Category: Of Special Interest
On a snowy day in Boston last winter, a group of Boston University College of General Studies (CGS) students bundled into their winter coats and trekked to Quincy, Massachusetts to volunteer for the Prison Book Program, an organization with a simple purpose—sending books to incarcerated people.
In a church basement filled with shelves of books, students searched for books that matched a prisoner’s request, weighed and packaged the books for mailing, and read the organization’s thank you letters from incarcerated people. The students took a tour of United First Parish Church, a national historic landmark that houses the Prison Book Program and also serves as the final resting place for presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
Students said the experience opened their eyes to the importance a book can have in a person’s life—especially when that person doesn’t have access to miles of university library bookshelves and can’t connect to the internet with a smartphone. “I realized the great value of books,” Ie Joo (CGS’18) said in a video the group made. “I realized the value of a book is greater once you don’t have the books.”
In CGS Lecturer of Humanities Sheila Cordner’s classes, service learning is woven into the curriculum as an assignment. Cordner has led a university-wide workshop on service learning, has presented on service learning at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference, and has developed a faculty guide at the request of the Boston University Center for Teaching and Learning. In the spring 2017 semester, Cordner’s students also led a discussion of Charles Dickens at Hale House, a nonprofit assisted living facility in Boston, and facilitated a discussion of impressionist art at the Boston Public Library’s Adult ESL Conversation Circle.
What separates service-learning projects from volunteerism or community service? Service-learning projects have learning objectives: students will help make arts of work and literature accessible to an audience that may not know them; they will gain a deeper understanding of how that audience responds to this art and literature; and they will gain a more in-depth understanding of the material they have studied in the course.
Self-assessment and reflection are a critical part of the service-learning process. Students create a film or do a group presentation, reporting back to the rest of their class about their experience. Individually, the students write a reflection relating their experience back to the course themes and texts.
It all leads to a richer appreciation of the humanities and a deeper understanding of the texts that students are studying. “I expected to expand my knowledge on literature and that’s exactly what I got,” Alejandra Sanchez (CGS’18) said after visiting the Prison Book Program. Olivia Galarza (CGS’18) noticed that Hale House residents could quote specific lines or talk about Dickens characters they remembered decades after reading the books: “An important message I took away from our trip to the Hale House was just how big of an impact the humanities made in an individuals’ life on a personal level.” David Broderick (CGS’18) said, “I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dickens’s name still holds tremendous weight and importance. Everyone in our discussion was touched by Dickens’s writings in some way.”
In reading students’ reflections and assessing their learning, Cordner has noticed that students’ understanding of the course material is closely linked to their appreciation for the humanities. When students gain a deeper understanding of the value of the humanities, they bring a more nuanced understanding to the texts they’re studying.
The service-learning projects also help students see their own privilege and understand lives that are very different from their own—whether it’s seeing the diverse reading interests of incarcerated people or discussing generational differences with the elderly.
“When I watch the students’ films and read their reflection papers, they remind me how the humanities can bring people of different generations, classes, races, genders, sexualities, and nationalities together,” Cordner says. “Ultimately the projects help students realize the connections between the required humanities general education course and their own lives.”
Vivian Lee (CGS’18) echoed this: “It’s our duty to at least try to figure out what life is like for other people. … I think that with the ability to read words, we then have the responsibility to read books and learn.”
Petites Suites is the latest book by College of General Studies Professor of Humanities Robert Wexelblatt—a series of charming, inventive short stories praised as “enchanting, invigorating, and often delightfully disorienting” (Elizabeth Cunningham), “sweets for the ear and food for the brain” (Robert Knox), and “enticing” (R.S. Deese).
College of General Studies: You came up with the structure for Petites Suites while you were listening to Debussy’s Petite Suite. The music gave you the idea of combining the suite’s structure—short movements with loose thematic connections—with storytelling. How did you carry that musical inspiration into the book?
