In unique year, UChicago students find togetherness—apart

From light sculptures to apocalyptic scenarios, students discover deeper lessons

Over the past several months, University of Chicago students and scholars have found ways to build connections under unusual circumstances—in some cases, taking the idea of “build” literally.

From constructing a virtual version of the Hyde Park campus, to creating new sculptures on its real-life counterpart, the pandemic has prompted new ways to think about community. That has held true in classes and programs as well, whether the focus is the beautiful possibilities of dance, or pondering the end of the world. As the academic year draws to a close, here’s a quick look at some of what UChicago has learned, together.

Gathering, from afar

For much of the past year, strolling the quad and chatting with friends in the Reg felt like joys of the past. Enter Gather Town, an online experience that replicates the genuine human interaction that students, faculty and staff miss. Through a multitude of unique features, Gather Town simulates the real UChicago campus—from exploring the Quad, to coffee meet-ups with friends, to impromptu card games.

The UChicago launch of Gather Town was spearheaded by historian Ada Palmer, whose annual Italian Renaissance course has students reenact a papal election. Palmer’s friends suggested the platform as a way to virtually recreate Rockefeller Chapel, which serves as the reenactment setting for the Sistine Chapel.

“Zoom can’t enable circulating through a space, ducking out for a private conversation or walking to the middle of the room and suddenly making a big announcement, but Gather Town can handle those things,” said Palmer, associate professor of early modern European history and the College. “As I looked into what it would take to make Rockefeller, I thought of how many other things—like receptions, dorm groups, RSOs, conference receptions, even a game like Humans v. Zombies—might be able to make use of it.

“So I thought: Why not make a whole campus?”

Palmer and a team of undergraduate students collaborated virtually through a Discord server to build the world from scratch. Tasks included learning the map editing software, brainstorming ideas, and designing and building rooms. Gather Town is also being utilized by the College Core Tutor program: To find help, students can visit digital versions of the cubicles in Harper Library’s North Reading Room, which include access to shared whiteboards and Google docs.

“Gather Town is a great resource that the community can use to build relationships during this time of remote learning and social distancing,” said first-year Nikita Munsif. “It’s definitely not a replacement for in-person interaction, but I think its potential is nearly limitless, especially once we start adding in more cool spaces.”

Read more about Gather Town at the UChicago College website.

Wrestling with apocalypse

The name of the class is “Are We Doomed?”—but its professors insist they didn’t plan their syllabus with an answer.

“It’s not a class where we came in with an agenda,” said Prof. Daniel Holz, who co-instructs the course and is a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which sets the hands of the Doomsday Clock. “These are questions that everyone is struggling with, and it draws together so many different ways of engaging with the world—from history to art to economics. The idea is that we would all wrestle with it together.”

An astrophysicist, Holz is co-teaching the class with Prof. James Evans, who directs the Knowledge Lab at UChicago and teaches in the Department of Sociology. Although the idea originated long before COVID-19, holding the class during a pandemic has given it additional weight: “The questions we’re discussing are a little less abstract than I was expecting,” Holz admitted.

Though he doesn’t think this pandemic itself is world-ending, it still has meaning. “If you look at it as a test case—is the world ready for a global threat?—I think the answer is very clearly no,” Holz said.

The students, who come from a wide range of majors, are assigned nonfiction readings every week on a different apocalyptic scenario: nuclear war, climate change, artificial intelligence, and of course, pandemics and related biological issues. Then guest speakers from UChicago and beyond, each an expert in their particular field, give a presentation and host a free-ranging discussion.

But each week of the course also includes creative works of art that struggle with the same questions: cinema like Dr. Strangelove and Snowpiercer, as well as novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Parable of the Sower.

“At first, we weren’t planning to make art so central,” Holz said. “But in addition to being a bit more accessible and giving you a common language to discuss these interdisciplinary topics, they envision the future and our possible paths, and that’s a very productive way to engage with these questions.” 

The aim of the class is not to leave everyone feeling helpless and despondent; instead, Holz said, the class is meant to prompt students—as well as others—to work together to recognize existential threats, to consider the complex challenges they present, and to discuss how to effect positive change.

