Humanities Seminar: A Class Like No Other


Esther Lian, Senior Writer

This is the 7th year that Humanities Seminar will be taught as a UC-approved honors-level elective at our school. Offered since the fall of 2015, the curriculum of this unique course is designed in collaboration with The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. A mere two years after its inception, the course won a prestigious Golden Bell Award, in recognition of its innovation through “Partnerships and Collaboration.” 

Jointly taught by Ms. Michelle Pauline and Mrs. Lisa Davidson this year, Humanities Seminar is a class like no other. For one, this is a truly blended cross-disciplinary class that combines the study of literature and art. Leveraging the expansive collection at The Huntington, students in this class travel to its grounds every week, where they are inspired to find beautiful connections between the two disciplines. 

Do not be fooled though, this is not at all an easy course. Extensive reading and writing is part of the curriculum, and often drawing is involved. Close observations, critical analysis, and the ability to communicate interpretations and new ideas are expected of its students. And in true seminar-style, the examination and critique of one another’s presentations are part and parcel of the learning involved. In the process, thinking is deepened, language skills are enhanced, and imaginations are expanded!

Two weeks ago, students in the class read Animal Farm, a book by George Orwell, and then took a field trip to watch a 2-hr musical adaptation of the satire at A Noise Within Theater in Pasadena. They were challenged to consider how well the production conveyed Orwell’s characterizations and motives. 

As they entered the air conditioned theater (a much-appreciated reprieve from the heat wave), Humanities students were thrilled to be led to the prime front-row seats of the theater. As the lights dimmed, murmurs of excitement rippled through the crowd.

The musical was fast-paced and spectacular. Unafraid to laugh hysterically or sob uncontrollably, the actors and actresses were fully invested and extremely interactive with the crowd. The result was a mesmerizing performance that enthralled the audience. 

As instructed, our students paid close attention to the roles that instrumental music, visual art, dance, and drama played in pulling the entire production together. 

Elements of visual art were evident in the intricate costumes that transformed men to animals. From canes for the horses’ hooves and masks and snouts for the pigs, no effort was spared to make the characters come alive. “My favorite was the sheep’s costume,” humanities student Valerie Kuo said. “The fluffy white wig and sweater conveyed his weak and naive character very well!” Well-thought movement and choreography was also intertwined throughout the play, with collective and synchronized stomps during songs of empowerment and eerie stillness during scenes taut with fear and apprehension. The elements of music and sound, however, stole the show. Student Isabelle Kang audibly gasped in surprise when the antagonist, Mr. Jones, aimed his rifle at the animals and sent a deafening blast throughout the theater. “I read about the gun being fired in the book, but I didn’t expect the play to be THAT committed!” She later said.

Over the next few classes after the field trip, students were split into pairs, with each group tackling a different chapter of the novel. They led class-wide discussions on how the musical depicted key events and moments within their respective chapters. These discussions were deeply analytical, with space to hear conflicting interpretations and views. Nevertheless, the Humanities Seminar class was in complete unanimity on one thing–being in the theater was a thousand times better than being in school!