Robert Wexelblatt: When I began, there was no thought of writing a series of suites, much less a book of the things. The first suite was a one-off experiment titled simply “Petite Suite.” My object was to make a suite out of brief, brisk narratives resembling the movements of the French compositions that were my model. I gave each of the little stories in the suite fanciful but relevant musical titles, in French, and indicated the instruments that would perform them. I hoped the result would be an attractive hybrid of fiction and music. I was trying for something in fiction that would share some of the lively, tuneful, witty, and sardonic qualities of the little French suites that I see as ripostes to the serious, ponderous, solemn, sometimes bombastic and elephantine German music of the time. As Debussy’s or Fauré’s little suites are to, say, Wagner’s Ring or Bruckner’s symphonies, so these suites are to the five-hundred-page novel.
CGS: The name of a piece of music appears at the beginning of each story. How does the music you choose relate to the story—in structure, theme, or otherwise?
Wexelblatt: As indicated above, the titles are intended to be whimsical yet pertinent. They can also be ignored by those who don’t know French or don’t want the bother of translating them. But they are there for a reason. In addition to functioning like any title, they also indicate the tone and spirit of a story, its key (major or minor), and the sort of ensemble performing it, dictated by the number and nature of the characters in the story—characters like violins, bassoons, flutes; duets, quartets, overtures, etc. My model for the titles is Erik Satie, a composer who excelled at fanciful titles. Here are some translations: “Sketches and Snares of a Large Wooden Fellow,” “Dried-out Embryos,” “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear,” and the charming Sonatine Bureaucratique, which needs no translation. I wanted titles that were similarly unexpected, fanciful, and amusing but at the same time revealing about the stories they head.
CGS: What are some of the rules of writing that you impart to your students and that you follow (or perhaps bend or break!) in your own fiction writing?
Wexelblatt: I don’t teach writing and certainly not fiction writing. But, when I’m able, I do try to improve my students’ writing. For example, if a sentence has grown too long, I suggest making it into two sentences. I advise students who like to start their papers with phrases like “From the beginning of time…” to try beginning instead with something concrete – or with the second paragraph after tossing out the first one. Some students have difficulty developing their ideas. I may suggest they play the role of an annoyingly curious child to themselves by asking “Why?” after every sentence, then answering, until the question’s exasperating, when it’s time to begin a new paragraph. I beg students not to write reports. Reports are dead, like annual reports. Reports are dead, but essays are alive. I’ll remind them that the word “essay” is French and means neither more nor less than “attempt.” It’s a good thing to see writing as an attempt to understand something you haven’t already figured out. Constraints can be productive (think of the sonnet) and it’s good to have rules (a thesis stated early on can be convenient). Rules are good even if it’s only in order to have something to break. I recommend a lot of “for instances” – the concrete illustration or anecdote will sometimes wake a reader up. While it’s good to be cognizant of your audience, it’s bad to be paralyzed by that awareness. If students can trick themselves into believing that what they’re writing is for themselves and not the person grading it, the grade is likely to be higher.
CGS: You have been writing and publishing “Petite Suite” short stories for several years now: “Petite Suite Printanière,” “Petite Suite Inutile,” “Petite Suite au Hasard,” “Petite Suite Impropre” … Why do you find yourself coming back to this form, and did the book come about as a compilation of those stories?
Wexelblatt: It’s true, and this returning to certain forms isn’t limited to the suites. For the last couple of decades I’ve been compiling three cycles, one item at a time. One is a group of stories about an imaginary Chinese peasant/poet of the Sui period—each story has one of Hsi-wei’s poems in it and the narrative accounts for the verses. Another is a series of essays by an imaginary thinker named Sidney Fein who died in 1984 and wrote of all sorts of things, mostly in the form of essays, sometimes punctuated with verse or fictions. These will be collected in a book due to appear next year. The third cycle is made of these petites suites. All three cycles began as one-off experiments. But something about each of them proved alluring, addictive, productive or, as they say, generative. I kept returning to my Chinese poet, the defunct intellectual, teacher, and father Fein, and to the liberating musical/narrative form of the petite suite. I suppose these experiments suited me, though I’m not sure why. On the other hand, I am sure they record ideas and verses I wouldn’t have written without my imaginary authors while, without the form of petite suite, I’d never have thought up all these little tales.
