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Freshmen immersed in the arts in their Stanford dorm

During fall quarter, Stanford launched "Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture," a yearlong residential learning program for freshmen. Designed to showcase the arts as an essential part of scholarly and public life, it gives first-year students a place to explore them practically and analytically, regardless of their majors.

Jeremy Moffett ITALIC class

Students gather around the St. Lawrence String Quartet as they played in the ITALIC classroom.

During her first quarter at Stanford, Gloria Chua performed in The Show Must Go On and met Jérôme Bel, the celebrated French choreographer and conceptual artist who created the contemporary dance, which is set to vintage pop hits.

"I appreciated the entire process, from being part of the performance and understanding it on an experiential level, to learning about its nuances and its broader-picture context in lecture, to meeting Jérôme Bel in person," said Chua, who had never danced in a production before.

"It was a perspective that let me understand art from multiple angles and helped me develop artistic confidence in myself. It was an incredibly liberating experience for me that would not have been possible if not for ITALIC ."

ITALIC is the nickname for Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture, a residential learning program based in Burbank House, an all-frosh dorm in Stern Hall. The yearlong program is designed to showcase the arts as an essential part of scholarly and public life, and gives first-year students a place to explore them practically and analytically, regardless of their majors.

During his first quarter at Stanford, fellow ITALIC student McGregor Steele Joyner talked about art criticism with Claudia La Rocco – a dance, theater and literature critic for the New York Times and Artforum – when she visited Burbank to give two lectures and meet with students in small groups.

"We have a joke for all of the convention-breaking, hard-to-define, post-modern art we've seen – 'Whoa, that's so 'post,'" Joyner said. "Especially with the more 'post' kinds of art, a lot of ITALIC students tend to shy away from calling art good or bad. La Rocco made me far more confident that I, as an ITALIC student, am an art critic in my own right. I tried to apologize to her for being opinionated when it comes to studying music, but she stopped me, saying, 'What's wrong with that? It's much more about why you say it's bad or good.'" 

Chua and Joyner are two of the 43 freshmen who recently completed the inaugural quarter of ITALIC. They were chosen from among the 90 students who identified the new program as their first or second residential and academic choices.

(ITALIC shares the dorm with students who recently completed the first quarter of another new residential learning program, "Science in the Making: An Integrated Learning Environment," or SIMILE.)

ITALIC – course and community

As a residential learning program, ITALIC is a both a course – ITALIC 91 – and a community of students living in Burbank House.  Students who complete the yearlong program fulfill a variety of pre-major requisites, including writing and breadth requirements. Students have the freedom to take two or three additional classes outside of ITALIC each quarter.

The ITALIC community includes the three Stanford professors who teach the course as a team – a composer, a dance historian and a film scholar.

It also includes a lecturer from the Program in Writing and Rhetoric who is a playwright; a postdoctoral lecturer who studies aesthetic theory, contemporary film, theater and the role of art in social movements; and a historian who studies the role of the arts in urban development and who serves as ITALIC's assistant director.

Within the ranks of ITALIC, students are musicians, actors, singers, visual artists and dancers. Their academic interests are varied, including law, chemistry, computer science, engineering, economics, medicine and environmental science.

The theme of the first quarter was "Why Art?" The lectures and readings focused on the social, historical and cognitive reasons that art exists. Among the questions the students explored: What does our brain do when it engages with a painting or a song? How does a movie create its sense of immersive excitement? What happens to the body when it becomes the medium of art in dance?

Janice Ross, a dance historian and professor (teaching) of theater and performance studies, said the program was designed to showcase the arts as an essential part of scholarly and public life and to give freshmen a place to explore them practically and analytically, regardless of their majors.

"We wanted to find a way early on to showcase how the arts are really a profoundly important part of whatever students are going to do in the university and afterward," said Ross, the faculty director of ITALIC.

"We wanted to explore with them a variety of ways in which the arts are portals to invention, risk-taking and discovery, and to the essential task of assembling oneself as a whole person that is the core of education and the rest of our lives. Many of these students will be going into human biology or engineering or product design. We wanted to show them the things that the arts can do in the humanities and sciences."

Discussions spill over into lunch 

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, ITALIC students gathered in Burbank's light-filled classroom for the 75-minute lectures. Doors on one side of the classroom open to a small courtyard. Doors on the other side open to the dining room. After every class, it was time for lunch for students, professors, postdocs and instructors alike.

"I loved the flow from the classroom to an informal setting in the dining room where we talked about what happened in class or what we saw on TV last night, or where we argued about films or whatever it was we talked about," said Scott Bukatman, a professor of film and media studies.

The students also met in small groups with instructors to discuss assigned readings.

"The readings were not so much about gaining knowledge as they were about gaining perspective," said Sarika Reddy, an ITALIC student. "A lot of times we would disagree with the readings. It was encouraging when people agreed and when they disagreed. We could talk about it in our sections and that was OK."

Bukatman, who assigned readings by directors, film critics and philosophers, said he wanted to expose the students to different ways of writing that weren't always research-driven or thesis-driven, so they would understand that a strong personal voice can "work" in the context of an academic paper.

"I want the students to think of their writing as creative work, not just dutiful objective 'academese,'" he said.

Lectures, performances, Q&A

The quarter began with lectures on "Your Brain on Music," by Jonathan Berger, a professor of music who teaches composition, music theory and cognition at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. During their second week of classes, the students visited the center, where Ge Wang, founder of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, demonstrated ChucK, his real-time music programming language.

A few days earlier, ITALIC hosted a performance in Burbank by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford's acclaimed ensemble-in-residence, which played a selection of Joseph Haydn minuets and discussed how the composer used music to upset expectations in the minds of listeners.

"One of our aims is to challenge the students to think both analytically and critically," Berger said. "As a researcher who finds great mystery in aspects of music and art often taken for granted, I'm trying to get students to question behavior of the creator, performer and audience. A group of ITALIC students have already formed an extracurricular music research group and are designing experiments."

In October, the students traveled by bus to Berkeley Repertory Theater to see Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Tony Award-winning play by Christopher Durang. The students had studied Chekhov's play, The Seagull, on which the comedy is based – and had performed scenes in class.

"The students got every joke before anyone else in the audience did, because they'd been prepped and steeped in Chekhov," Ross said. "They knew all the references in the play, which is a very funny, but very pointed satire of Chekhovian drama."

The students also attended Stanford's Festival Jérôme Bel, a three-week series of performance and conversations including The Show Must Go On – with fellow ITALIC student Gloria Chua on stage – and Cédric Andrieux. They watched a film documenting a cross-cultural dialogue between Bel and a classical Thai dancer.

In class, they heard lectures about Bel by ITALIC faculty and staff, followed the instructions of two members of Bel's dance company who led them through some of his dances, and discussed readings on postmodern dance and music in small groups.

In December, four ITALIC students conducted a Q&A with Bel in Pigott Theater after his lecture, "The Things I Have Done With Dance." The stage was set for a talk show, with chairs, microphones, a coffee table and Persian rug. Ross said the students "prepared beautifully" for the event.

"They were not dance experts, but they came up with very sharp questions," she said. "We feel very, very blessed to have these students. They astound us."