The System

March 28, 2017
SSIR course explores society's systems through travel and class projects

By Ayaka Hasegawa

When you enter a college class on the first day, you have a general idea of what to expect. You’ll hear your professor lecture and you’ll get a syllabus, where the professor will give you assignments and tell you what you need to do to get a good grade.

But what if instead, your professor told you that you and your peers were going to take ownership of the course by planning and leading discussions? And the syllabus he gave you didn’t provide a detailed description of how to earn an A?

The students in Glyn Hughes’ Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course, The System, faced that exact situation. Hughes challenged these expectations of an educational institution in his own class. Instead of thinking about “how to get a good grade,” he wanted his students to focus on learning. The System explores our relationship with the large, overwhelming systems around us, such as the market and the media. Systems come with certain expectations that shape our lives — just as we also shape the systems.

The idea of breaking expectations was also the theme of the class trip to Los Angeles during winter break. While many people identify the city with the film industry and the beach, the class visited lesser-known places, such as an abandoned section of the Los Angeles River and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, to disrupt their normal ways of thinking.

“I definitely wanted students to experience the immensity and complexity of the megalopolis,” Hughes explained. “The main insight from the trip came from our lingering in the experiences and insights of creative, compassionate, and critically minded people who have found ways to make a difference in their communities despite the chaotic immensity around them. And I think the students really came to appreciate that there are ways of being in the world that can have a meaningful effect on it while also being fulfilling and joyful.”

During the trip, students had the chance to talk with a community arts organization that was doing art installations at a mile-long section of the Los Angeles River. Even though it was an abandoned area, people were making use of it in a positive way by making art. According to Benjamin Pomerantz ‘19, this “reinforced the idea that [they] talked about in class that even though the system [within Los Angeles] may be overwhelming, there are still ways to create meaningful change and have meaningful human actions.”

Students also had the chance to go to the avant-garde Museum of Jurassic Technology, “an exhibit that defies categorization, but which encourages a multi-sensory reflection on human imagination, from the quirky to the genius” Hughes said.

“The museum plays with expectations: some of the installations are fictional and many of them blur the line between fields like art, science, history, and the supernatural. For many of the students, the museum challenged them to reflect on their expectations and assumptions about truth and what is possible.”

For example, one of the featured scientists was a researcher who, according to the museum, came up with theories about forgetting. When students looked him up, they were not able to find him anywhere except on the museum’s website, which made them hypothesize that perhaps he is not real.

“This experience made us realize that because of our relationship with society and the systems that are in place, we have come to expect certain places to have certain meanings to us,” Pomerantz explained. “Museums are meant to present factual information, real things that happen in life. Restaurants are supposed to serve food. The library is supposed to be a quiet space to study. We expect that these places will serve the purpose that our society has given them, but it might not have been the case for the Museum of Jurassic Technology.”

To capture everything that the students have learned, they came up with their own projects — from a newspaper article set in the future to a set of journal entries imagining themselves 30 years from now if there had been a global catastrophic event. For their capstone project, they will throw a party on campus. Hughes chose a party to “reject the temptation to be pessimistic [about systems], as a way to challenge students to think through what they might want to share with the campus.”

Pomerantz elaborated, “We hear stories about systems failing people, but we still have this idea of hope, that we can effect positive change. The idea of this party is to represent some form of hope about the future of the system and how it can be better.”