Apropos: when I corrected the final proofs of Petites Suites at the end of August, I figured the form and I were finished with one another. But apparently this isn’t so. To my surprise, there have been two more suites since the book came out.
Readers can read a preview of Petite Suites and purchase the book at Blazevox.org.
When people think about the effects of climate change, they’re probably not immediately wondering how the world’s warming will affect the sea crustacean we know as the lobster. But that was a central concern for the keynote speakers and the researchers who presented at the 11th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management, held June 4-9 in Portland, Maine. CGS Senior Lecturer Kari Lavalli co-chaired the conference with Rick Wahle, research professor at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.
U.S. Senator Angus King (I– Maine) opened the conference with a keynote speech, warning against proposed cuts in federal science funding and telling the audience that data is key to safeguarding Maine’s $533.1 million a year fishery. “This is not an abstract problem or something about environmentalists versus non-environmentalists,” King said. “This is very practical.”
The conference’s 200-plus researchers attended talks on topics such as: how temperature affects diseases in lobsters, how changing environmental conditions affect chemosensory abilities, how thermal stress affects season movements, climate-related shifts in the distribution of American lobsters, and more.
Researchers probed a question troubling both biologists and lobstermen: the number of baby lobsters in the Gulf of Maine is falling even though fishermen are still seeing high value and volume in their catches. The Portland Press Herald covered the “great disconnect” between these two facts: “Researcher after researcher at last week’s International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology & Management in Portland talked about work underway to explore the disconnect, ranging from an examination of how rising ocean temperatures might have forced the larvae to ‘settle’ in new spots where surveyors aren’t counting, to whether new predators are eating them or gobbling up all their food supply.”
Lavalli spoke to the radio station WCAI about another trouble facing New England lobsters. Warming waters can increase the incidence of shell disease and bring new predators to the lobster’s waters. In one of her panels, Lavalli spoke on the slipper lobster, a species that is commercially fished but understudied, and why it is less susceptible to shell disease even though it lives in waters that are much warmer than our New England lobsters. Understanding why some species are susceptible to disease and some are not could be key to protecting the lobster population from the effects of climate change.
In fact, one workshop focused on three diseases seen in lobsters and how rising temperatures and increased ocean acidification affects the lobster’s shell and immune system response. “The take-home message from this workshop was that we still have much to learn about diseases in the marine realm and there is a real need to train a new generation of pathologists who will recognize, report, and study these diseases,” said Lavalli. “Attendees warned that the U.S. lobster fishery is at particular danger of having a major disease outbreak in the near future.”
A threat to the lobster fishery would be a major blow to Maine’s economy. University of Maine Professor Robert Steneck noted that lobster represents almost the entirety of Maine’s fishing industry, and he urged the state to diversify and plan for an uncertain future.
The conference received press coverage from Portland Press Herald, Maine Public, Maine Biz, Fox 23, WCSH6, and the Boston Globe. The Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning at BU College of General Studies was among the conference’s sponsors.
On July 14-16, Boston University College of General Studies hosted the 22nd Annual Dickens Symposium: Interdisciplinary Dickens, a gathering for scholars from across the world to present their research on the nineteenth century writer Charles Dickens. Over 70 scholars attended from nine countries.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was not just a spinner of dramas and writer of comedies. He was someone with a concern for social justice, an interest in people from all walks of life, and an interdisciplinary thinker who dealt with the themes of science, disease, linguistics, religion, music, and more. A sampling of conference panels reflects the depth and breadth of Dickens’ interests: Dickens and the Arts; Urban Dickens; Dickens, Disease and Death; Storytelling, Chance, and Melodrama; Dickens, Gender, and Economics.
“Dickens is someone, like Shakespeare, who has encyclopedic knowledge and chronicles people from all walks of life and all parts of society,” Natalie McKnight, dean of CGS and Dickens scholar, told BU Today. “There isn’t much you could be interested in, in terms of a discipline, that you couldn’t find some angle on in Dickens.”
“As is always the case with this conference, the program is testimony to the extraordinary multitudes that Dickens contains,” Iain Crawford, a University of Delaware associate professor of English and Dickens Society president, told BU Today.
