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'Lost' at Tufts

At Tufts University, 'Lost' class finds students eager to learn

MEDFORD -- When the clock strikes 8:45 p.m., signaling the end of class, no one moves. There is no rustling of papers or zippering of jackets. Instead, three more hands shoot up, the students eager to prolong the lecture.

Few subjects capture the attention of college students as effectively as the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, known to TV viewers as the characters from ABC's "Lost." Twice a week, about 25 students at Tufts University participate in a one-college-credit course in which they analyze the show that has puzzled, intrigued, and outraged viewers for almost three seasons.

Earning academic credit while talking about television sounds too good to be true, and according to teacher and recent Tufts graduate E.J. Kalafarski , the idea at first "almost made too much sense." Kalafarski and Chadwick Matlin , a Tufts senior and fellow die-hard "Lost" fan, realized last summer that a multitude of fascinating economic and social topics could be derived from discussing the series in a classroom.

Because the show is a cultural phenomenon rife with literary and philosophical references, Kalafarski and Matlin had no problem putting together a 13-week syllabus. They presented the idea last fall to the board of the Tufts Experimental College, which encourages the collaboration of faculty and students, as well as peer-taught courses. The class -- The Future is "Lost": Economic, Social, and Technological Impact of a Cult (and Cultural) Phenomenon -- was approved after Kalafarski and Matlin presented an in-depth syllabus that showed the course would explore a wide range of topics, from thematic complexity to modern media, that analyzed the show's overall impact on society.

"We were worried that some kids thought it would be an easy credit," said Matlin, who added that the class is graded as pass/fail, though the students have weekly readings and a final project. "But I was ecstatic that everyone seemed to be interested in the academic merit."

The two said they were shocked at the amount of interest the course received. Students who aren't in the class often ask if they can attend lectures. To the delight of Kalafarski and Matlin, the class even caught the attention of "Lost" executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof , who agreed to hold a speakerphone conference call with the students during tomorrow's class.

With a show as complicated as "Lost," it would be easy to spend every 75-minute class analyzing the latest episode, Kalafarski said, but he and Matlin try to cap the water-cooler talk. Rather than solely focusing on the shocking ending to the John Locke-centric March 21 episode, the teachers used the following Tuesday's class to incorporate the jaw-dropping scene into a discussion about whether the writers have written themselves into a corner.

Students had different theories, but the conversation ultimately led to the theme of the day's class, titled on the syllabus as the "power of a fan base." The "Lost" fan base, the students acknowledged, is shrinking every week, with disgruntled viewers tired of the many questions and few answers about the mysterious island.

Realizing he had the perfect segue, Matlin showed a clip from the season-one finale, with a scene in which a character addresses several issues that fans had been questioning: the fate of the survivors who are not in the opening credits; the cliquish tendencies of Jack, Kate, and Sayid, etc.; and the fact that Hurley never seems to lose weight.

This is a perfect example of the new, blurred line between obsessed fan and contributing writer, Matlin said. Taking advantage of the show's massive Internet following, Matlin went online and pointed out dozens of blogs where fans had expressed grievances, while Kalafarski facilitated a debate between the students about whether fans can actually affect the show.

"Are these topics inside jokes between the writers and viewers?" Kalafarski asked, as hands went up around the room. Matlin, quick with a follow-up, asked, "Does it cross the line if fans start to influence the plot?" Kalafarski continued: "Who, exactly, writes this show?"

The discussion continued, addressing the history of the pop culture fan community and the underlying theme of faith, both in the show itself and the audience's trust in the producers' ultimate endgame.

After a wealth of the students' opinions, from the empowerment of fans ("It's almost like they're the same level as producers,") to wondering about the usefulness of message boards and fan fiction ("I'd rather just talk about the show with my friends"), Kalafarski and Matlin realized it was time to wrap up for the day. In some cases, it wasn't easy to get students to leave -- they wanted to stay and share more of their theories.

Administrators seem pleased with the class's turnout. Robyn Gittleman , director of the Tufts Experimental College, said the board was "pretty accepting" after Kalafarski and Matlin pitched the idea, especially after they presented the syllabus. While the class is clearly based in pop culture, students are expected to analyze and critique the content, much like one would a film or piece of literature.

"The class could not be just watching a television show; it had to have depth and academic credence to it," Gittleman said. "It was a very thoughtful syllabus that explored all aspects of the show. . . . It had many, many layers with different educational goals."

Of course, there are rules. The students respect everyone else's opinions and theories. And there is a strict "no spoiler" policy, and Kalafarski said they try to cap the length of discussion about the current week's episode.

Unlike some college classrooms, student participation in Matlin and Kalafarski's course is vibrant, and students are rarely absent. Students jump in, answering each other's questions and filling in gaps about the characters' complicated back stories.

The class was a popular choice, students said, and some had to wake up early during registration to nab a seat. Senior Liz Campbell, 22, admitted she thought the class looked "light and entertaining," but added that she was interested in learning more about the intellectual aspects of the show.

"My friends are always asking me what we talked about in 'Lost' class," Campbell said.