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How VPUE’s ITALIC program pivoted to a virtual immersive arts experience

As the Stanford community adapted to virtual instruction this past academic year, one signature Stanford Introductory Studies program has had to find new ways of not only teaching and learning but also delivering on the promise of community and connection.

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Stanford ITALIC

Led by artist Chris Kallmyer, ITALIC students virtually occupied Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center with sound in April 2021.

ITALIC is a year-long residential academic program for first-year students who have expressed interest in exploring the arts. Newly admitted Stanford students apply to the program and, once enrolled, attend lectures and workshops that connect students to various aspects of art, both in practice and theory. Beyond engaging students academically and creatively, ITALIC also aims to engage its participants personally.

“ITALIC students learn with and from each other, bringing what they learn in the classroom into their daily communal life, and vice versa,” said Karla Oeler, director of ITALIC.

In more conventional years, ITALIC students live together in Burbank House. As a result, their class discussions often carry over to the dining hall and dorm rooms, creating a unique sense of community and opportunities to bond over a shared interest – central components of the program. But with the emergence of COVID-19 and Stanford’s interim shift to virtual instruction and learning, the ITALIC program has been forced to find new ways of building meaningful connections while living apart.

“A year ago, we were very nervous about transitioning to a virtual format,” Oeler said. “While we still strongly prefer being physically present to one another in a classroom, in the dorm and on field trips, we were pleased to find that even with the virtual format, ITALIC students still formed a community.”

Immersion in the Arts – from a distance

In the spring of 2020, when COVID conditions forced Stanford undergrads off campus to locations spread throughout the world, ITALIC students continued moving through their year-long experience virtually as well. According to the program’s associate director, Kim Beil, the ITALIC faculty, realizing that there was already a strong sense of community among that cohort, seized on the opportunity to get creative in how it delivered on the program’s mission.

Paintings by first-year ITALIC student Nicha Rattanbut titled “Open Your Eyes, What Do You Hear?” were created during her virtual arts experience this academic year.

“We watched movies together and chatted through Slack,” she said. “We went to virtual performances together, like ballets and a magic show, and did art workshops virtually. Students also put on performances of their own work.”

A partnership with Summit Preparatory Charter School in Redwood City, in which ITALIC students engaged high school students in artistic activities, was drastically modified. On-site visits to the school were cancelled and the Stanford students had to recreate assignments and communications virtually. Despite the challenges, Beil said that last year’s ITALIC students met the moment.

“At end of spring, we still had an amazing quarter,” she said.

Come fall quarter, a reduced operating budget meant only 30 students were admitted to the program this year, instead of the usual 45. And ITALIC faculty weren’t just facing pedagogical challenges, but also had to figure out a way to create a sense of community and belonging among students who had never set foot on Stanford’s campus.

“We leaned hard into ‘community’ because we realized that was something everyone was missing this year,” Beil said.

After enrolling last fall, the current cohort first got to know each other through activities like virtual improv and art-making workshops, as well as extracurricular virtual meet-ups, including a Halloween party. One of the more intimate assignments was a “sound walk” project in which students recorded their surroundings, allowing them to experience each other’s immediate environment.

“This project was way more impactful than it probably would have been had we all been in the same space,” said Miles Goedert, ’24, an ITALIC student taking classes from his home in Michigan. “You got to hear your classmates in their hometowns, so it was really great to get a sense of where they were all coming from.”

Goedert, who plays the viola and piano and also writes music, intends to study music composition and chemistry. For his fall quarter final project, he integrated his classmates’ recordings into a compelling nine-minute musical composition – titled “The Possibilities of Amity.”

For a radio drama project, students were challenged to develop a story, write a script and edit music and sound into a three-minute narrative, which they also performed.

“It was fascinating to me because the project involved so many aspects of art-making, some of which I was completely unfamiliar with,” said Alice Fang, ’24, who is studying remotely from Changchun, China. “I think this was an opportunity for me, and maybe many of us, to step out of our comfort zones a little and explore mediums outside our disciplines of interest.”

Fang said one of the main appeals of ITALIC for her has been the communal aspect. Of all the Stanford classes she’s taken this academic year, the ITALIC courses have given her the greatest sense of community.

“Zoom is undoubtedly challenging, but the teaching team has really worked hard to adapt the program to the online format, and their incredible support has helped me so much throughout the, sometimes, overwhelming frosh experience,” she said.

Spring quarter

With a full year of virtual programming and instruction behind them, ITALIC’s faculty have created an impressive lineup this spring quarter. The ITALIC experience includes virtual “master classes,” which will host guest artists in theater, film, visual art, music and writing. And through a new partnership with the Haas Center for Public Service and the San Francisco Unified School District, ITALIC students are creating art assignments for high school students. Those projects will be featured in a gallery opening at the end of the quarter.

Beil was particularly excited about teaming up with sound artist and composer Chris Kallmyer on a recent virtual performance at the Cantor Arts Center titled “Sound is a Salve, Echo is an Energy.” The project involved students recording a collaborative poem, as well as sounds created with household objects. The recordings were played – and echoed – inside different spaces of the Cantor atrium.

“Sound creates a body and an echo, as if a person is there,” Beil said. “So we made a way for students to have a physical presence on campus.” The project was livestreamed April 29 for ITALIC students and was made publicly available via YouTube in early May.

Looking ahead

By the end of spring quarter, the current ITALIC cohort will have spent their entire first year at Stanford studying remotely. Oeler acknowledges the loss of in-person encounters for these students and plans to keep them engaged once they have returned to living on campus.

“My hope is that we will be able to give current ITALIC students the opportunity to go on some of next year’s field trips,” she said, adding that ITALIC alumni frequently stay engaged as mentors and teachers.

For more information about ITALIC, including a list of courses, visit the program’s website. To learn about all Stanford Introductory Studies programs that meet the first-year COLLEGE requirement, please visit the COLLEGE site.