A conference report from the Dickens Society said the Interdisciplinary Dickens theme “led to an impressive, diverse collection of methodologies and approaches to Dicken’s work and life.” The report summarizes each panels’ discussions and concludes, “The conference was interdisciplinary in every sense of the word” as participants approached Dickens and his work from a number of different angles—religious, scientific, philosophical, pedagogical and even digital. “The end result is a multi-faceted picture of an author who seemed to have written a bit about everything, whose opinions are inexhaustible as much as his work is inimitable.”
During the last two weeks of the London semester, January Boston-London students stayed busy finishing assignments and visiting the London spots still on their lists before they dispersed for the summer.
In the closing weeks of the semester, students wrote op-eds and worked on final projects. They reflected on urban design and the privatization of public spaces, and discussed how to incorporate quantitative data into their rhetoric papers. In their social science classes, they studied political changes in the late twentieth century– the rise of neoliberalism and the collapse of communism. A joint social sciences/humanities assignment encouraged the students to make interdisciplinary connections between their classes.
In their RH 104 class, students worked on a multimodal assignment — creating a video that tells the story of how England has remembered its dead over the last 200 years. Brandon Clifton’s video uses his own photography to show the old and new side by side: cemeteries and war memorials, soldier’s uniforms in museums, and a rally in Trafalgar Square to remember the 1984 Sikh genocide.
Students still made time for weekend journeys and side trips– a museum or two, a weekend trip to Bath, and some shopping at Brick Lane Market.
England was, of course, the perfect place to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Harry Potter series on June 26th. The Harry Potter Studio Tour was a popular destination for students.
The end of the semester had students reflecting on Instagram about what they’ve learned– not just about academics but about themselves and what they can accomplish.
Akshay Pardiwala said, “Words can’t describe how transformative these six weeks have been. I was able to mature as a person while strengthening and repairing bonds with friends… I’m glad that London will always hold a special place in my heart.” Phoebe Vatis wrote, “Thank you to this amazing city for giving me the best memories of my life. I couldn’t have asked for a better semester.”
Chaneigh Bernard called it “the most adventurous” six weeks of her life and said, “Forever thankful that London could show me that even though I could never attend a field trip without my mom as the chaperone, I can travel across the world by myself… and love it.”
This week in the January Boston-London semester, students went back to ancient times with a visit to the Roman Baths and the prehistoric Stonehenge.
Bath and Stonehenge were on the agenda for Team E. Team C traveled to Bath and Longleat, with a stop at Highgate Cemetery and a Thursday trip to the Globe Theatre to see Twelfth Night. Dean Natalie McKnight visited the students this week and joined them on a trip to Highgate Cemetery.
Other attractions this week: Space Spectacular at Royal Albert Hall and Edward Albee’s The Goat at Royal Haymarket Theatre. Akshay Pardiwala captured the Royal Albert Hall trip in a #TerrierTakeover for the ApplytoBU Snapchat.
Students visited the prehistoric Stonehenge and the nearby town of Salisbury eight miles away. Elham Banaie’s #TerrierTakeover on the CGS Snapchat showed the trip to Stonehenge, the shuttle up to the monument, and the rolling fields on the way to the Salisbury Cathedral– home to one of the original copies of the Magna Carta.
At Bath, students saw the thermal springs of the Roman Bath, another historic site that back centuries. CGS student Sarah Garcia’s #TerrierTakeover showed the sacred spring overflow and the student’s next trip to Longleat, an historic estate and park where students wound their way through the United Kingdom’s largest hedge maze.
Also this week, students began reflecting on the twenty-first century’s digital revolution. They discussed technology and reflected on what the Internet is doing to our brains and how it affects our internal memory. They examined the legendary London taxi driver test — possibly “the most difficult test in the world“–and debated the rise of “hyper-individualism” in the digital age.
Social sciences class gave a framework for understanding the journey toward to the twenty-first century as students studied the Holocaust and the Cold War. On top of classes and trips, students are also writing papers and working on multimodal assignments– for example, creating their own videos to show how England has remembered its deceased for the last two centuries.
Also this week, CGS Academic Advisor Ilda Hanxhari was available to meet with any students who needed academic advising support.
