Nora Gross's Creative Final Project

Headshot of Nora Gross in front of library shelves.

Nora Gross is a Core Fellow / Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston College.

What is the context for the assignment? 

This final project assignment is from my course “Grief & Resistance: Social Responses to American Gun Violence” which was an Enduring Questions course paired with a theology course taught by Russell C. Powell about grief and resistance in relation to climate change. I taught two sections of the course in Fall 2021, each with 19 first-year students. The course fulfilled both social sciences and cultural diversity core requirements. This was an emotionally intense course, both for us as faculty and certainly for the students. But it was also deeply rewarding and meaningful and the intensity of it, I believe, led to strong feelings of community in the classroom and a deep commitment among the students to engaging with the material thoughtfully.

What is the title and description of the course? 

Here is the description for my course, “Grief & Resistance: Social Responses to American Gun Violence”:

In the sociology course, we will explore neighborhood gun violence, school (mass) shootings, and police violence as case studies to understand the experiences of grief in the wake of firearm fatalities and the opportunities for resilience, resistance, and activism. Specifically, we will consider grief sociologically — as not just a personal feeling, but an emotion experienced socially, shaped by and through social interactions, and subject to social rules and restrictions which too often reflect larger societal inequalities. Rather than wading into the specificities of political debates about root causes and policy reform, we will examine these debates as sociologists trying to understand their contours, the social issues at their core, and the ways political responses also reflect and even perpetuate social inequalities. Together, we’ll attempt to make sense of our three seemingly disparate case studies as part of a larger problem, explore the affective dimensions that shape this problem, and the way attuning ourselves to social and public emotions may help us see potential solutions.

Why did you choose to use a creative assignment?

The students experienced the course in a range of ways: Some were exposed to aspects of American life they knew very little about. Others were asked to engage with experiences that hit close to home. Given the intensity of the material we covered during the semester and the range of reactions it provoked among students, it was important to me that students have some choice in how they tied up the major themes of the course through the final project. I wanted students to have the option to work on something hopeful, or to engage in a concrete outward facing event, or to tap into their emotional and affective responses through a creative project. With this in mind, the final project involved student choice and a range of creative assignment options.

What prompt did you share with students? 

I shared the below assignment prompt with students that outlined the various ways they could demonstrate their learning in the class:

The goal of the final project is to give you space to synthesize some of your learning from the semester and look ahead to the future. You can choose between three options for the final project, or propose your own project plan for approval from Prof. G. You will have several checkpoints throughout the last six weeks of the semester to ensure that you are not leaving the project to the last minute. This is an individual project, but you may propose a paired or group project if you wish and we can discuss what that might look like.

Research an Anti-Violence or Grief Support Program

Research a particular intervention, organization, or policy initiative related to gun violence, grief, or activism. I have collected dozens of possible programs you can choose from, but feel free to find your own as well. In your paper, you will describe what they do, how they started, their mission, etc. You can use their website as a starting point, but you should also do additional research to see if you can find outside reviews or evaluations of the program or interviews with program leaders. Use at least three core concepts from the class to review and evaluate the program. What is their theory of change (or how do they think change happens)? Is this program responding to problems at the individual or societal level, or both? What does success look like for them? Based on what you’ve learned, how well do you think this program might work? 4-5 page paper. Feel free to also include any images or infographics to help explain how the organization works (these do not count toward your total pages).

Develop an Anti-Violence or Grief Support Program

Conceptualize a plan for an intervention, organization, or policy you’d like to create to prevent/reduce gun violence, respond to grief, or advance resistance efforts. What’s the mission or goal? What are the day-to-day activities of the program or effected by the policy change? How does this program respond to both individual and social problems? Use three course concepts to discuss and describe what benefits you think this program could have. You can also draw on models from some organizations that already exist and research/evaluations of those programs. What would success look like for your program? 4-5 page paper. Feel free to also include any images or infographics to help explain your theory of change and/or a logo (these do not count toward your total pages).

