Ethnicity in Massachusetts

Distance Learning by 7 Colleges

Organized around the topic Ethnicity in Massachusetts, state colleges and universities in the Commonwealth taught a course in the Spring, 1999 semester that was unique in educational history, representing the first time in the United States that distance learning took place, live and interactively, from more than one source. This paper will report on a participant observation of the experience from the perspective of democratized information both in terms of content and process.

Using a case study approach, the 14-week course was interdisciplinary, with professors representing the following disciplines: Anthropology, Communications, English, Folklore, History, and Sociology. While some of the educational institutions met twice per week, allowing for class discussions, the showing of appropriate videotapes, and course evaluations, each Wednesday was interactive for approximately an hour, beginning at 12:30 pm. Emanating from the home institution of each week's presenter, students from all the schools were able to converse not only with the professor in charge of that week's lesson but also with one another. At the end of the semester, a conference was held at my college, where students met in person to share their genealogies in a poster session, along with their individual research projects.

Throughout, a range of methods and tools for examining and researching the ethnic history of the Massachusetts has been employed. It included histories of specific ethnic groups (e.g., Irish, Cambodian, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Native American, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, etc.) as well as the problems involved in a purely chronological, regional and/or ethnic group history approach to the study of ethnicity in this New England state.

Instructors demonstrated cross-disciplinary modes of inquiry and presented paradigms and procedures for examining ethnicity in Massachusetts. In researching this ethnic history, they explored the following topics:

Alternating between a conceptual or thematic approach, which included a demonstration of how to use material culture to study ethnicity in Massachusetts, the focus was on specific ethnic communities. Beyond that, comparisons of groups not covered in the syllabi were encouraged. The course focused on the realities of the Commonwealth and its people as defined by members of specific ethnic communities and regions, comparing how they diverge from media representations and the political rhetoric of communities.

Personnel included these instructors:

The impetus for this course on Ethnicity in Massachusetts was a $250,000 grant secured by Provost Norman Aitkin of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst that allowed for extensive training for participating faculty for a week in Spring, 1998 and several other meetings. Technical staff at the various institutions was promised in the package, but that in fact didn't happen—results of which, as will be reported, made for hook-up problems that hindered complete communication.

Required and recommended core reading assignments for all students enrolled in the course were posted on a web site on a weekly basis by the facilitator for that week's program with assignments also placed on reserve in the libraries of respective campuses. Students were expected to read in anticipation of each program and to be prepared to discuss the connections between the readings and the program, as well as to incorporate relevant material from the readings into their research projects as needed.

Unlike other institutions, at Worcester State College the 17 enrolled students were assigned a text: Adalberto Aguirre, Jr. and Jonathan H. Turner's American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination, 2nd. edition. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 1998. Students from all the colleges were assigned these projects:

  1. Produce a genealogy. The process of developing one's family tree and the genealogy itself became a poster board report that was displayed and discussed at the statewide meeting for this course, held at Worcester State College on Wednesday, April 28th.
  2. Students worked individually or in teams to research the ethnic history of their city, town, or region, or the history of a particular ethnic group in the Commonwealth (e.g., Fall River, the Berkshires, or a history of Jews or Cape Verdeans in Massachusetts). Students were expected to conduct archival research, library research, and field work, and to consult print, electronic, and/or visual media throughout the process of developing their projects. The resultant research was shared at the concluding conference and the research project(s) were posted on the web site. Further, students were encouraged to apply to present their projects at the statewide honors program undergraduate research conference.
  3. Students were given additional, different assignments by the instructor at their particular campus, tailored to that instructor's academic discipline and area(s) of expertise.

It seems only appropriate to share results of this unique pedagogical experiment with readers/participants of Syllabus, who no doubt will have many questions about its replications and ramifications.

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