From Disneyland to Data Analysis: 2021’s Learning Clusters

February 08, 2021
Man viewing charts on wall

Would you like to take close-up pictures of distant galaxies? Do you wonder how US colleges plan to reopen after the pandemic? Ever contemplate Bigfoot’s relationship to the Kraken? Can you imagine a world without the threat of nuclear catastrophe?

Those are some of the 27 topics students explored this year through Soka University of America’s Learning Cluster program. One of SUA’s singular features, a Learning Cluster is an intensive three-and-half-week session conducted during winter block. The courses are co-designed by students and faculty and allow a deeper examination of subjects of all kinds.

Learning Cluster is a mandatory course for first- and second-year students and an optional one for third-year students. Enrollment this year hit an all-time high, as most of the study-abroad programs that third-year students typically participate in were cancelled because of the pandemic.

In the past, some Learning Cluster courses have been opportunities to travel around the country and world to conduct research. But as SUA heads into its third semester of mostly online instruction, the experience had to be reinvented online. Professors found creative ways to keep their students engaged, including watching films and videos together or inviting guest speakers to offer their perspectives. One professor asked a student who’s studying Japanese American identity to lead a discussion about language and identity. Another introduced students to, an online platform where they created avatars and interacted virtually.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Learning Cluster Coordinator Seiji Takaku.

A closer look at the 2021 Learning Cluster courses:

Why Do We Hate: Holocaust – Prof. Robert Allinson
A white 20-year-old enters a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and kills nine African Americans. A gunman storms a gay club in Florida and kills 49. A young white man enters a Pittsburgh synagogue during a worship service and kills 11 people. We know the brutal details of police killings of Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and too many others. Why has hatred become so commonplace? Who are the persecutors, bystanders, and rescuers? This course was a highly relevant educational experience of investigation and problem solving for students living and working in an increasingly polarized world.

The Politics of Disneyland – Prof. Peter Burns
Disneyland opened July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, Calif., and this course looked at the relationship between the park and the city through the lens of politics and policy. The course also sought to understand the impact of the political messaging contained within Disneyland itself and the social and economic consequences of the park’s existence. Students watched videos together and took virtual tours, as well as examined how COVID-19 has affected the park.

Emergency Management – Prof. George Busenberg
Focusing on the management of a wide array of major hazards facing the world community, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the course used case studies of major disasters to provide insights into the principles and practical challenges of emergency management. A student team project focused on handling complex humanitarian emergencies.

Pleasure Activism – Prof. Ryan Ashley Caldwell
How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience? How can we awaken within ourselves desires that make it impossible to settle for anything less than a fulfilling life? Constructed around Adrienne Maree Brown’s edited works, Pleasure Activism to Emergent Strategy, students in this course used the approach of pleasure activism to reclaim their time, space, and whole happy selves from the effects, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy in its many intersectional forms.

Data Analysis & Visualization – Prof. Monika Calef
By creating their own datasets and analysis, students learned how to answer their own spatial questions. The class walked students through data collection and finding datasets online, as well as how to process data in spreadsheets, manually and with formulas, so they can be visualized in graphs. Students also mapped data online to show spatial patterns.

Multilingualism and Identity – Prof. Pablo Camus-Oyarzun
It is no secret that humans are fully equipped to learn and function in more than one language. It’s seen through the prevalence of multilingualism around the world. Students explored the complex, multifaceted, and even contradictory ways in which humans learn and use language; and how languages play a key role in the construction of self-identity.

Hybridity in Creative Writing – Prof. Darin Ciccotelli
What happens when we write creatively without thinking about genre? Are we restricted by the traditional conceptions of an essay, a poem, or a story? This course explored hybridity in contemporary creative writing, focusing on cross-genres such as prose poetry, the lyric essay, epistolaries, flash fiction, performative texts, visual hybrids, and autofiction. Students participated in an intensive writing process, inventing new work and finding their own respective voices. The course also discussed how such hybridity has allowed disenfranchised and subjugated writers to envision their particular identities.

Diet and Disease – Prof. Lisa Crummett
The world is experiencing a surge in metabolic disease that most experts associate with an “industrial diet” that has been exported from the United States around the globe. This course examined how we can prevent these diseases (type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity), and even reduce the risk of death from COVID-19, by educating ourselves on what foods contribute to disease. Students discussed readings from various books and journal articles, watched documentaries, invited guest speakers, carried out student-designed food experiments, and learned how to cook healthy meals together.

COVID-19 and Inequalities – Prof. Danielle Denardo
COVID-19 has highlighted and worsened many enduring societal fault lines in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, health, and more. Students in this LC explored these inequalities and how they have been impacted by and have shaped the pandemic. Emphasis was placed on critically examining COVID-19 through an intersectional lens and coming up with ideas for action and change, implementing them when possible.

Gender Violence in War – Prof. Sarah England
Since the 1990s when the United Nations Security Council and the International Criminal Courts in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda began to recognize rape as a strategic weapon of war, there has been growing academic, policy, and media interest in conflict-related gender-based violence (CRGBV). Students in this course studied the history of how this concept has been conceptualized by the international human rights community and by primarily feminist scholars, the ideologies of gender and sexuality that are connected to these forms of violence, and the way that the local, national, and international community have responded to this problem.

