At first glance, assistant professor Ianna Hawkins Owen’s Fall literature seminar looks like a traditional introductory course — reading and discussing literature and curating foundational skills. But Owen, new to Boston University this semester, ensured it would be no ordinary class.
Owen’s “Direct Action and African American Literature” course guides students through various mediums of African American literature and art — including slave narratives, poetry, film and criticism — to “explore how various literary forms give shape and insight into the legacies of black political gestures and demands for freedom,” according to the course description.
But the College of Arts and Science seminar differs from a typical class structure by having students design a project that supports communities of color, in line with what Owen said is the course theme: “Black direct action over time.”
“Part of the ideals is that it’s building a bridge to exceed the limits of the classroom,” Owen said. “They can do whatever it is they want to do that they collectively decide on.”
Owen said the assignment was purposefully open-ended, leaving much of the decision-making process up to the students themselves. The students meet outside of class time, which is devoted to discussing the texts.
Monica Courtney, a junior in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, said that although the class project seemed intimidating at first, it turned out to be a rewarding experience.
Courtney said the class took the prompt and began developing “Visions of Freedom” — a “zine,” or short magazine, where the class plans to showcase poetry and art by Black artists. She said she has enjoyed compiling those texts.
“Having to work with my class to really try to accomplish and create something is really fulfilling and something that I didn’t expect,” Courtney said. “It feels like I’m doing something bigger than the class, for more than just a grade.”
Courtney said they have raised $900 so far, which will go toward paying the artists and printing the zine. The students are still in the process of recruiting artists and raising money.
Since many of the students are underclassmen or transfer students, Owen said, the collaborative element was also intended to create community.
“This assignment, because of the current conditions, is also allowing students to deepen their relationships with one another outside of the classroom,” Owen said, “and to do some co-thinking and bonding through the process of organizing.”
Owen has taught this course at another school previously, but said the project has gained new meaning given the country’s current racial reckoning this summer.
“Especially on the heels of this past summer with [Black Lives Matter] gaining a lot more traction and people being out in the streets,” Owen said, “some of what the class is also doing is allowing the students to continue doing the work that they were introduced to this summer.”
Courtney said creating the zine has helped her understand both the significance and history behind racial injustice.
“This class really helped to open my eyes to even more in depth about the history and how we’ve gotten to the point where we are today,” Courtney said, “and what really needs to be done.”