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Grants Get Communication Departments Innovating — Fast

It can take months to receive a response to grant applications, making many academic projects difficult to plan for and funding uncertain. But the Emerson College School of Communication offered an alternative to its faculty for the first time this year with Instant Innovation Grants, which expedited six projects.

“Most grant proposals in higher ed have a very long lead time,” said Phillip Glenn, professor and interim dean of the School of Communication. “We wanted these to be fast, simple stimuli to ideas with the added provision that whatever people tried, they would report back to the community.”

An Innovation Team chose the grant recipients based on whether the proposed projects were new and creative, had the potential to appeal to other departments in the School of Communication, and were not funded through other campus outlets. The team consisted of Janet Kolodzy of the Journalism Department, Lu Ann Reeb of the Marketing Communication Department (both of whom also were awarded grants for projects), Rhiannon Luyster of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, and Vincent Raynauld of the Communication Studies Department. 

“The emphasis here is on curricular innovation,” Glenn said.

The costs covered by these grants ranged from contest entries to travel arrangements, which made a variety of projects possible for faculty and their students.

Reeb took eight Emerson Experience in Entrepreneurship (E3) students to the annual award ceremony for the MassChallenge accelerator for a night of learning from professionals and networking. Owen Eagan, executive-in-residence, used the grant to partner Communication Studies Capstone students with the Greater Boston Food Bank to formulate a social media and advertising campaign targeted at college-age students. Kolodzy and associate professor Melinda Robins, director of the graduate Journalism program, are using the Evolving Media Suite to produce five talks by Emerson faculty similar to TED Talks, with hopes of inspiring other faculty to share their work with the College. The grants also allowed Communication Sciences and Disorders Associate Professor Ruth Grossman to share her work with larger audiences by submitting her film Autism Through my Lens to several film festivals.

The Instant Innovation Grant allowed Communication Studies Executive-in-Residence Nancy Allen to complete a video project her War On Drugs class started with the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) in the fall. Allen’s first-semester class wrote a script for a 5-minute video about opioid overdose, and her plan was to have her second-semester class put the video together. But to her surprise, no Visual and Media Arts majors enrolled in the class in the spring. The grant allowed her to hire VMA students to help her class complete the video, which will soon be made public by the BPHC.

“The dean’s grant has been a really great way to try out new methods and new projects,” Allen said. “I think that it’s been a really effective way for faculty to try out something new in the classroom and to experiment, to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Allen also said that projects like hers could help expose VMA majors to different types of client-based video work in addition to creative projects. At the same time, providing a paying opportunity for students to do these types of projects reflects her belief that work that is not for class credit should be compensated.

“I think whenever we can find opportunities to provide even a small stipend for students, I think it’s important,” she said. “People should get paid for their work.”

Spencer Kimball, senior scholar-in-residence in the Communication Studies Department, took both undergraduate and graduate students to New Hampshire to cover the presidential primary race in February. He used the grant money to fund a website called Race to 45, in addition to various social media platforms that his students used to publish and promote their work. Over the course of the semester, Kimball’s students were able to attend several campaign events, meet candidates, and rack up millions of views on social media. Kimball said this project, enabled by the grant, allowed his students to test theories of relationships between candidates, audiences, and media.

“It’s not all just theoretical or hypothetical,” he said. “We can actually now go and test out these theories and students can see first-hand how they work.”

Kimball said opportunities like the Instant Innovation Grants, with their quick turnaround times, can provide more realistic learning experiences for Emerson students, whose majors often involve fast-paced, spontaneous work that cannot accommodate long wait times for approval of funds.

“In journalism, we obviously have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “Grants like this could really allow for opportunities for students to be able to explore those areas in the field.”

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