As a fan of Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” project, Amanda Mayes has come to appreciate that everyone has a story to tell.
Stanton’s memorable interview series came to mind this spring when Mayes and her Purdue Student Life co-workers discussed outreach during the coronavirus shutdown. She had a revelation: Why not invite students to share their own tales of the upheaval they experienced after the world turned upside down?
“The ideas just linked for me that it would be a really interesting thing to do — to ask students to tell their quarantine story and then for us, in turn, to be able to share those so that they could see the trials and successes that other people were having,” said Mayes, Purdue’s student life curricular integration and research administrator.
Also an instructor in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program, Mayes relayed her idea to Cornerstone director Melinda Zook. Together, they decided not to simply collect students’ essays about what they did after returning home from Purdue. They would instead use this as an opportunity for students to connect more deeply with the works of literature they read in their SCLA 101 and 102 Transformative Texts classes.
Perhaps they identified during quarantine with Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s “1984.” Or maybe they felt like Odysseus when the goddess Calypso held him captive on an island for seven years in “The Odyssey.”
Mayes and Zook wanted Cornerstone students to draw parallels between their modern-day stories and those of the characters in these classic works, so they launched the “My Quarantine Story” contest.
After notifying all Cornerstone students about the contest, more than 70 submitted essays — some for course credit and others attempting to win one of the cash prizes available.
“They had to relate a reading that they were reading and discussing in Transformative Texts – whether it’s a poem or a short story or a novel, whatever – to help them think about their situation,” Zook said. “And they did. They had no problem with that.”
In his essay, “An American Dystopia,” contest winner Brandon Watson compared modern-day America to Gilead, the dictatorship in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” He and his classmates read the novel this spring in Lecturer Li Wei’s SCLA 101 course.
Rather than write a traditional academic essay conducting basic analysis on a work of literature, Watson saw the competition as an opportunity to sharpen his creative writing skills.
“I normally read the news every day, so I ended up seeing this article on The Guardian, and there was a picture of a protestor donning the outfit from “The Handmaid’s Tale” with the bonnet and everything,” said Watson, a junior in political science. “I thought, ‘Man, that would be a really good topic to talk about,’ because it’s topical, it’s happening today, it directly relates to the quarantine. I thought it would be a pretty good discussion on what our society is.”
Runner-up Margaret Hutchinson was thrilled last fall to reread Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10, 1666,” a favorite poem from high school, in SCLA 102, taught by William White, associate teaching professor of history.
Just as the poem’s narrator contemplated what was most important while watching her home burn, Hutchinson said current circumstances elicited similar feelings. She wrote in her essay that she will come away from this crisis with increased faith in community because of the many small kindnesses she saw neighbors extend to one another.
“One of the things that I talk about in the essay is that turning point,” said Hutchinson, a sophomore in material science and engineering. “I always thought that was interesting because it’s this woman whose house has burned down. Everything important to her is gone and yet there’s this break. If you read the poem, it’s really abrupt. Everything is rhyming and then all of a sudden it’s French, and the line is ‘Adieu, adieu, all is vanity,’ and you’re like, ‘Wait, it’s French. It doesn’t rhyme. What’s going on?’ Then the whole poem just completely changes. It’s been one of the poems that I’ve just adored since [high school], and something this crazy just kind of seemed to align.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown created inconveniences, Watson and Hutchinson both expressed relief that their families had remained safe and healthy thus far. Watson said he spent much of the quarantine reading, while Hutchinson was actually able to follow through with an internship at a helicopter plant, unlike many college students whose summer internships were canceled.
“I think I just got really lucky,” Hutchinson said. “So even though I was able to see the ‘All is vanity’ type of situation, being able to see the turnaround, my family stayed safe so far, and we’ve been in a position that we’ve been OK. I have family nearby. We’ve still been able to see people, FaceTime.
“So I think it’s definitely challenging, it’s tough, but at the end of the day I’m definitely keeping in mind how many people have it worse.”
Hutchinson was not the only student whose essay identified a clear turning point. Regardless of the literary works selected, adaptation was a common theme that many students emphasized in their essays, Zook said.
“As sad as some of the stories were, they almost all had a turning point wherein the student became acclimatized to quarantine and adjusted,” Zook said. “That was actually very interesting because they almost all followed a similar pattern of missing Purdue, hating being trapped in their childhood home, and then, coming around.
“You’d be amazed at how creative many of them were and how well they began to use their time,” Zook said, referencing the many new hobbies the students listed in their essays – from painting birdhouses to playing an instrument to practicing yoga.
The creativity on display was an especially exciting aspect of the competition for the Cornerstone director. The program reaches students from majors across campus, developing their communication skills, creative thinking, and historical perspective, as well as an appreciation for great texts that helped shape our society.
Although she would have preferred to avoid the circumstances that led to the contest’s creation, Zook nonetheless was encouraged by the depth and thoughtfulness that Cornerstone students displayed in their essays. For Zook, these responses served as confirmation that students were engaging with the works studied in the course.
“What was really nice for us to see when we read the essays is how literature from Transformative Texts could inspire and transform and make students see further and see deeper,” Zook said. “All of those things came out in the essays.”
CORNERSTONE PROGRAM GOES NATIONAL
The Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program will serve as the model for a new initiative designed to revitalize general education on college campuses across the country.
The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Teagle Foundation are co-sponsoring the Cornerstone: Learning for Living initiative, which is designed to “provide students with an opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves, while strengthening the skills to read closely, write clearly, speak with confidence, and to engage with differing viewpoints and perspectives through general education courses.”
The initiative is inspired by the innovative Cornerstone program which provides a coherent pathway through core curriculum requirements and helps students broaden their understanding of the world and themselves. Its first-year sequence is anchored in transformative texts, the greatest that has been thought, said, and written across human history.
The NEH and Teagle Foundation have committed a minimum of $7 million to the initiative over the next five years, aiming to help U.S. colleges reimagine their approaches to general education, building upon the Cornerstone model.