“The discussions we’ve had have been incredibly deep and wide-ranging,” Holz said. “My sense is that everyone has really been looking for some structure in which to think about the end of civilization.”

Virtual dance

When the University of Chicago’s dance program switched to virtual offerings last spring, Julia Rhoads, who leads the program, wasn’t sure what to expect. The art form is, after all, typically an in-person, participatory experience.

She has been pleasantly surprised. A year later, Virtual Dance Lab has drawn a much broader audience than would have been possible on campus, enabling beginners and longtime dancers alike to study movement in a more personalized way. 

“We’ve adapted both the practical and the theoretical sides of our work to remote contexts, and there have been so many beautiful and surprising outcomes,” said Rhoads, a lecturer in the Committee on Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS). “We have reached so many people that we didn’t expect to.”

Since its launch in March 2020, Virtual Dance Lab has received over 5,800 class registrations from 22 countries and 42 states. Offerings range from modern, ballet and hip hop to yoga, salsa and West African dance, and have been led by 65 teaching artists from the Chicago area and around the world.

The virtual format, Rhoads said, has made dance more accessible to those who might feel more comfortable practicing unseen, as participants can choose to keep their cameras off during classes. In addition to live sessions with instructors and social events, Virtual Dance Lab has made recorded classes available on-demand.

Organized in partnership with Rhoads’ dance-theater company, Lucky Plush Productions, Virtual Dance Lab has created more content offerings this spring, which are free to the University community and open to others for a small fee ($5–30 per session). 

These co-curricular dance classes complement a growing number of curricular offerings through UChicago’s Dance Program in Theater and Performance studies.  Many courses focus on dance history and theory as well as practice. In the fall, a new course will revolve around the enduring work of UChicago alum Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, a renowned dancer and anthropologist.

Visit the TAPS website to learn more about Virtual Dance Lab and other dance opportunities available through the Dance Program and registered student organizations.

Sculptures of light

If you found yourself on the UChicago campus on a dark evening in late February or March, you may have noticed a series of student-made art projects helping light your way.

Light Fantastic, a public art installation of light-centric sculptures around campus designed and built by undergraduate students in the College, aimed to illuminate the long nights of Winter Quarter 2021.

This public art design challenge, a hands-on component of programming that took place during the College’s inaugural Winterfest, was organized by Laura Steward, curator of public art at UChicago and UChicago Public Arts. Groups of three to five students designed scale models of sculptures, using both formal and conceptual techniques. In College residential Houses and over Zoom, students came together to find a balance of construction and visual aesthetics while incorporating artistic expression.

Nine installations were scattered throughout various locations on campus, from outside of Woodlawn Residential Commons to Harper Quad. Structures built by students included wind-blown beach umbrellas, an abandoned playground and other, more abstract pieces.

Team “whatever” was comprised of Otis Gordon, Lydia Dimsu, Kendra Thornburg-Mueller and Christian Bird, a group of art-loving friends from different residence halls. The team took to heart the minimalism of the project and decided to use the simple material of twine to hang illuminated shapes from pillars in their piece “Memory;suspended.”

The team hoped that the structure would resonate with those who stumbled upon it on the quad because of its ethereal nature, and the many angles from which people could appreciate it.

“The different angles and lengths of the pillars represent the diversity of individuals, moments and memories that create the seemingly random path that leads up to a monumental experience,” said Gordon, a first-year. “Thus, the structure creates an environment that forces the viewer to not only marvel at the core phenomenon, but to appreciate the journey that guides [them] to it."

Despite its temporary lifetime, Light Fantastic was part of a larger movement of artwork devoted to sustainability and environmental consciousness. Now that the show has ended, structures will live another life when they are upcycled to become poles for tomatoes and serve other practical purposes in one of the Sweet Water Foundation’s urban agriculture spaces in Englewood.

Read more about Light Fantastic at the UChicago College website.

—This story includes contributions from Louise Lerner, Lily Levine, Max Witynski and Devon Wenzel.