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Holy Cross’ Montserrat Program Teaches Lessons That Resonate During Coronavirus

The unique yearlong program for first-year students equipped them to be responsive and flexible in the face of an unexpected challenge
May 25th, 2020 by 

As students across the country transitioned to remote learning in March in the wake of coronavirus, communities of learning had to start thinking about creative approaches to education outside of the classroom. For Holy Cross’ Montserrat program, however, learning that transcends the typical classroom had been part of the experience from day one.

As students across the country transitioned to remote learning in March in the wake of coronavirus, communities of learning had to start thinking about creative approaches to education outside of the classroom. For Holy Cross’ Montserrat program, however, learning that transcends the typical classroom had been part of the experience from day one.

“Montserrat has a strong foundation in social connection already; that’s made the transition from learning in the traditional way to learning in more creative ways easier—the interdisciplinary approach has been a core element of Montserrat,” says Alison Bryant Ludden, director of Montserrat and professor of psychology. “Faculty have been innovative in translating the face-to-face experiences they had planned to online experiences, and students were already talking to their professors and each other about why and how they learn.”

A staple of the Holy Cross experience, the yearlong Montserrat program provides all first-year students with a dynamic introduction to the liberal arts. The program aims to connect students’ classroom learning with the rest of their on-campus experiences and challenges students to consider the meaning of their education and how they can make a difference in the world. Montserrat courses involve traditional in-class discussion and assignments, but the dynamic program also includes community-based learning and interdisciplinary residence halls, where students live for the year to develop the spirit of camaraderie and intellectual exchange.

“Montserrat has always been a different environment,” says Melanie Lytle ’23, a first-year student in the course Social Practice Studio: Art Outside the Gates. “The classes are really small, so I’ve gotten to know the 12 or 14 students really well, and we have extensive discussions about what learning is and what’s going on in the world. Most of the ideas of the class have translated to online, and we’re still getting the same thing out of the class. We’re still meeting in small groups, and our professor found interesting ways to do things like bring in outside artists to talk to us,” she said, referencing a recent visit to class via Zoom by visual artist Lee Walton, who was an early leader of creating socially engaged art online.

Rachelle Beaudoin, Lytle’s professor and a professor of practice in the Visual Arts Department, who invited Walton to her class, agrees that a challenging situation offered unexpected opportunities. “An art class might seem like one of the worst classes to take online. But part of being an artist is having to pivot really quickly and to do things that are experimental. The community-based project that students were supposed to do was social, and online is social, too, so we pivoted our projects from the community in Worcester we were working with to our own communities, and students learned a new medium—podcasting—to complete the project.”

Beaudoin’s student Josie Ascione ’23, reflects on her takeaways from the adapted podcasting assignment. “I learned that community doesn’t just have to mean the people you’re physically close to. It can be anyone you can communicate with, virtually or otherwise. Through Montserrat, we can still do projects that are meaningful and still outreach to people; social art doesn’t need to be in contact.”

In her Montserrat course, Images from Latin America, Bridget Franco, associate professor of Spanish, also found a creative adaptation—a collaborative project on Instagram—for her students’ originally planned art exhibit, which would have been open to the Holy Cross community on campus. “In a way, this enhanced the original idea because the digital platform opened my students’ posts to more people,” she says, noting that visitors from across the United States, and in Latin America, viewed and interacted with the students’ work online. “One of the goals of my class is to create an intellectual and social community that extends beyond the classroom, and our Instagram project was one way to maintain and expand that community.”

Cynthia Hooper, associate professor of history and director of Russian and Eastern European Studies, also found that the pandemic unexpectedly brought to life teachings from her course, The New Cold War. Just as the coronavirus was beginning to dominate the international media, her class had been discussing the rise of television and computer technology, organization of media, and struggle “for the hearts and minds” of citizens in the U.S., China and Russia. In class, students compared select countries’ state and social media coverage of historical events to trace how politics can shape memory and promote certain norms. Now, Hooper says, students are using those skills to critically analyze international media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

“They are not just remaining consumers of media in this crisis. They are learning how to critique and compare different stories, and they’re leading discussions about how to evaluate bias and how to understand multiple perspectives. They can see information politics in action, and they can really understand the relevance of studying how power works. Things they are experiencing now are things they can also study and that historians will study for years to come. They’re living these issues.”

“At a baseline, having this class now is showing them that being a student, even if not on campus, is a full-time, active state of mind,” Hooper continues. “It’s a valuable one that they should cherish and can turn to in order to combat the sense of isolation or ennui that is typical at the moment. This is the goal of Montserrat: to impart that learning is not a routinized thing you go through to get a degree and that it has huge consequences and privileges. Montserrat helps connect ideas to current events and community issues and helps students understand dialogue that people have been having throughout the centuries about what’s meaningful, how we live, and how society should be organized. These are at the root of every class. In and out of the classroom, Montserrat strives to make students lifetime learners and to inculcate this idea of becoming men and women for others.”

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