The new COM 101 challenges students with projects in journalism, film and television and mass communication. Photos by Conor Doherty
Students learn by doing in the new and improved COM 101
By Patrick L. Kennedy (’04)
You might remember it as a semester-long parade of guest lecturers. Billed as a communication survey course, COM CO 101 (commonly known as “COM 101”) was meant to introduce students to the fundamental principles of communication. But it was better described as a speaker series, says Dustin Supa, senior associate dean and an associate professor of public relations.
After more than 30 years, the faculty decided the course, a requirement for all COM undergraduates, needed a major makeover. “We didn’t feel the students were getting the experience they wanted,” Supa says. “We wanted to make it stronger.”
To do that, Supa and his colleagues started from scratch, creating an entirely new course that both retains its mission and reflects the intertwined nature of the communication professions. It launched in 2017.
Titled “The World of Communication: The Human Storyteller,” COM 101 features three four-week modules, each taught by a different professor, rotating through the college’s three departments—film and television; journalism; and mass communication, advertising and public relations.
The modules are highly hands-on. Rather than one or two big tests or papers, a series of individual projects keep students engaged throughout the semester. “By the time they leave COM 101, they’ve done a transmedia franchise proposal, they’ve written a column for a newspaper, they’ve designed a strategic marketing plan,” Supa says.
A common thread weaves through the projects. In fall 2017 the theme was the opioid crisis, and the goal was simple, Supa explains: “How does each of the constituent disciplines of communication tell that story?”
In the journalism module, for example, Alexander Tuchi (’21) wrote a story about how the Boston University Police Department handles cases of drug use. The assignment took Tuchi, a film and television major, far outside his comfort zone. “I’m more an introverted guy, so to go out and secure an interview was the hardest part,” he says. Moreover, he carried certain assumptions into his interview with a cop: “I expected a hard line against drugs. I feared there’d be victim-blaming.” Instead, “Sergeant Dan Healy blew me away with his compassion.” Healy misted up as he recounted how he regularly checks in on homeless addicts in the neighborhood around BU’s Medical Campus, telling Tuchi, “They say [opioid addiction] is like a love affair with something that is going to kill you.”
“We didn’t feel the students were getting the experience they wanted. We wanted to make [COM 101] stronger.”
–Dustin Supa, senior associate dean and associate professor of public relations
In the mass communication module, Tuchi created a PSA combining a frightening statistic about overdose deaths with a stock image of a graveyard. “I spent two days looking for just the right graveyard image,” Tuchi recalls. “The ad had to be persuasive not only logically but also emotionally.”
Indeed, students were taught in class how and why different types of ads work, and they had to justify their ad in an accompanying paper, describing their strategy and intended audiences, from students in high school cafeterias to Instagram users. For her PSA, Geneve Lau (’21) chose to focus on how opioid addiction affects a user’s loved ones. The image is a high school diploma burned nearly to a crisp alongside the torn half of a birth certificate. The tagline: “You threw your life away, don’t throw theirs away too.”
For an assignment in the film and television module, Lau pitched a TV drama about a young woman battling heroin addiction. The students also proposed transmedia franchises; Twin Peaks was taught as an example—a television series that spawned a film and books as well as a TV reboot. Tuchi points out that the murder victim at the center of the story hid a drug addiction, though to cocaine, not heroin. “It was one of the first network shows to [depict] the drug problems most small towns were dealing with, but no one wanted to talk about,” Tuchi says.
Supa deems the new COM 101 a success so far. “The course evaluations are way up, way better,” he says. “And I can say that with certainty because I taught the course in the old way before I took over as course director in the new way.”
“I got to try a bit of journalism, a bit of advertising, a bit of PR. I realized I don’t like political science—I like campaigns.”
– Alexander Tuchi (’21)
Tuchi gives the new way high marks. “The thing I enjoyed about the new COM 101 class is that it gave me a flavor of every little bit of COM,” he says. “I got to try a bit of journalism, a bit of advertising, a bit of PR.” That variety helped him decide to trade in his minor in political science for one in public relations. “I realized I don’t like political science,” he says. “I like campaigns.”
In 2018, roughly 700 students registered for COM 101, which features a new theme: disasters. Three full-time COM faculty members lead the course, with support from about 30 grad student discussion facilitators as well as faculty advisors.
Supa notes that even without the big tests, COM 101 is rigorous. “We try to make it fun and interactive, but it’s not an easy course,” he says. “It’s designed to give students the most knowledge in the least amount of time, so they can move forward more quickly in their communication careers.”
That certainly held true for Tuchi. “The course gave me a real sense of purpose,” he says. “I knew every Tuesday and Thursday at 12 pm, I was going to walk into that room and learn something new.”