Arts + Culture

Community of UCLA students forms around love of humanities

Students in the Humanities Residential College live and explore L.A.'s cultural treasures together

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Robert Gurval talks to UCLA students
Maggie Sharpe/UCLA

When visitors to the stately Getty Villa in Los Angeles come face to face with the Roman emperor Tiberius, they see a statue of a dignified statesman wearing an elegantly draped robe and a solemn expression as he extends his hand as if to make a devout religious offering.

But that’s not the impression that 16 UCLA students came away with when they toured the museum with ancient Rome scholar Robert Gurval, chair of UCLA’s classics department, teacher of more than a dozen different courses on the subject and leader of the university’s summer study-abroad program in Rome.

Gurval, their personal guide during a recent three-hour outing arranged by UCLA’s Humanities Residential College, knew Tiberius’ eyebrow-raising back story.

“He’s shown in a religious gesture as a public leader of his country, but the later imperial biographer Suetonius tells us that he had a very different personal life,” Gurval told the undergraduates as they circled the life-sized bronze.  “The ancient gossip told how he had naked orgies and pool parties on the island of Capri.”

Such insights are just some of the academic “bonuses” available to undergraduates in UCLA’s Humanities Residential College (HRC), operated by the Office of Residential Life in collaboration with the College of Letters and Science. Undergraduates in the HRC share a genuine interest in the humanities and live on the same floor in the same residential hall.

Their connection to the humanities and to each other is strengthened as HRC undergraduates. Not only do they live together on the Hill, but they tend to share meals, friendships, classes and other interests. Humanities faculty join students for meals. And students in the program can enjoy all kinds of cultural events as well as outings with star faculty like Gurval – all gratis and with transportation provided.

“The whole idea is to facilitate an experience that allows students to engage with the humanities and with our humanities faculty outside of the classroom,” said Humanities Dean David Schaberg, who hosted a private dinner for the HRC in October. “Our humanities faculty are deeply engaged with their own scholarship and with student learning, and the campus is located in a city with an unparalleled wealth of cultural opportunities. We want to provide our undergraduates with an incentive to take advantage of this remarkable combination in the hopes that it will lead to a lifelong appreciation for the humanities.”

After a slow start five years ago, the program hit its stride this year, administrators say. The HRC boasts three times more activities and residents than ever before. It has relocated to Hedrick Hall, where all 55 HRC students now live on the same floor, facilitating the kind of interaction envisioned by Schaberg and his predecessor linguistics professor Tim Stowell, who conceived of the program.

In addition, several humanities courses have been offered each quarter in the residence hall where the HRC students live. The classes are scheduled so that teachers and students can, if they wish, continue interacting after class at a nearby dining hall.

 “We want discussions stimulated in the classroom to spill out into life,” Schaberg said.

To join the HRC, students don’t have to declare any particular major, only show an interest in the humanities and a desire to experience the arts and culture that Los Angeles offers. Indeed, only about 16 of the 55 HRC residents have or plan to declare majors in the humanities or the arts. Residents expect to major in the life, physical or social sciences as well as engineering. Friends and other Hill residents are welcome to join in activities.

Administrators give most of the credit for the program’s success to Kyle McJunkin, the  academic director of the HRC. As director of curriculum coordination and operations for UCLA’s undergraduate education initiatives, McJunkin this year has compiled an expansive schedule of more than 18 activities, including a tour of a traveling African art exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with the show’s curator, UCLA world arts and culture professor Polly Roberts; a visit to Hollywood Forever Cemetery on the Day of the Dead with UCLA sociologist Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a native of a region of Mexico where the tradition is especially strong; and numerous theatrical and musical performances on campus.

Among the dozen-plus courses that have been or will be given on the Hill are “How to Live a Literary Life While Pursuing Other Things” by UCLA English professor and celebrated novelist Mona Simpson; “Food Writing in the Digital Age” by Allison Carruth, an assistant professor in English who specializes in literature about food, agriculture and the environment; and “Clones vs. Zombies: Anxieties Around the Human,” by Christopher Hanscom, an assistant professor in Asian languages and culture.

McJunkin said his approach is inspired by the residential housing system he saw while completing his Master of Divinity at Harvard in the early 2000s.

“Students were having an amazing experience being in a physical environment that actively promoted a certain mindset around being immersed in the academic enterprise,” McJunkin said.

Mai Lee, a first-year undergraduate who is interested in pursuing environmentally friendly architecture, is grateful for the opportunities that HRC offers.

“I wanted to live with like-minded people to find my niche,” said Lee, who wants to explore a similar situation next year.

For Max Mommsen, a first-year linguistics major from the Bay Area, the HRC provided the opportunity to explore different areas of study.

“There are so many things that are interesting [at UCLA] that it’s hard to pick just one thing,” he said. Mommsen and other students say they appreciate the chance to escape their official academic pursuits by immersing themselves in the culture and experience that the humanities have to offer.

Just how popular is the program proving to be? Nearly one-third of the students in the HRC this year say they are applying to be a part of the community again next year.

Gurval couldn’t be more pleased.

“I think it’s important for students — whether they are interested in the humanities, are majors in the humanities or not — to be roommates and neighbors so that they have an opportunity to talk about subjects of the humanities and not feel isolated,” he said. “It’s good … that there is a place for them on campus.”

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