Throughout the semester, students are able to take optional social trips– to places like Harry Potter Studio Tour, Kensington Palace, and Edinburgh. This weekend a few students went on a weekend trip to Amsterdam, where they took a cruise down the city’s historic canals.
Weeks 2 and 3 of the January Boston-London semester were crammed with travel to historic sites in London, as students took in the literature and history of the twentieth century while exploring ancient historical landmarks, too.
On May 29, students visited Westminster Abbey, the resting place of British monarchs and luminaries and the site of Britain’s coronation ceremonies and royal weddings.
All of the teams went on an excursion to Oxford, where they explored Oxford University, Christ Church, and the Ashmolean Museum. Christ Church is one of the larger colleges at Oxford University and has graduated 13 British prime ministers– in addition to being the setting for parts of the Harry Potter film series.
At the Ashmolean Museum, the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, students could see objects dating from 8000 BC to the present day. The museum holds Raphael drawings, pre-Dynastic Egyptian sculpture, Anglo-Saxon treasures, and modern Chinese painting.
Team E climbed the 500-plus steps up St. Paul’s Cathedral and saw Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the famous Globe Theatre. On her CGS Snapchat takeover of the trip, CGS student Colby Lucas showed the Crofton dorms, selfies at St. Paul’s cathedral and the beautiful views from the top of the cathedral. After the excursion to Oxford and Christ Church, a Jack the Ripper tour of London’s East End was on the agenda.
The trips integrate with the reading and studying that takes up most of the students’ week. “Mapping the East End Labyrinth” by Laura Vaughan, for instance, meshes with what students learn on the Jack the Ripper Tour. Students read excerpts of Virginia Woolf and George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language as they also study the rise of the Nazis and fascism, the Russian revolution, and the Great Depression.
On June 8, all of the teams heard a talk from Ben Goldacre, senior clinical research fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at University of Oxford. Dubbed a “debunker” by TED Talks, Goldacre exposes “bad science” and criticizes journalists, politicians and advertisers who misrepresent science.
During Week 2 of the London semester, CGS Academic Advisor Heidi Chase was on-site to meet with students and faculty, answer questions, and address student concerns.
As always, students take time between trips and classes to explore London, whether it’s visiting Camden Market, exploring Chinatown, finding vintage treasures at Greenwich Market, or escaping to the tranquil Kyoto Gardens close to the dorms.
A dance performance dramatized the struggle of anxiety. A documentary investigated gentrification in Cambridge and Somerville. And a group of college students traveled out of the city to talk with former prisoners. These are a few of the Capstone projects that Boston University College of General Studies (CGS) students created in response to the theme, “Making the Invisible Visible.”
This year, the faculty of Team Y — Meg Tyler, John Mackey, and Samuel Hammer — spearheaded a pilot capstone project with the aim of “exploring beyond the traditional CGS capstone boundaries.” They issued a theme, “Making the invisible visible” and gave students full license to find and explore a topic within the theme. The final products: an individual log that records and describes the students’ experiences; a group annotated bibliography; a group creative work; a cooperatively generated exploratory essay; a group capstone defense.
Many of the group creative projects took bold risks. One group’s project grew out of a teammate’s personal experience with anxiety. “We realized that in modern day society, mental illnesses often goes unnoticed in college students,” the team said in a description of their project. They decided to produce a live, moving performance on the 5th floor of 808 Commonwealth Avenue, the art gallery building used by CFA students. Using spoken poetry, music and dance, they said, “We were able to express ourselves, as well as bring to light the serious problem of mental disorders in college students.”
Another team took on the issue of mental health by going out into the BU community and inviting students to “paint your mental health on me.” Classmates painted a jail cell to show how mental health struggles can feel isolating, or smiling faces to represent healing. In their personal reflections, each teammate focused on a different facet of mental health and what the experience was like for each of them.
One team created care packages for Boston homeless women and then took a journey through Boston to deliver the packages and talk to women about their experience. Their group painting showed a Boston city-scape with ghostly outlines of homeless people in the streets.
