Thinking Out of the Box: CSU Courses Enlighten with the Unexpected

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Higher education isn’t just about learning facts or improving critical thinking. It is also about stepping out of our comfort zones and allowing ourselves to hear complex and often emotion-inducing subjects. Such experiences allow us to see differing opinions in respectful ways and have healthy, positive discussions of complex topics. Universities have offered opportunities for students to develop into emotionally intelligent professionals for years and CSU is no different. Such ‘Out of the Box’ curricula would not be possible if CSU professors did not have the academic freedom to choose their teaching methods. Here are a few examples of courses taught at the CSU campuses that challenge students to grow both academically and emotionally.

 

Professor Frank Harris III, – Race & the News

Professor Frank Harris III of Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) is introducing students to the historical intersection between race relations and media coverage in America through his journalism course, Race & the News. The curriculum consists of past and present news coverage almost entirely from primary sources, including newspaper and magazine articles, online links, and videos. For older stories, this includes newspaper articles published during and prior to the 1800’s. With police shootings, inflammatory political statements, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement dominating the news cycle, there has certainly been no shortage of material to discuss.

“The students are very much aware of these stories and are affected by them,” says Professor Harris. The students keep journals throughout the semester, chronicling the media they consume. According to Harris, “I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, it was awful’ in reference to these stories. I want them to question the fairness and accuracy of the media coverage. The main thing I have them focus on is the media’s treatment of these events.”

Harris believes that the course’s reliance on primary sources is beneficial to students. “It’s a ringside seat, rather than reading what somebody else says about it,” explains Professor Harris, adding, “It’s just more powerful. Here’s what he said. And it’s the actual article. It provides more reality.”

One of the sources Harris and his students use is a website called Without Sanctuary, which collects postcards and other images of lynchings in the American South. “They can see the history,” notes Professor Harris, “and the news media helped to foster this at times. They covered lynchings and announced when they would occur and covered them in graphic, horrifying detail. The news media was basically complicit with what was going on, and was as much a part of the local community as was the police or fire department. A lot of students found that jarring, and they write about it.”

This sensitive and necessary material has provoked emotional reactions from students. According to Professor Harris, “There have been times when students would really break out along racial lines in terms of their positions to certain things, and sometimes students would get very angry with each other, and I would remind them that it’s important to listen to people’s views who are different from you. I want everyone to feel comfortable sharing in class. Particularly white students, I don’t want them to be afraid that they will be labeled racist. Not everybody is comfortable talking about race.”

 

Dr. Maureen McDonnell – Lesbian Literature

“What constitutes ‘lesbian literature’?” This question introduces the course description to Dr. Maureen McDonnell’s Women’s Studies 352 class at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU), and it’s something that students return to throughout the semester.

“On the second day of class, students bring in their own answers to that question,” says Dr. McDonnell. She adds, “People have brought in paintings, documents related to their family experiences, political cartoons, poems, and songs. It’s a productive way to see the range of ways people answer the question.”

This emphasis on communication was immediately apparent to student Alexandra Garnelis. “Professor McDonnell walked in and instructed us to form our desks into a circle,” recalls Ms. Garnelis. She continued, “She said that we couldn’t interact with each other if all of our desks were facing the same way and that through this we could better speak with one another.”

“My teaching has benefited from conversations and training in universal design,” explains Dr. McDonnell, “which considers how to design classroom spaces and activity in a way that provides the greatest ease for all involved.”

The course represents a unique opportunity to explore representations of female desire and LGBTQ+ individuals. “It would be great to have more courses that are centered on LGBTQ+ people and their cultural contributions,” says Dr. McDonnell. “At Eastern, this is the only class in the humanities that does so and is permanently on the books,” she concluded.

Perhaps surprisingly, McDonnell finds that student reactions often focus more on form than subject. “I’ve found that the debates tend to focus on aesthetics, the kinds of texts that humans find beautiful or weird or strange,” notes Dr. McDonnell. “So often, students seem to have the strongest sense of surprise or discomfort if there’s a literary form unfamiliar to them. They might be critical of new forms in our readings, but they are respectful to each other and different points of view,” she added.

The course provides students with a historical perspective. “Given that we know that women have valued their relationships with other women, and that’s been true throughout history as we know it, how has society made judgments about that phenomenon in literature or other ways?” asks Dr. McDonnell.

