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Students Explore World’s Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic Through Media Class Project


Turn on a camera, turn on a microphone and learn to sense the world differently.

As students in Saint Louis University’s Department of English learned about new media production during the spring 2020 semester, they also learned about how to create media in a crisis setting as the world around them shifted dramatically due to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

An artifact from the class.

A photo taken for the class of a heart sign on the tree. Photo by Abigail Picinich

As the University community adjusted to remote learning and work, the class’s 18 members adapted their final project to curate and explore the media through which we are sensitizing ourselves to the coronavirus.

“Sensing the Virus,” includes photography, social media posts, graphs and data visualization examples and other media items related to the world’s response to the pandemic.

“We are past the point in time when we merely express ourselves though a range of media,” Nathaniel Rivers, Ph.D., associate professor of English, the course’s instructor, said. “Saturated as we are in media-rich environments, we also sense the world through media.”

While the course, ENGL 4010 “New Media Writing,” changes each time Rivers teaches it, the spring 2020 course focused less on creating videos, podcasts and other media items, and more on how students can use media as sensors and as research tools.

“In this course, you do more than compose with new media (although you will also do that),” Rivers explained. “You explore how digital media technologies change how we feel and respond to the environments we inhabit. In this course, you experiment with how various digital media technologies make the world known to them in new, different ways. How can we use new (digital) media to not only write about the world but to also change how the world shows up for us – to change how we see, hear and touch the world?”

Adapting to Academically Explore an Unfolding Crisis

Ordinarily, as students consider the class’s key questions, they also develop a research projects built around the sensing capacities of a digital tool and directed toward a pressing social issue such as how can one engage the mobility of GoPro cameras to research issues of accessibility or how can one deploy microphones to investigate gender inequality, among other topics.

Because SLU’s move to distance learning led to the cancellation of individual research project, Rivers and his students came together to create “Sensing the Virus” together. The students divided up into teams around a chosen medium such visual, social, or data. One group of students building and designing the web page.

“One thing I'd add here is how much fun this project was,” Rivers said. “The students really came together for this. I was inspired by their thoughtfulness and their sensitivity. The site covers a range of issues surrounding the virus. Those issues were all discerned by the students, working together.”

More About The Students’ Work

How did this new project carry forward what you hoped students would take away from the class?

“The goal for the course was for the students to learn how new media tools haven't simply impacted how we communicate (which is often the focus of a class like this), but also on how we sense the world – how the world shows up for us.

This project allowed for that to happen more-or-less in real time: the project invited students to become sensitive to the ways they were being sensitized to the virus.

And, furthermore, that we all worked on this project together but apart from one another likewise reinforced how different forms of mediation impact how we understand one another and engage the world. In our Zoom meetings, we found ourselves discussing how the gallery view in Zoom provided us all a new way to see the class and to see each other.

For example, my place in the class was as yet one more rectangle on the screen rather than at the front of class – these sorts of things shift the feeling of a class. So, while this project wasn’t exactly what I had in mind back in January, it became an experiment/experience in which the original goals and values of the course nevertheless surfaced.

How do you see this project as illustrating SLU's Jesuit values and mission in the world?

In large measure, this course is one in discernment. A key part of discernment is imagination. As one discerns one imagines (and so composes) a scene. And we project ourselves into that scene in order to reflect upon or decide on courses of action.

Discernment, then, is an exercise in making oneself (and others) sensible, or sense-able – and to do so always with an eye toward how one might act (or intervene).

Discernment, like sensation, is thus not simply a passive engagement with the world, but an active, creative one. This distinction is crucial to this course.

Will the project continue, and if so, how?

That's a great question. This project was a response to situation we found ourselves in – both practically and pedagogically. In that way, it is very much a project of and for this moment. I solicited feedback from students, and they encouraged me not to necessarily extend this project, but to make the final project for subsequent versions of this course collaborative and specific, issue driven.

It might be then that in Spring 2021, when I teach this next, that students might want to pick up this project and add to it.

It might be, however, that students do something in parallel or something that resonates with this particular project in speaking to another pressing, timely topic.

We could explore environmental issues – I am thinking of the Too Hot to Sing project undertaken by Kasey Fowler-Finn, Ph.D., of the Department of Biology,  and her colleague Stephen Vitiello, or issues of equity and equality (these were some of the individual project foci that students developed).

In other words, this project might have conceptual sequels.

How has this experience led you to innovate on the course and your teaching in the future?

What I find exciting about this is the move away from treating media as either modes of production or as objects of analysis. In other words, my students weren't analyzing videos or focused on the production of videos but are using their smart cameras as a tool (a telescope) for learning/sensing something about social distancing.

Or, for another example, my students weren’t composing tweets or analyzing the content of twitter so much as they were using twitter as a satellite array with which they could learn something about the coronavirus.

And as I’ve mentioned, I think what I will take away from this is how this general approach to using new media dovetails with projects that engage more timely, immediate issues – and issues that speak to students wherever they find themselves.

Turn on a camera, turn on a microphone, and learn to sense the world differently.

Explore "Sensing the Virus"

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of now more than 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.