We at BU know the value of connecting students to this campus and beyond, of making local-global connections. We at Boston Now, a curricular initiative in Boston University’s CAS Writing Program that focuses on outside-the-classroom experiences and place-based learning, see the whole university/city/world as a classroom. We need to expand the traditional classroom, emphasize the value of experiential learning and imagine new ways to converse with each other and with our environments in the age of Covid-19 and beyond.
Outdoor meetings present challenges due to unpredictable noise disruptions, weather, and lack of technology, but especially given our current situation, coming together outside can be a much safer way to connect as a class than inside a traditional classroom.
Potential Sites for Outdoor Meetings
Parks are the breathing spaces of cities. We work, teach, and learn on a breathing-space-challenged campus. We need to respond to these constraints more than ever by using space creatively to address the public health crisis and becoming a model for other campuses. Consider making the outdoor space a part of the class itself, by preparing students with some pre-visit reflections and prompt students to make connections between your meeting site and their own hometowns.
The Emerald Necklace can even play a role in papers discussing responses to our current global crisis in connection with earlier history, as this recent article discusses: “Even though [landscape architects] didn’t have the science behind it, it was enough to build places like Central Park, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and do a large tree-planting campaign in Chicago,” says Sara Jensen Carr, an architecture professor at Northeastern University and the author of an upcoming book about how past epidemics have influenced urban design. In the current crisis, she says, parks are also functioning as an escape: “Being outside is one of the safer activities we can do right now. I think it speaks to the importance of having those spaces everywhere.”
- Green and Open Spaces on Campus: From Marsh Plaza to BU Beach and the small patches of green on the Cummington Mall, our campus offers places to meet, walk, explore as part of course content, or engage in team-building or stakeholder-building activities.
- Charles River Esplanade: Close to campus, its linearity causes some pinch-points for socially distancing, but it offers opportunities for observing wildlife, social spaces, and architecture.
- Hall’s Pond: A ten-minute walk from campus, this sanctuary in Brookline offers many opportunities to observe wildlife in several different landscapes that represent an array of ecosystems and acts of environmental engineering. Observing animals together builds group cohesion as students laugh as one over a chipmunk scurrying along or collectively gasp in awe in response to a hunting Great Blue Heron. Through the Friends of Hall’s Pond website, students can access information about the history of the site which is linked to the founding of the Audubon Society and Boston’s place in environmental history and conservation. Hall’s is also an excellent site for student artists. Adjacent Amory Field offers a broader meeting spot.
- Knyvet Park: A smaller park in Brookline close to Hall’s and Amory Field which works well as quiet spot for class discussion.
- Winthrop Square: Another Brookline park space slightly further from campus than Knyvet which has a playground for young children, open green space, and the Minot Rose Garden.
- Emerald Necklace: Although slightly further from campus than the other options, this historic park system offers many excellent spaces to meet and great walks for students. From observing animals to analyzing the history of the design in relation to its contemporary layout and use by current park-goers, students can find ample inspiration for a wide range of writing projects from many academic and creative disciplines.
Team Building by Reading Outdoors, or Reading the Outdoors
As you emphasize the role of places and outdoor settings in your course, some course content can be shifted to local Boston contexts. Social justice, medical advances, inventions, technology, literature, art, games, history, culture – all of these are mapped onto the city itself and students can discover these connections by walking the city.
- During campus observation walks, students can look at architecture and infrastructure, exploring connections between built and open space. Non-campus students can view videos of these online, or can be looped in in real time. Campus space, nature, buildings, places can be read like texts, as exhibit sources.
- Boston is full of local history that can be linked to national and global history, as well as to historical and more recent debates about how diverse histories should be remembered through built structures like statues and monuments.
- Boston’s parks and streets are sites at which students find fascinating animal and human behavior to incorporate into scientific and social scientific analyses. Students can solely use their own qualitative data in their writing or collaborate to develop a class data set for collective use to take advantage of qualitative and quantitative data to find broader patterns.
- Instead of inside the classroom, online and outside can become students’ oral performance spaces. On-campus students can read, act, and record Shakespeare or other scripted drama outdoors, engage in text-driven role-play such as Reacting to the Past, read their own poetry or fiction, and make other kinds of oral presentations. Any students not living on campus can pair up with other remote students to record scenes or presentations through Zoom. The entire class can view videos and have a Zoom class discussion afterwards.
- Students can use explorations of city sites to consider what they could do to solve a spatial problem that existed pre- and post-pandemic. Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, other local and global cities, and our own campus, are dynamically re-configuring themselves—from re-directing the flow of human and vehicle traffic to re-purposing exteriors/interiors and finding ways to accommodate our distancing while still offering community. The challenges are multi-disciplinary: architecture, design, public health, environmental science, engineering, biology, geography, history, law, social justice, art. How can we come together to meet these challenges creatively? How can we do this as citizens of Boston and of BU?