Students tackle life’s hardest questions in new experimental courses

Program offers fourth-years in the College unique academic experiences

“How do you represent the passage of time? What is evidence? Is what we think is ‘real,’ really real?”

These are just some of the challenging questions posed in a new series of classes that provides a distinct academic experience to undergraduates.

The University of Chicago has long prided itself on intellectually rigorous and thematically eclectic courses. The new Experimental Capstone program, which Prof. Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer spearheads as director of the Stevanovich Institute for the Formation of Knowledge (SIFK), builds upon this long-standing commitment to academic exploration and interdisciplinarity, but brings its own ambitious aims.

Although wide-ranging in their scope and subject, all courses in what’s known as the XCAP program incorporate scholarship from different disciplines; cater to students from all major tracks or professional aspirations; and privilege unconventional, hands-on experiments over traditional essays and tests. The classes typically meet once a week, are three hours long, and are capped at 15 students to encourage collaboration and debate.

Because courses are exclusively offered to fourth-year students, Bartsch-Zimmer conceptualizes the curriculum as “a humanistic response to pre-professional training,” providing students the tools to use their theoretical knowledge in pursuit of real-world impact.

“It’s not about the grade; it’s about the experience. It’s about discussion among the students. It’s about the acquisition of something they didn’t have before,” said Bartsch-Zimmer, the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and the Program in Gender Studies.

Bartsch-Zimmer and SIFK had interviewed fourth-year students on what would enhance their studies at UChicago, and surprisingly, everyone was in agreement: they wanted a course incorporating practice alongside traditional theory. That feedback provided the impetus for XCAP.

“The experiential model allowed us to engage with the material in a hands-on way that could not have been achieved through traditional lecture and discussion,” said fourth-year Diana Hockett, who took the first ever XCAP course last fall.

Intersection of art and medicine

The first course, co-taught by Assoc. Prof. Catherine Sullivan of the Department of Visual Arts and Asst. Prof. Brian Callender of the Department of Medicine, reflects the program’s commitment to scholarly collaboration and experiential learning.

Students analyzed different conceptions of the body, primarily in the practice of medicine and in the performing arts. They were assigned artistic projects such as dance and filmmaking as well as more medically oriented ones like performing an ultrasound on themselves or dissecting a cadaver.

Callender and Sullivan had taught a version of the course years prior, and the XCAP framework gave them a perfect opportunity to explore the subject matter again. All scholars interested in contributing to the program find a colleague from a different discipline to co-teach with them and then submit a syllabus to SIFK as part of their application.

“The XCAP curriculum gave us a chance to come back to the course, which I think we were both interested in re-teaching and building on our initial observations,” Callender said.

Their course was populated almost entirely by undergraduates on the pre-medicine track. As they prepare for careers as doctors, their new conceptions of the medical and the artistic body will serve them well.

“As I enter my medical career, I will certainly carry with me the importance of remembering the purpose of medicine: treating and caring for people, not simply bodies. In understanding the body as a dynamic and lived experience, I can transform the medical environment, bringing empathy and compassion to my patients,” said Hockett, who plans to attend medical school.

Sullivan, who examines the body in her own art, and Callender, who has been interested in the intersections between medicine and the humanities ever since his anthropology coursework as a UChicago undergrad, have relished the opportunity to explore the body through an interdisciplinary lens.

“I think it’s really important for faculty here to create points of contact between their respective worlds for the benefit of students and to try and give students as much exposure as possible,” Sullivan said.

Bodies of knowledge

Bartsch-Zimmer is teaching a similarly interdisciplinary course this winter. Through scholarship in science, medicine, social science and the humanities as well as guest lectures from scholars, museum curators and even MacArthur fellows, students in her seminar will analyze different historical “‘knowledge systems.”’

While drawing on historical modes of storing knowledge—even those now considered untrue or indecipherable like Roman medical handbooks or Incan quipus—the course will incorporate modern perspectives as well. One class module will focus on how conspiracy theories are crafted, why they are believed, and why they are so difficult to dislodge.

The course is theoretically weighty but still designed around tangible elements in keeping with the program’s emphasis on practice and impact. Students, for example, will be tasked with forming a lump of gold from scratch or using only herbal, edible ingredients to create a medicine—both of which humans thought themselves capable of at different points in history. If those tasks seem impossible today, Bartsch-Zimmer said that’s the point.

“Why are we studying it if we don’t believe in it? We’re studying it because they believed in it. The point is simply about experiencing different bodies of knowledge from inside them and as such gaining insight into the bodies of knowledge within which we situate ourselves,” Bartsch-Zimmer said.

While the topics may vary, the XCAP program will continue asking challenging questions to offer fourth-year students an immersive intellectual experience, even if easy answers remain elusive.

“The goal is to offer students an opportunity to put theory into practice to address challenges in their lives beyond the university,” Bartsch-Zimmer said. “If we can meet the need for experiential learning in a way that is different enough, fun enough and educational enough, we hope that it becomes a well-known part of the College experience.”