Studying the tradition of Lesbian Literature, however it might be defined, allows students to more easily identify and appreciate more recent texts. According to Dr. McDonnell, “Students often bring in pop culture representations. It’s not unusual for us to talk about ‘Orange is the New Black’ or other examples of the ways in which we presently think about women-centered texts and experiences.”

 

Dr. Lisa Rene ReynoldsPsychology of Sex

According to Dr. Lisa Rene Reynolds of Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), the discourse in her popular Psychology of Sex class is “never provocative or rude, but it will be real.”

“Students don’t have any experience talking about this,” explains Dr. Reynolds. “It’s very different from human sexuality, which is not so ‘out of the box,’ more clinical and scientific. And because this is a psychological class, that’s not what they get. Students are nervous, excited, and very curious,” she added.

The course covers a wide range of topics related to sexual psychology. “We talk about everything that happens in the world,” says Dr. Reynolds. Despite the breadth of topics, the class delves deep into the subject matter and students “don’t expect it to be as in-depth as it is,” according to Dr. Reynolds.

Dr. Reynolds is continually surprised by her students’ reactions to the course. “I have students keep journals,” explains Dr. Reynolds. “I am always shocked, literally shocked, and I know it’s mostly generational, but they share the most moving things. They make me tear up, they make me smile,” she added.

Dr. Reynolds is comfortable with the label “out of the box” as applied to the course. “It’s definitely ‘out of the box,’” agrees Dr. Reynolds. She continued, “I am unaware, with a few exceptions, of any other place that teaches about the emotional experiences of sex. It’s not a typical academic class or lab and I’m grateful to West Conn and the Honors program that they could see how helpful it could be for the students.”

“The course is meant to challenge,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Sex is everywhere–birds, bees, bugs, wild animals–so why don’t we talk about it? I personally think it’s so important,” she added.

The language surrounding sexuality is also examined. According to Dr. Reynolds, “One of the first things I do in class is come up with an awkward term or word, slang or otherwise. I write it down and we think a little bit about why.”

In addition, Dr. Reynolds understands the comfort-level of students. “Who teaches the class is important,” explains Dr. Reynolds. “It is squeamish and weird to say these things, but I’ve been doing it for so long, my comfort level makes other people more comfortable with this material,” she concluded.

 

Dr. Bradley M. Waite – Media Psychology

Students taking Dr. Bradley Waite’s Media Psychology course at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) might be surprised to learn that, according to Dr. Waite, “we are probably engaged in media use more than anything else we do, other than sleep.”

One goal of the course is to make students more conscious of their media consumption. “I try to get students to look at their media use and how that might be influencing their view of the world,” says Dr. Waite. He added, “When we’re always plugged in, that creates a context in which we exist. Sometimes we don’t think about the consequences of this media context. One of my goals is to get students to think about their media use, that if their friends and family, and co-workers and professors. In Media Psychology, we discuss how media provide an important part of the social context that influences our behavior and through which we come to understand ourselves and others.”

While students might not always be mindful of their media intake, Dr. Waite is consistently struck by their insight. “The students are the early adopters,” notes Dr. Waite. “There’s always something I didn’t know about that I find interesting or surprising. I’m just trying to keep up with them most of the time. They bring the practical and I bring the theoretical, and we try to put it all together,” he added.

The technology that students are adopting has permanently altered the media landscape. “People used to gather around the television as a family, but now everybody has powerful devices at hand that demand attention,” explains Dr. Waite. Social media in particular has the potential to both bring people together and isolate them. “It can lead us to create communities online and engage with other people online,” says Dr. Waite. He concluded, “While at the same time what we see is that over-use can lead to estrangement from important people in our lives.”

This influx of user-generated media and hand-held technology has led to many incorrect assumptions regarding human behavior. For example: multitasking. According to Dr. Waite, “Most of us have an idea that multitasking makes us more efficient and that we are good multitaskers. But the research tells us almost nobody is a good multitasker. Ultimately, it takes us more time to accomplish our tasks when we don’t focus on one at a time. In terms of media, you’re on the computer studying while you’re checking your phone and the TV is playing in the background and the music is streaming – these serve as distractions making us feel less efficient. And each task demands mental resources. When multitasking, it is as if there is a cognitive bottleneck in the sense that the mental resources needed to do one task keeps us from doing another task that needs those same resources at the same time.”

Just how all of this will shape the future remains to be seen. “This is the first generation being exposed to media devices essentially from birth,” says Dr. Waite, “and I’m really interested in looking at the long-term impacts of this exposure for better or worse.”

 

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