Facilitate a Breakout Room at Public Film Screening Event

A limited number of students will, for the final project, prepare for, lead, and then reflect on breakout room conversations at the 12/3 screening of Our Philadelphia for the BC community. The rooms will discuss the impacts of neighborhood gun violence on teenagers, schools, and communities and what more could be done to support young grievers. The goal will be to use these conversations to synthesize the learning from class related to grief, resistance, and youth activism. Each room may focus on a different theme. This project will require some group meetings with Prof. G to develop the plans for the rooms, including some contextualizing introductory remarks (1-2 pages), discussion questions, and facilitation strategies. Following the event, breakout room facilitators will write up detailed notes on the conversation and offer their own reflections, responses, and suggestions based on the room theme (2-3 pages plus the notes/summary). 

Propose Your Own Research/Creative Project

If there was a particular aspect of the course that interested you that you would like to explore further, I am open to you proposing your own final project. You may do a research project diving deeper into a particular topic and present this as a traditional paper (4-5 pages) or you may propose to present your exploration through a more creative means (podcast, short documentary, photo essay, op ed, letter to government official, etc.). This can be a paired or group project if you wish. Note: any creative project will require an accompanying “artist statement” explaining your idea and reflecting on the process (1-2 pages). Once you have an idea, we can work together to establish the parameters for the project and set appropriate intermediate deadlines. Even if you think it might not work, if you have an idea, pitch it to me and we can try!

How many students completed a creative assignment? 

In total, 20 students did the originally assigned research paper, while 17 students did an alternative creative assignment:

  • 2 students developed an anti-violence or grief support program
  • 8 students, organized into 4 pairs, facilitated a breakout room at a public film screening event
  • 7 students proposed their own project
    • 1 student proposed and wrote their own research paper
    • 4 students made a podcast (2 individually, 2 as a pair)
    • 2 students did other creative projects (embroidery, poetry)

How did you scaffold the project for students? 

I provided students with the following schedule of checkpoints during the second half of the semester: 

  • October 30: Topic Selection due
  • November 19: Topic Proposal due*
  • November 22: Peer Review (in class)
  • November 24: Revised Project Plans due (optional checkpoint for feedback)
  • December 3: Campus Event**
  • December 6/8: Informal Class Presentations
  • December 14: Final Submission due

*Students choosing the creative option needed approval and to meet one-on-one with me to discuss the scope of their project.

**Students facilitating breakout rooms for the campus event met as a group with me at least twice outside of these scheduled checkpoints and planned with a partner in the weeks leading up to the event.

How did you grade students? How did they do?

Overall, I think the projects turned out great! My website has some student submissions: podcasts, an embroidery project, poetry, organization proposals, and photographs of the community conversations after the film screening.

Grading was more about the process than the final outcome, and happened throughout the semester at each checkpoint (listed above). I graded generously at the end since the projects turned out to be quite successful. Ultimately, I believe that the students got out of this assignment what they put into it. The students who selected the creative or outward-facing projects tended to work a lot harder than those who took the paper option. And those creative projects weren’t “the easier option” that I think some students may have imagined.

What lessons did you learn? 

In general, I am very happy with how this assignment turned out. I believe students, for the most part, were highly engaged in their projects and able to consolidate their thinking from the semester in a way that made sense to them. Grading was also far more enjoyable and interesting than for other assignments since there was so much variety.

However, offering students so many options did require that I meet one-on-one with several students and juggle a variety of checkpoints and varied student progress along the way. I also had some difficulty figuring out how to fairly grade projects that were so different from each other as well as how to offer feedback and evaluation of the creative submissions (such as the embroidery project and poetry piece) which reflected students’ own grief and personal connections to the themes of the course in a way that remained sensitive.

Additional Resources 

The CTE has curated a few resources on trauma-informed teaching and student choice in assignment design: