Project Mosaic Offers Multicultural and Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning

September 23, 2011

Photo by Roxanne Bates

Taken as part of a Project Mosaic assignment, this photo by Roxanne Bates (Class of 2013) captures a recent moment in Eatonville, Florida.

Since taking charge of the Africa and African-American Studies (AAAS) program in 2007, Associate Professor of History Julian Chambliss has been interested in finding new ways to stimulate discussions about race and ethnicity on campus. Last year, one of his initiatives worked to do just that.

Developed by Chambliss and funded through an Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) Mellon Faculty Renewal Grant, Project Mosaic maximizes exploration of African and African-American cultures in a wide array of academic disciplines from art and education to anthropology and history. “The goal is to make Project Mosaic a recurring AAAS activity that incorporates new thematic foci with rotating faculty participation,” said Chambliss.

During the 2010-11 academic year, the interdisciplinary project focused on the life, work and hometown of Zora Neale Hurston. Located two miles from the Rollins’ campus, Eatonville boasts the oldest incorporated African-American community in the United States. For Chambliss, the proximity to Rollins made it easier for students to link a local minority subject to the wider socio-cultural experience.

“Eatonville represents an aspirational and inspirational community that served as a platform for African-American agency after the Civil War and Reconstruction,” shared Chambliss. “Created in the midst of uncertain social, political and economic times, the town and its residents believed in their ability to create a life. Those lessons shaped Hurston and others who grew up in the midst of Jim Crow segregation while striving for success in the wider world.”

As a result, Project Mosaic provided students with the opportunity to learn more about the local community while expanding learning outside of the classroom.

Photographing Eatonville

Students in Professor of Art Dawn Roe’s Introduction to Photography course were charged with a simple yet wide-open assignment: capture Eatonville. Armed with analog film cameras and basic knowledge of techniques and composition, they were set free to explore Eatonville on their own.

“We weren’t taking a field trip to gawk at some ‘other’ space, and I feel this allowed them the ability to find their own ways of expressing this community,” said Roe. “Some people decided to photograph other people from afar, some chose to photograph inanimate objects and some people really interacted with community members.”

From photographs of buildings and cars to scenes of a man getting his hair cut in a barbershop and a woman walking her son home from school, the final projects allowed students to present a narrative, showing their view of Eatonville and its inhabitants.

For London native Roxanne Bates (Class of 2013), the assignment altered her understanding of community. “The difference between the tight-knit and loving community of Eatonville compared to the chaos and isolation of a larger city was striking,” Bates said. “I remember the first time I visited, I was nervous because I felt like an outsider. Everybody knew everybody and would shout across the street and beep their horns at one another. Once I realized that this was meant in the friendliest and sweetest way, I grew the courage to start talking to residents and began to feel very welcome.”

Even for a Florida native who has visited Eatonville and attended the annual Zora Neale Hurston festival, the nature of the course allowed for a new perspective of a familiar area. Taylor Clark (Class of 2012) entered Eatonville allowing her experiences and a medium-format camera to shape her vision. “The beauty of the medium-format camera is that most people don’t know you are taking their picture since the camera is held at waist level and the shutter hardly makes a click,” Clark admitted in her artist’s statement. “This advantage allowed me to take snapshot portraits that capture authentic, un-posed portraits while giving the viewer a sense of the subject’s true nature and personality.”

Project Mosaic offered Roe a way to have students think more broadly about diversity and question their own viewpoint. While the students shot strictly in black and white, Roe wanted to ensure their learning wasn’t as clear-cut. “I just love the fact that they were walking, driving or taking the bus there and becoming acutely aware of where those borders lie physically while experiencing other fundamental shifts,” she said. “If you photograph up and down Park Avenue then up and down Kennedy, there is no way that you’re not going to notice these discrepancies and commonalities. I didn’t want to them to only see the differences, but also to examine the similarities in structure and community.”

The photos from this class will be on display at the Winter Park Welcome Center through Saturday, October 15.

The Education of Zora Neale Hurston

Associate Professor of Education Scott Hewit’s course offered a different take on the Hurston-themed project. A social foundations class linked to an RCC, School and Society examined the many influences of Hurston’s overall education.

“The projects examined the term education in its broadest sense. They didn’t just look at schooling, they looked at her entire childhood and her overall development as an individual,” said Hewit.

During the course of studying Hurston, Andrew Williams (Class of 2013) came to admire her tenacity and chutzpah and discovered that societal norms shouldn’t be the goal of education. “Her education and career is very demonstrative of how education ought to highlight the talents and contributions of each student. It’s not about forming students to society but allowing students to form society,” explained Williams.

While examining Hurston’s education, students in turn were forced to examine their own—as well as how society shaped them. Williams found this a chance to examine the traditional Thanksgiving story taught in most American elementary schools. “It’s important to consider whether or not what is being taught is actually unbiased and whether it’s relative for minority cultures as well as the majority one,” he said.

Hewit had students create maps, videos, brochures and presentations, as a way to “expand their perspective and broaden their stepping off points for studying America.” The Project Mosaic component provided one more way to enhance their studies and self-expression. “I would love to see more of this kind of work with different racial and ethnic groups,” said Hewit. “This project provides a great learning opportunity for the students and for me. It really helped me to understand a whole new way of studying people and approaches to education in American history.”

To learn more and view additional projects, visit the Project Mosaic website

By Laura J. Cole

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