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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Eastman-Mullins

Office Hours: Where Words and Images Intersect (Ivan Weiss of Wake Forest University)

Out of necessity, faculty have creatively transformed their classes since the pandemic began. In this series, West End Learning celebrates their efforts and shares best practices, lessons learned, and recommended resources that extend into the future of higher education.

Ivan Weiss, Assistant Professor of Practice (Wake Forest University)

Ivan Weiss, assistant professor of practice in the journalism program, adapted JOU 375-Special Topics, Environmental Journalism to reflect the people and places in Winston-Salem’s history while managing COVID constraints. “This class was all about the human connection, even in the face of the pandemic,” he said in a recent interview. It was the first time this documentary filmmaker and multimedia producer taught environmental journalism.

Environmental journalism is any current affairs reporting related to nature and the environment. It tackles the effects of human activity on the natural environment in particular. Ivan’s approach combined interaction with the natural environment, built environment, and residents to show a neighborhood’s evolution.

He focused on Boston-Thurmond, which is “a historically Black neighborhood, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city.” His inspiration came from David West, an active member of the Boston-Thurmond Community Engagement Roundtable (BTCER). “He grew up in Boston-Thurmond. He’s highly involved in the development of the neighborhood.”

Because Ivan had been awarded an ACE Fellowship from Wake Forest’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement (OCCE), funds for honoraria could be paid to participants. This enabled him to gain input from Boston-Thurmond residents and hire them as guest speakers.

Local civil engineer and scholar Elise Barrella also worked with the class over the semester, supported in part by a grant from the Wake Forest Humanities Institute. She’s worked on projects related to Boston-Thurmond’s built environment prior to Ivan’s class.

What Was Presented

To understand the neighborhood’s past, Ivan and his colleagues studied Sanborn Maps, which document the history of real estate in Winston-Salem. Boston-Thurmond was the first neighborhood to appear on a Sanborn Map outside of the downtown area.

Four Boston-Thurmond residents took Ivan’s class on a walking tour of the neighborhood, sharing information about former businesses and pointing out where they once operated. One student researched where corner stores used to be.

Boston-Thurmond is now a food desert, a place where residents have to travel far to buy affordable and good-quality fresh food, but it wasn’t always this way. “There used to be all these corner stores. There used to be even bigger groceries, but those closed down.”

Students documented the changes to the built environment over the years. Places where residents used to come together have been removed. ‘Hard stops’ such as fences, streets, and highways now divide the neighborhood. For instance, University Parkway runs through Boston-Thurmond. “That’s the same neighborhood on both sides of University (Parkway), but there's literally one walkway that is fenced in. You'll see people climbing over the fence and crossing the street. It's really hard to cross that street, but people do it because it's one neighborhood.”

Desegregation also transformed the neighborhood. Boston-Thurmond’s Paisley High School was one of the largest Black high schools in Winston-Salem until it became a middle school in 1968. At that point, Black high school students were moved to mostly white high schools, further splintering the Boston-Thurmond community and affecting the educational experiences of its young residents. “That scar has lingered,” Ivan said. “The story of integrating America is not over. There remains a big divide in this country.”

What Was Created

Students produced projects as part of their curriculum. Initially, Ivan had planned to share their projects on a website, but due to time constraints, he’s decided to use the material to create a different type of media, perhaps a documentary or an installation. This summer, he collaborated with two interns from Wake Forest University and Winston Salem State. BTCER, along with Wake Forest’s journalism program and its OCCE, provided funding for the interns. The Wake Forest intern continues to support this project through an independent study course this fall.

To demonstrate their progress so far, class projects and other media related to this project were shared at an event at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in Kimberley Park. “It was just a good vibe. A lot of people from the neighborhood came. A lot of people from Wake Forest, some of the students’ friends came, and I think they loved it.” All contributors will be credited on the end product.

What's Next

Ivan’s spring class was divided into four groups that covered food, housing, transportation, and education. While that class benefited from hearing all the speakers, he’d like provide general information at the beginning of the semester and then split classes into groups quicker. This would allow students a longer story development period. He also plans to pair students with individual speakers whose experience pertains to their areas of focus.

Whether a class meets in-person or online, Ivan has noted that flexibility is key to teaching and learning. His adaptations so far have included: canceling regular classes and having students meet in their workshop groups instead; coordinating discussions between one community member and a few students; and setting up breakout sessions on Zoom.

He found that Zoom could be great for class discussions and workshops, but became awkward when a community member appeared via Zoom to his in-person class. He hopes to create more intimate and less awkward settings, whether online or in person, for future classes.

Ivan is excited to see what his class, the interns, and the Boston-Thurmond community will create together once all these inputs are refined, so that this neighborhood’s story can be understood, communicated, and preserved.


Keep updated on new posts from this series and news from West End Learning.

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