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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

What does local mean in virtual Boston?

While signing up for ENGL 209: Writing on Local Issues, Arts, and Culture, students expected to be taking a class that involved exploring the city of Boston. It was Professor Jill McDonough’s intention for the course that rather than just talk about the city in a classroom, the class would spend most of its time at museums and local venues, getting out and meeting people around the city. This course was developed and funded through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, which allows for the innovative model of this humanities class and others like it.

Because of the COVID reality we now live in, that adventurous vision had to be replaced with a dynamic platform adapted to a remote setting for students who are in diverse and changing situations. Professor McDonough has created an environment where students together can determine what “Local Issues, Arts, and Culture” mean in today’s urban climate.

The course is structured around five major assignments that are meant to help writers examine the local art scene and develop their own voices. These writing assignments include travel writing, museum exhibit reviews, Globe columns, and reviews of a local music or theatre performance. These projects were designed so that each student may have an immersive look into the writing and publishing world, ultimately leading up to an ambitious final project relevant to each person’s interests and research.

Erica is a Communications major who initially was attracted to ENGL 209 after taking the first-year seminar, Experiencing Boston. From what she learned about the literature of Boston and New England in that class, she was eager to continue her studies on writing and local issues. Even though the remote nature of the semester has meant that she isn’t physically present in Boston, she’s still excited about brainstorming a final project that draws from both the assigned readings and her own interests in the city.

Erica aims to focus her final project on the conventional idea that “in the American society we are supposed to follow one path in life,” in which she can think about what follows when you don’t fit exactly into the system. So far, two of the readings in the course by writers Sabrina Orah Mark and Roxane Gray have helped her hone in on that topic.

Sean, a Professional Writing major, aims to use his final project as an opportunity to juxtapose “local” political scenes. He’s a long-time resident of Cambridge and expressed his love for his local community. Sean is hoping to compare and contrast the local, small-town politics of his in-laws’ home in Baldwin, Maine with the politics and culture of Cambridge, by watching recorded town-hall meetings and conducting interviews virtually that show how, in his own words, “what’s going on nationally is echoed within the local.”

As they get to know each other and the subject matter, the students use Slack as an online tool to communicate about their writing and to share news about local events taking place virtually around Boston. Another student in the class, Management major Chloe, has found this online sharing of ideas to be compelling. “It has been incredibly interesting to read about all my classmate’s individual experiences and their ideas for doing the assignments with the barrier of COVID.” Chloe is hoping to write her final project on different immigrant experiences in the city. “I’m going to use personal stories of my own experiences as an immigrant and talk about the different experiences of the people I have met throughout my years living in the US,” she explained.

To help foster community in the classroom, Professor McDonough sent a physical copy of their first graded paper to each student through the mail and included a number of goodies and pamphlets for local events going on around the city (pictured below). The students expressed how effective Prof. McDonough’s efforts have been to their learning experience.

“It’s nice to have a printed-out version of my first paper,” Sean said.

“I like how she sends us stuff because it makes us feel like we’re still somewhat a part of the UMass Boston community even though we’re not there,” Erica said.

Though these students are spread out geographically, this course has given them the opportunity to reconsider and redefine their perspectives on local art and culture. This course has enabled Prof. McDonough and her students to grapple with the present issues in their communities in a fresh and innovative way, creating a unique and memorable learning experience.