The team below visited a nonprofit that provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated people. Students reflected on the visit through artwork and poetry and curated a gallery of photos from their trip.
Another team investigated the issue of gentrification in Boston by creating a 24-minute documentary, interviewing residents and activists who are working to get access to affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying Cambridge and Somerville.
Another team, a self-described “diverse group of girls,” looked at how microaggressions affect people, creating a sculpture that reflected the invisibility of microaggressions and the damage they cause people. “Even though our microaggressions differed we were all effected in the same ways mentally,” said the team. “With the realization that our aggressors walked away harmless while the victims (us) were damaged, we wanted to teach people what microaggressions, were so they can be identified, and stopped.”
The January Boston-London program students have already finished the first week of their semester! Group flights landed in London Heathrow Airport on May 20th and May 21st, where arrival staff greeted students and guided them to their new home for the semester. Students traveled by bus to check in at their residence hall in Kensington and moved into the dorms where they’ll be spending the next six weeks.
After orientation, students took a guided boat tour to historic Greenwich in southeast London, where they were free to explore. Greenwich is home to the 02 Arena, University of Greenwich, the beautiful Greenwich Park, Greenwich Market, and the Royal Observatory, which straddles the Greenwich meridian line. CGS student Sachi Dulai did a #TerrierTakeover on the CGS Snapchat and showed us her Greenwich explorations.
The January Boston-London program incorporates trips to historic sites so students can integrate what they’re learning with the sights and historic landmarks of London. On May 29th, the students visited Westminster Abbey— a regal church with architecture dating back to the 13th century. Westminster Abbey is the final resting place of 3,300 people (including seventeen monarchs and over 100 poets and writers) and the place where British monarchs have been coronated since 1066.
Fitting an entire semester into six weeks means classes begin immediately, with no time to waste. Twelve CGS professors from the humanities, rhetoric, and social sciences divisions all made the journey to London as well. Students launched immediately into their CGS core classes, which cover the industrial revolution to the digital revolution.
Boston University Study Abroad London is nestled into the busy neighborhood of Kensington. Students are a 20-minute walk away from the meadows and memorials of Kensington Gardens.
Students have a fully furnished kitchen equipped with everything students need to cook meals independently — pots and pans, dishwasher, cutlery, stoves, and microwaves. High Street Kensington is a quick 10-minute walk from the residence building and a useful place to find household supplies–and good places to eat.
Students also took in some beautiful views — a bird’s eye view of London and the Thames from atop the towering, 443-feet tall London Eye.
Over the weekend, students took an optional trip to Scotland–from Glencoe to Loch Ness– where CGS student Akshay Pardiwala did a #TerrierTakeover.
From California to Chile to Saudi Arabia — over the last semester, Dean Natalie McKnight has been sharing CGS’ knowledge on assessment and Capstone projects all across the globe
In January, at the 103rd Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in San Francisco, California, Dean McKnight spoke on a panel of college administrators talking about “Interdisciplinary Capstones for All Students.” The panel was organized to promote the use of Capstone projects like ours here at CGS–touted as one of the “Ten Best Practices in Higher Education.” McKnight spoke on the panel alongside representatives from Elon University, Champlain College, and Portland State University– all schools with a well-established interdisciplinary capstone program and with valuable lessons to offer other institutions.
In March, Dean McKnight found herself travelling to Santiago, Chile to a conference at Universidad Diego Portales as the plenary speaker. The presentation, entitled “General Education: Now More Than Ever,” was to talk about the benefits of the two-year program here at CGS. Dean McKnight discussed the significance of general studies to higher education, and why a general education is so vital to the success of students around the globe.
In April, Dean McKnight traveled again to Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Since 2014, CGS has been working with Effat University on the development of its general education program, and CGS faculty visit the University each year. After watching Dean McKnight’s presentation at the AAC&U Conference in January, administrators from Effat University asked Dean McKnight to share CGS’ approach to Capstone, e-Portfolios, and assessing the effectiveness of its education.
CGS’ general education program equips students to solve real world issues–quandaries like hunger in Boston, bike safety, deforestation, and fuel alternatives. By applying their knowledge of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, students learn interdisciplinary problem-solving.