Alison Hope Aikon, Professor of Sociology, University of the Pacific
Jeffrey Hole, Associate Professor of English, University of the Pacific
Joshua Salyers, Instructor of Game Development and Immersive Design, University of the Pacific

The power of narrative shapes our reality, providing form and meaning to our experiences and perceptions. This is true for individuals, for places, and for our collective sense of shared institutions. The once dominant narrative about higher education as a transformative and liberatory experience, for instance, has of late given way to stories that call into question the value of the college degree. The future of the institution, particularly for those in the humanities and liberal arts, seems one of contingency, uncertainty, and even precarity. 

What motivates our intervention here, however, is that these uncertainties may actually open up opportunities and possibilities—entirely new paradigms—for redesigning the educational experience for students. As we reimagine the liberal arts and humanities at our institution, both anticipating and actively preparing for an uncertain future, we have been motivated by a set of simple but fundamental questions: What must the practices and forms of teaching and learning look like in order to prepare our students for that future? How can we equip our students with adequate knowledge and skills, mindsets and dispositions in order for them to gain greater social mobility while also transforming their take on who they imagine themselves to be and what work they can do in the world once they graduate. What are the ways we will enable our students to recognize their capacities to continue learning and, therefore, fully participate in, engage with, and meaningfully contribute to the world? We drew upon these questions and challenges facing the liberal arts to design a new kind of class called The Think Tank. 

Recalling the best elements of the liberal arts, we knew that The Think Tank would have to be an immersive space for students to reflect upon their own learning and new conditions of possibility for learning, a space to take intellectual risks and recognize the value of processes as much as outcomes, a space that emphasizes context over content, and a space that transcends disciplinary boundaries. We wanted them to study history, theory, and critical thinking; strengthen their skills in project management, digital tools, and storytelling; and collaborate with outside audiences and community partners.  

So how did this work in practice? The course was co-taught by three instructors: Jeffrey Hole is a professor of English and leads our campus initiative to reimagine the liberal arts. Joshua Salyers is a digital historian with expertise in new media and project-based design, and Alison Hope Alkon is a professor of sociology who has long engaged in community-based research and has deep ties with the larger Stockton community. What we share, fundamentally, is a core belief in the relevance and power of an immersive liberal arts education and a willingness to experiment with course design in the hopes of crafting a transformative experience for our students, and perhaps our university as a whole. When we came together to think about where we could overlap topically, we realized we shared an interest in the ways that racialized neoliberalization affects urban spaces and how narratives about places can shape the lived experiences of those who inhabit them. We settled on the theme of Stockton as a Global City, using Saskia Sassen’s classic approach to ask how our diverse local community embodies, is left behind by, and challenges notions of the global city. We divided our 36 students into 6 groups, and each was assigned a community partner. We asked our students to work with these partners to produce a digital narrative that embodied the class themes and told the stories of their partners’ perspectives and plans.

This was a lot to fit in a single semester. On one day, we might be exploring a sociology text about how racial capitalism shapes gentrification, or a set of poems that convey the ordinary experiences of life in a rapidly industrializing global city. On another, we might be diving into the particular social issues relevant to our community partners, such as education, homelessness or environmental justice. Or we might be experimenting with project management software, or having a workshop on how to conduct an interview or analyze a visual image. Many days were termed “project days,” offering students class time to work in their groups on upcoming, scaffolded deadlines. Students learned to edit film, or layer sound, often for the first time. A few added stop-motion graphics or 3-D modeling to their group’s projects. Sometimes the students felt a bit dizzy from the pace. “This should be more than a 4-unit class,” was a common refrain. Students certainly struggled with the course material, with one another, with the availability and expectations of their community partners, and with the overall charge to adapt and address unscripted problems. And the stress mixed and mingled with mental health challenges more broadly.

But the students’ reflection papers evidence strong collective engagement with the various elements of our class from questions of what makes a compelling and effective story to how neoliberalization shapes local conditions, to project management and group dynamics. Students offered sophisticated takes on the connections between their storytelling work, the theoretical elements of the class, and the goals of their community partners. For example, one student articulated that “by creating a narrative that speaks to the needs of our community partner, we are, by nature, speaking to the forces of racial capitalism.” Similarly, another stressed how “it becomes easier to depict the stories of people when you have a better understanding of the global contexts that cause those stories to occur.”  The students also thought critically about how to engage with local community organizations to hold up their work, rather than perpetuate pity through an outsider’s gaze. For example, a third student shared that “this class is showing me how hard it is to tell someone else’s story but… I understand the unique position of power my group and I are in to help the youth of Stockton elevate their voices and be heard in order to stimulate real change in the city. These stories will help not only the residents of Stockton hear what the youth experience here is, but will help my group members and I leave the bubble of [our campus] and understand the real struggles and triumphs others have.” And finally, a new media major and aspiring filmmaker brought many of these themes together, writing that, “so much of my investment in Pacific lies in my trust that by working on projects not explicitly related to art creation, I will become a more well-rounded artist. To be an artist is a state of mind, and this class, with all of its social implications and high expectations, affirmed that notion.” These excerpts were a part of another essential element of the course–a constant practice of oral and written reflection, not only for instructor feedback, but because such metacognition can push students toward a deeper examination of their own evolving ways of seeing and being that we hope will allow the course to leave a lasting impact.

The course has transformed our own pedagogical approaches as well. Alison feels inspired by the focus on project-based learning and excited to navigate the tensions between open-endedness and clear expectations in her other courses. Josh is using the lessons learned from this course to explore ways to encourage students to take ownership of their learning through participatory course design. Moved by the students’ sense of creative and intellectual audacity, Jeffrey hopes this class will serve as a space for us to reflect on our own institutional practices and habits, allowing us to see how we can usher in new paradigms and incentivize innovation. And it has reaffirmed all of our dedication to the liberal arts, to transdisciplinarity, to collaboration, and to a freewheeling spirit of experimentation that we can draw on to address other challenges in our professional and personal lives, and collectively, in our society writ large.

We are hopeful that such a course can contribute to a reimagining of liberal arts learning at our institution. We envision a future where this was the first of many think tank classes at Pacific, where our colleagues can come together across disciplines to co-create other courses that combine critical thinking, skill articulation, community engagement and metacognition in innovative ways. These courses might eventually become a signature of our university, helping our students, their families, our institution and the community at large to forge a new understanding of what a liberal arts education is and is for.

Like any good course, this was a first iteration, and revisions are in the works for the upcoming school year. We are responding to students’ collective overwhelm by providing a narrower scope and clearer expectations. Renamed “The Stories of Stockton,” we’ll be replacing our focus on global social theory with an emphasis on using transdisciplinary approaches to study the layered histories of Stockton, as well as a more profound examination of the approaches, ethics, and techniques involved in storytelling itself. Students will participate in workshops led by award-winning filmmakers and Pacific alums to craft shorter films with more emphasis on narrative coherence and developing professional-level techniques. We have also recruited six “students as partners,” as Alison Cook-Sather calls them. These are students who really thrived in the first iteration of the course, and who will receive independent study credit to collaborate with us on these revisions and support the Fall 2023 cohort of students in embracing the discomfort inherent in addressing unscripted problems. They will also help us think more deeply about how this approach can contribute to ongoing conversations about the future of the liberal arts. We know that there is a deep and transformative value in a liberal arts education. We hope that this course can help us convince those, in our own institution and beyond, who have been led to believe otherwise.  

Think Tank 2022 presents videos produced by Pacific students and community partners for Think Tank: Stockton as a Global City, Fall 2022