20 July 2018: Students explore historical issues from different lenses through Historical Immersion

By Regina Marie Lee

To learn about geometry and perspective, Xiao Linfan (Linda) (Class of 2019) was tasked to complete 1, 2 and 3-point perspective drawings, learn from online tutorials, and discuss the mathematical geometrical validity of the perspective drawing techniques she used. Through this, she learnt about the historical development of geometry from multiple perspectives: mathematics, philosophy, art, culture and anthropology.

“We studied how Euclidean geometry motivated the development of perspective drawing during the Italian Renaissance, and how perspective drawing in turn motivated the development of non-Euclidean geometry,” said Linda. The Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences major took the Geometry and The Emergence of Perspective module taught by Assistant Professor of Science (Mathematics) Matthew Stamps last semester.

This module was part of the Historical Immersion (HI) series of courses, where students study a particular moment in history from multiple perspectives. As part of the Common Curriculum, in their Year 3 or 4, students are required to take one HI module out of a diverse selection including courses on the Ming Imperial voyages, the Bandung Conference, Virginia Woolf, Nietzsche and Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, among others.

For Linda, it was a fun opportunity to delve into the relationship between math and drawing, which she pursues as a hobby. She studied how projective geometry was developed, during the Renaissance, to improve artistic techniques and refine geometry as a mathematical discipline. “Compared to a typical math course, I would say this course definitely offered much more insight into why a particular discipline was developed, why a particular set of axioms were chosen for this discipline, and what consequences this choice of axioms leads to,” she said, comparing this to starting with axioms when studying Euclidean geometry in secondary school.

More than a historical lens, HI courses also focus on exploring intersections of different disciplines. For Harini V (Class of 2018), taking a module on Woolf, Historiography and the Scene of the Modern by Assistant Professor of Humanities (Writing, Literature) Heidi Stalla was an opportunity to learn about the author Virginia Woolf from both a creative writing and historical lens. In addition to studying Woolf’s work, students did creative writing pieces on themes like feminism, class and colonialism.

The course focused on the question, “What makes history?”, said Harini. “In trying to capture what makes a human life and to understand the human condition, Virginia Woolf says that history and historical shifts are captured in the collective lives of all lives, whether it is the lives of the great or the common.”

Harini, who majored in Global Affairs and minored in Arts and Humanities, appreciated studying how fiction charts the pushing of boundaries regarding social issues. “What was regarded as feminist to Woolf at the time might not be progressive now,” said Harini. “Through studying fiction with a historical lens, we understand the common thinking as well as the progressive and radical stances of that time,” she added.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of HI modules, they also allow students exposure to new fields of interest. For Scott Currie (Class of 2018), Kazimir Malevich and the Black Square taught by Assistant Professor of Humanities (Art History) Maria Taroutina was a chance for the Life Sciences major to explore his interest in art history formally. “For the longest time, I kept meaning to (explore my interest in art history), but I never really found the time in my schedule. Then this class popped up and it was perfect. I never had any formal background in art history but it was always an interest, a flame that this course helped to fan,” said Scott.

The course focused on the creation, exhibition and legacy of one of the world’s most famous masterpieces of modern art: Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, looking at how broader historical conditions shaped the creation and reception of the work. Scott said, “We looked the development of Suprematism, an early twentieth-century Russian art movement, and how it grew as a response to other continental styles, such as post-impressionism, and more traditional Slavic iconographic techniques that can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire.”

Scott said he really enjoyed the course as a Life Sciences major, because it allowed him to engage with new and interesting questions. “Art history is already an inherently interdisciplinary pursuit but this course really emphasised the historical and social elements over the more traditional action-reaction model of art development,” he added.

At Yale-NUS, all students will take the Common Curriculum— a set of courses that introduces students to multiple modes of inquiry, from the fundamentals of human existence to many challenging issues of our age. Historical Immersion is one of the 10 courses in the Common Curriculum. Read more about the Yale-NUS Common Curriculum here.