down to that selected group, we’re pretty confident that they’re going to do a good job.”
According to Santos, the idea for the course originated during the summer of 2016. He said that he had been giving a presentation to Tufts faculty and staff members and that during his final statement, he quoted the lyrics in the song “My Shot” from Hamilton.
“I looked around to see who had gotten the reference, and everyone had. Dean was literally jumping out of her seat. She found me after the meeting, and we began talking about the course,” he said.
Santos also emphasized that he did not expect students enrolling in the course to be familiar with the musical. He said he was planning to teach about historical texts, newspaper articles and cultural themes relevant to the musical and its soundtrack.
“We’re going to study how the musical brought in the classic ’90s rap, 20th-century Broadway standards, and cultural referencing all in this one genre format. The course will examine what makes this story so resonating to viewers today,” he said. “A lot of the issues in that arose during Hamilton’s lifetime are still present. The anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and the oppression of women haven’t completely ended … we want to give students a chance to build on these different themes in the course.”
McMahon agreed that the direction of the course would depend on the students’ interests. She said that because it was offered by the ExCollege, it would be more explorative than an academic departmental course.
McMahon explained that Santos’ biopsychology major will help him teach about the context of public health in the 18th-century Americas, contributing to a better understanding of the illness that strikes early in the musical, and that his experience in jazz music helps him understand the soundtrack more deeply.
“Different students are going to have their own perspectives and backgrounds, and everyone is going to take something out of the course differently,” she said.
According to the course syllabus, the students will be assigned a presentation for their final grade. McMahon said she was also planning a field trip to the historic Lexington Battle Green with Santos.
McMahon said that she thought experiential teaching methods would be more interactive for the students, encouraging them to go beyond the page and delve further into the stories that interested them. She added that co-teaching an ExCollege class with a student would allow her to interact with students in a new capacity.
“When people get a chance to engage in the questions they want to further, it’s a way to have meaningful learning interaction for everyone,” she said. “As an administrator, I’m excited to work with students in a different context as part of a class. I hope this course will facilitate rich discourse about our history.”