Summer at Stanford: High school students wrestle with perennial questions and make connections between art practice and other disciplines

At two of Stanford’s pre-collegiate summer programs, rising high school juniors and seniors plunge into history, literature, philosophy, art and science in small seminars led by Stanford faculty and doctoral students.

Each summer, high school students fill the halls of the Stanford Humanities Center to grapple with questions that have dogged humankind for millennia: whether ideas create social change, or if the collective good trumps individual rights, for example.

STudent Amy Jin and instructor Lauren Toomer

As part of Stanford’s Pre-collegiate Summer Arts Institute, student Amy Jin, left, works with instructor Lauren Toomer, a Stanford alumna (’15, MFA in Art Practice). (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Such fundamental questions animate the Summer Humanities Institute, which welcomed 135 students this summer – up from 49 in its inaugural class in 2012 – with 30 hailing from outside the United States.

Elsewhere on campus, Stanford launched a new pre-collegiate program, the Summer Arts Institute, with 75 students from 18 countries. The program staff and instructors were thrilled with the first arts cohort – calling them open, earnest, engaged and, most important, curious.

Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies began in 2001 under a different name with just a few dozen high school students taking classes in math and physics. Fifteen years later, more than 1,800 summer students are participating in programs held on campus and the roster of programs and classes has expanded to include a wide range of subject areas representing Stanford’s strengths in diverse disciplines.

Drama instructor Felix Abidor and 3 students

Drama instructor and Stanford grad Felix Abidor works with Eliana Waxman, Abigail Ruegger and Melody Lee. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Christine Parker, an associate director of Pre-Collegiate Studies, helped launch the Summer Humanities Institute in 2012 and the Stanford Youth Orchestra in 2013. While the Youth Orchestra is on hiatus this year, there was an opportunity to create another program that emphasized the arts. Parker said, “For me, this was a wonderful opportunity to create a new program meant to showcase not just the arts, but arts at Stanford, casting the net even wider to include not just music, but visual arts and theatrical performance.”

The Humanities Institute offers two three-week sessions, one in June, the other in July, with seminars that seldom are offered in high school curricula, said Dan Edelstein, a professor of French and Italian and a founding member of the institute. The goal, he said, is for students to “appreciate the university context, where they’re encouraged to call ideas into question and explore topics that they’re more personally interested in.”

Students in both institutes repair to dorms and dining halls in the evening, where they study and socialize. In close consultation with professors and graduate research assistants, they spend the third week preparing a research paper they submit at the end of the program. The immersive residential academic experience encourages students to share their talents and interests and learn from each other as well as from the instructors. The programs emphasize building skills along with acquiring knowledge, and are designed to create environments that foster creativity and collaboration inside and outside of the classroom.

Focus on humanities

The Humanities Institute immerses students in seminars where they wrestle with eternal questions and formulate original arguments, both in small classroom discussions and through research papers. Parker noted that its structure “allows us to really stretch the students in terms of the level and volume of work they do, and to challenge them at an exceptionally high level.”

For example, with Allyson Hobbs, assistant professor of history, as their guide, humanities students in the course Racial Identity in the American Imagination discussed a wide range of historical figures – from Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was owned by President Thomas Jefferson and bore several of his children, to President Barack Obama – in an exploration of racial identity in American history.

Class studying Dostoevsky

The challenge of teaching The Brothers Karamazov, said Jason Cieply, a course teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, is “helping students appreciate the tensions, parallels, and repetitions while letting them experience it for themselves.” (Image credit: Patricia Terazzas)

Rising high school junior Sam Nash of New York City described Hobbs’ course as “a way to empathize with more people and learn what it means to understand someone who doesn’t experience life in the same shoes.”

Other humanities courses focused on literature and philosophy. Students in Poetic Justice: Exploring Dostoevsky’s Russia, taught by Slavic languages and literatures Professor Gabriella Safran, read The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final and purportedly best philosophical novel. As with his other works, The Brothers Karamazov brims with tensions in 19th-century Russian society, each manifesting in characters with outsized personalities.

Connecting with the arts

The Arts Institute courses were created to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the arts at Stanford and to show high school students how the arts are connected to other academic fields in important ways most people are unaware of. “We don’t want students with equal interests in the arts and, say, bioengineering to feel they have to choose between two things they love when they reach college. We want to demonstrate how they can stay deeply engaged with more that just one of their passions, and to encourage them to choose both,” said Parker.

Rebecca Chaleff and Kellen Hoxworth, doctoral students in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, combined theory and practice in their course Performing Feeling, which required students to engage in both lectures and workshops. They explored a wide variety of performance practices – including theater, dance and performance art – and how they engage with and/or create individual and collective emotions. Said Hoxworth of the course, “We investigated how performance offers privileged insight into analyzing how feeling circulates through and structures human relationships.”

Art meets science

Two arts courses explored the connection between art and science: Architecture, Design and Drawing, taught by Bay Area lecturer, designer and Stanford alum Grace Lee, and Music Perception: A Multidisciplinary Exploration, taught by Iran Roman, who is a doctoral student in computer-based music theory and acoustics, a trainee of the Stanford Center for Mind, Brain and Computation and a graduate student in the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

“There is a common misunderstanding that the arts and sciences are separate. Summer students are asking open-ended questions, digging deep and discovering the multidisciplinary nature of their interests,” said Lee. Her students were introduced to architecture, engineering and the design process through drawing and research. They explored the built environment and gained a conceptual understanding of dimension, scale, form and materiality.

Students in Roman’s music perception class learned about the psychology, biophysics and neuroscience of music through a project-based hands-on experience.

“The arts at Stanford are nourished through the multidisciplinary environment that surrounds us on campus,” said Roman, speaking as an instructor and a graduate student. “This program allows talented youth to realize how, in the 21st century, the study of both art and science is a reality, a necessity and a possibility in their immediate academic futures.”