Virtual meetings add new layers to experiential learning class

SIS social movement class
The School of Integrative Studies experiential learning courses are designed to encourage students to integrate research, theory and practice across experiences.

While online meetings often feel confining, for George Mason University students in INTS 304 Social Movements and Community Activism, the virtual environment actually opened doors for them.

“It's always a challenge [to teach online], but I found that, this semester, the students have been unbelievably engaged,” said School of Integrative Studies Professor Shayna Maskell, who taught INTS 304 online this spring, the second time she’s taught the class virtually. “I think in some ways this assignment has been easier because they've been able to connect to organizations and activists that they never would have been in touch with before.”

The assignment Maskell is talking about is the required qualitative research paper on a social movement organization. For this paper, the INTS 304 students were expected to study an organization by conducting both an in-depth interview with an activist from a group or movement and field observations from a group meeting.

As most organizations have moved their meetings and other activities online during the pandemic, Mason students attended meetings virtually across the country. Maskell also said that one of her students is Burmese and very active in what's going on in Myanmar. Another student was taking the course while at home in the Sudan.

Gianna Scanzo-Masiero
Gianna Scanzo-Masiero. Photo provided

Integrative studies major Gianna Scanzo-Masiero attended the class from her hometown in northern New Jersey. The Honors College student chose to focus her paper on comparing two different organizations: NARAL Pro-Choice America and Illinois Right to Life.

“I knew I wanted to compare the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ movements,” said Scanzo-Masiero, whose degree concentration is in social justice and human rights. “As a pro-choice Christian, I thought it would be very interesting to get insight into each contrasting movement’s motivations.”

Although the meetings were all online, Scanzo-Masiero admits she still felt awkward attending, but found value in the overall experience.

“Not only was this an eye-opening and beneficial experience academically, in terms of conducting fieldwork that I have never really dipped into before, but personally it aided in my perspective, understanding, and tolerance,” said Scanzo-Masiero, who just finished her sophomore year at Mason. “I believe I have developed skills from this experience that will aid me immensely in the future.”

The School of Integrative Studies (SIS) curriculum is designed to encourage students to integrate research, theory and practice across experiences, and Maskell wasn’t surprised at students’ apprehension.

Shayna Maskell
This is the second time Shayna Maskell has taught the Social Movements class online.

“I think it was intimidating for them to kind of go in blind, but I'm impressed with the bevy of organizations whose meetings they've been able to attend and talk to these people,” she said.

It is a popular class, and Maskell, who joined Mason four years ago, does find that Mason students are especially engaged in social issues. She believes living in the Washington, D.C., area encourages some of the social engagement.

“Many of my students have a very personal stake in these issues, whether it's immigration, economic justice, food security, or gender rights,” said Maskell, who also taught INTS 346 Art as Social Action this semester. “They're not intimidated by the idea of political activism and protest. It's all around them.”

She added that what’s going on in the country also drives interest in the course. At the start of each semester, she has an icebreaker activity in which she asks people why they are taking the course.

“A lot of them said with Black Lives Matter movement and the other kinds of activism that has been going on, they felt like they needed to take this class to get a better understanding of why is this happening,” she said. “Students in the class get to bring their own issues to the forefront, which is really exciting and important.”