Every day, in every academic department at Russell Sage College, professors and students ask big questions and then read widely, write intensely and collaborate zealously as they pursue sometimes-elusive answers. This series highlights some of the classes that are inspiring students. 

The Roaring ’20s in 2020 with Assistant Professor of English Shealeen Meaney, Ph.D.

Students who take The Roaring ’20s with Shealeen Meaney, Ph.D., expect to learn about the zeitgeist behind the film, fiction and other media of the 1920s — but they are frequently surprised at how often what they think of as current issues come up. 

“The parallels between the 1920s and today are just incredible,” said Meaney, listing headlines around immigration, race and diversity; corrupt ties between business and government; and a pervasive consumer culture, all of which could be front page news from the 1920s or today. “There’s a lot for students to connect with.” 

The class attracted Law & Society, Sociology, History, Health Sciences and English students when Meaney taught an updated version — The Roaring ’20s in 2020 — last fall. 

And thanks to Meaney’s partnerships with the Sanctuary for Independent Media and Wiki Education, the students found a public audience for their work.  

They created original content for Hudson Mohawk Magazine on listener-supported radio station WOOC, and Wikipedia pages for Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand — 1920s novels that previously lacked Wikipedia entries.  

“Instead of writing a paper for your teacher, feeling like it’s you and your teacher in this closed-circuit relationship, the students were accountable for their work in a public sphere,” said Meaney.

“It was  a pretty tall order,” she continued, of the radio segments specifically. “I asked them to connect issues from class to something regional and also to contemporary relevance. But It is the kind of challenge that students rise to. They produced some really, really cool stuff.”

Student Hunter Chaney ’21 said that knowing there would be an outside audience for her research “added higher stakes” and encouraged her to work even harder. It also required her to learn Audacity and Wiki software. “Having experience with the technology we used on our projects is definitely good for future career opportunities, as well as upcoming classes.”

Chaney also appreciated the deep dive into the 1920s beyond The Great Gatsby. “It gave me a new perspective on the time and pushed me in the direction of literature that I may not have picked up otherwise. It was fascinating to see how many comparisons could be made between 1920 and 2020.”

The Roaring ’20s in 2020 is a perfect example of Professor Meaney’s interdisciplinary courses that encourage students to explore connections between literature, their work in other subjects and the cultural environments of their daily lives. 

“My hope is that it excites people, this older literature,” said Meaney, acknowledging both her Russell Sage College students and the audience they reached with their radio segments and Wikipedia entries. “I hope it fires people up to look at the past a little more richly and suggests that they might also begin to understand the current time more fully.”

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