The Joy of Ex

For 50 years, Tufts students famous and not have “found themselves” in the Experimental College

Rob Burnett, A84, began his teaching career as a human sundae. It was the fall of 1984 when the kid from suburban New Jersey with an almost religious devotion to Johnny Carson launched into his first Experimental College class, Twentieth-Century American Humor. As Burnett spoke, his teaching partner, Josh Rosenfeld, slathered ice cream on Burnett’s head, adding generous helpings of chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Why the sundae? “When it’s incumbent upon you to teach and hold a class at attention, it makes you prepare in ways that are far deeper than you ever did as a student,” Burnett says.

Three decades later, he remembers the moment down to the flavor—vanilla—because the experience was, he says, unlike any he had had at Tufts. It is a moment he still talks about when he discusses his career, which led him further into the field of humor. He is now executive producer of Late Show with David Letterman and president and CEO of the show’s production company, Worldwide Pants.

Since its founding, the Ex College has embraced people like Burnett who push boundaries, whether in the subjects they’re teaching or in how they get their message across. It is an approach that seems to be working.

This year, the Ex College marks a half century from the moment when a group of students, teachers and campus workers gathered for the first class taught under the new program, the brainchild of President Nils Wessell. The class, on European absurdist novels, was a leap, the first comparative literature course taught at Tufts. But the real revolution was in the approach. Both faculty and students designed the class, which was held in a campus lounge and open to all.

Today the program is stronger than ever, offering about 100 courses a year, from “explorations,” taught by Tufts juniors and seniors as a popular orientation option for first-year students, to a slate of classes led by professionals at the tops of their fields. Because every semester is different, the Ex College course catalog can cover anything from animation to fashion, finance to the role of superheroes in American society.

Whether teaching or taking classes in the Ex College—and I did both—students often find themselves transformed. “I hear it all the time,” says Robyn Gittleman, G69, the college’s longtime director. “‘The course I took in the Experimental College changed my life.’”

The Launching Pad

Kathleen McCartney, J77, was one of those transformees. She grew up in Medford, the oldest of five siblings and the first to go to college. In 1977, she and classmate Lesley Slavin taught an Ex College course called The Psychology of Sex Differences or What to Do with a Raised Consciousness. “We had to decide on the readings, design the syllabus, lead weekly discussions and mentor students,” McCartney says. “Frankly, it didn’t feel like work. We loved every minute of it.” The experience sparked her career ambitions. “Teaching gave me a great deal of confidence that I could be a college professor,” she says. Professor? Make that college president, the job she holds at Smith. She is also a Tufts trustee.

Deb Jospin, J80, experienced the Ex College from two perspectives. She arrived at Tufts in 1976 from Savannah, Georgia, having spent just a weekend above the Mason-Dixon line in her life. Jospin found the North unfriendly, the weather cold, the people colder. The Search for the Self in American Literature, her freshman exploration, was a different story. She remembers day trips to Walden Pond and an instant social network. “My exploration gave me a ‘family’ when I really needed one, a small and intimate group of people to hang out with,” she says.

Later, Jospin taught two Ex College classes. One of them, on the South, included a southern dinner, complete with fried chicken, red rice and gumbo. “I wanted to teach the class, but I think I really loved being a big sister to freshmen who may have felt scared or disaffected,” she says. “No one really talks about how scary it is in that first year at school. I loved being there for them, and I’ve been doing that since I was an adult.”

She went on to help launch AmeriCorps, the national service organization, and served as its director from 1997 to 2001.

I would love to say I was also saved by my freshman exploration. I could have used some help in the fall of 1988 as I tried to balance classes and separation anxiety from my hometown girlfriend while replicating the sleep cycles of a raccoon. The Art of Woody Allen, taught by two agreeable fraternity brothers, was fun but didn’t offer me any real life lessons.

I learned more from teaching a class on the circus as a senior. I was recruited by Karl Schatz, A92, a gifted photographer who knew his Flying Wallendas. Karl taught me to juggle and also to take myself seriously as a mentor. That’s been essential over the last 20 years, particularly when recruiting interns for film and TV projects built on sweat equity. The English major in me also can’t resist interpreting the adventure of teaching a class on the circus as a metaphor as I bounce from my laptop into haggis-eating contests and Civil War reenactments in my second career as a TV show host.

Students Become Teachers

In spirit, I like to think my Ex College experience was similar to William Blaine Richardson’s. He had been a star pitcher, but was having arm problems and didn’t know what to do next. His advisor, Romance languages professor Seymour Simches, suggested the Ex College. “He said, ‘Look, you’re international, you speak Spanish, you seem to love politics, and you need some direction,’” Richardson recalls.

So in 1970, his senior year, Richardson signed on to teach a course on Third World politics, centered on Cuba. “It was difficult,” he remembers. “You had to prepare. You couldn’t just go and wing it. Teaching this course, and providing books and the reading list, really got me interested in international politics.”

Decades later, Bill Richardson doesn’t claim to owe his career to his Ex College experience. But in the résumé of life experience, that course did at least fuel the passion that went into becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a Cabinet secretary under presidents Clinton and Obama, a two-term governor of New Mexico and a 2008 presidential candidate.

These are the kinds of stories Robyn Gittleman loves to hear. But she wants everyone to know that Ex College courses are for credit. “Any seminar we offer has an academic spine,” she says. “Attendance is required; papers are required.”

Before Gittleman took the reins in the early 1970s, the Ex College was run by a volunteer board of professors and students. Gittleman had come to Tufts with her husband, Sol, the future provost, and earned a master’s degree in education. With their children getting older, she signed on as a four-dollar-an-hour part-timer before becoming director.

She takes pride in the idea that the college, spiritually, hasn’t changed much since those early days. The constantly shifting course offerings and the emphasis on creativity—hence courses examining Madonna’s cultural relevance and the meaning behind baseball statistics, lengthy lectures discouraged—have been hallmarks from the beginning.

Burnett, the Letterman exec, jokes about his American comedy course, which ranged from Charlie Chaplin to his future boss. But there is a reason he still remembers the human sundae. It taught him how to take chances, go for broke, commit to an idea if you really want to make your mark.

Years later, during a piece on Late Show, Letterman wandered around the office searching out staff members with strange talents. It was not going well. That’s when a writer, Bill Scheft, claimed he could chug an entire bottle of A-1 sauce. “I knew that would be silly and goofy enough to reignite things,” says Burnett. But Scheft backed out at the 11th hour, and Burnett knew there was only one solution. “I’ll spare you the details on how a body responds to an entire chef-size bottle of A-1 sauce,” he says, “but suffice it to say that Bill Scheft is a smarter man than I.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Geoff Edgers, A92, a Boston Globe staff writer, has hosted and written Travel Channel’s Edge of America series and American Heroes Channel’s upcoming Secrets of the Arsenal.

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