On Campus During COVID-19 – Prof. Robert Hamersley
In this course, students learned about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, and the COVID-19 disease that it causes, using a case-study approach to examine the reopening plans of peer universities, how they were implemented, and their successes and failures. Based on what they learned, the students made recommendations about SUA’s back to campus plans, and prepared educational materials to help ensure a successful return of students to campus.

Being Human in STEM – Prof. Nidanie Henderson-Stull
This course explored how Soka and other students experience science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), through individual and collective identities and intersections. They articulated their personal Being Human in STEM stories and ground their understanding in academic literature. They surveyed articles on diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM and interrogated ideas of scientific objectivity by studying the feminist philosophy of science and indigenous ways of knowing. They designed and implemented an oral history research project to articulate STEM narratives from the SUA community, from which responsive interventions are formulated and shared to bring about systemic change within the broader campus and STEM community. This course was modeled on the national Being Human in STEM curriculum and offered in partnership with SUA’s Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Human Rights.

Abandoned People & Democracy – Prof. Dongyoun Hwang
Drawing on the concept of “abandoned people” who, according to Okinawan peace activist and writer Nishioka Nobuyuki, have been the victims of state violence or have been marginalized, neglected, and discriminated against in a number of ways by authorities such as the state, the students in this course examined why and how they have not been protected by the state and their voices have been buried. The students gave particular attention to those in East Asia who have been socially alienated under the state’s economic drive, the victims of wartime atrocities, and the victims of state violence, and suggested a rethinking of the meaning of democracy and the importance of minor voices in practicing it.

Languages of the World – Prof. Osamu Ishiyama
This course was built around Okinawan peace activist and writer Nishioka Nobuyuki’s concept of abandoned people—those who have been victims of state violence or marginalized, neglected, and discriminated against by state authorities. Students examined why and how these people have not been protected and had their voices silenced. The students gave particular attention to those in East Asia who have been socially alienated under the state’s economic drive, the victims of wartime atrocities state violence, and suggested a rethinking of the meaning of democracy and the importance of full participation.

Leadership & Followership – Prof. Jennifer Lee
Students in this course examined the psychology of leadership and followership from a systems perspective and studied their own behaviors in groups. Through experiential exercises and self-inquiry, students investigated the ways they take up their roles as leaders and followers, how they relate to formal authority, and how they exercise their own personal authority in groups. The aim of this course was to foster self-awareness through the examination of social identities, unconscious biases towards authority, and valances towards specific roles within a group.

SARS-CoV-2: Molecular-Global – Prof. Robert Levenson
This course focused on exploring the molecular nature of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which is the cause of the COVID-19 disease. Students investigated the molecular biology of viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, examining the causes and impacts of other epidemics like HIV and Ebola to see the lessons they offer, and exploring the new vaccine technologies that will hopefully return us to normalcy soon.

Policy to the Pandemic – Prof. Junyi Liu
This course surveyed the policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic of about 70 countries. Through a collection of global policy data, students compared government responses to the pandemic, comparing those in categories such as high-income and low-income nations, democratic and authoritarian nations, landlocked and coastal nations. Reports of those comparisons could lead to further and more in-depth research, searching for causal relations, if any, between country characteristics and a relatively successful control of a pandemic.

Cryptozoology – Prof. Anthony Mazeroll
Cryptids (an animal that there are claims to its existence but does not actually exist) appear in the mythology of most societies around the world. Bigfoot, for instance, or the Loch Ness Monster. Some like the Kraken of sea-faring societies have turned out to be real living creatures. The course discussed the scientific evidence of the cryptids that have been used in mythology, trying to answer the question, Is Cryptozoology science or pseudoscience?

Evolution of Natural Patterns – Prof. Marie Nydam
Nature is brimming with colors and patterns that we humans recognize as beautiful: a tiger’s stripes, an iridescent bird feather, a coiled snail shell. In this course, the students learned how these colors, patterns and shapes evolved, and why they exist from a biological perspective. Students produced several works of collage and photography, as a parallel path to understanding the natural world. Students in this course and Anne Pearce’s course met together to learn from visiting artists, to learn about patterns as communication between species, and to share patterns of interest.

Drawing: Pattern in Nature – Prof. Anne Pearce
Students examined a wide range of patterns, textures, and colors found in the natural world, collecting a myriad of source material to serve as a point of departure. Through the act of observational drawing, revision and re-drawing, students completed works of newly evolved patterns uniquely formed and revealed through their eyes and work. In concert with Marie Nydam’s Evolution of Natural Patterns course, students researched and exchanged material. The culminating project was a final drawing that employs the use of pattern and design as its primary focus, celebrating with awe and appreciation what the natural world provides and inspires.

Nuclear Weapons Politics – Prof. Tetsushi Ogata
On January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) took effect, outlawing nuclear weapons. And yet immediate prospects for translating that vision into reality are still bleak. In this course students explored issues surrounding the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the history and politics of nuclear deterrence, strategies of counter-proliferation, assessment of the non-proliferation regime and its safeguards system, and debates on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Folk and Fairy Tales in a Global Context – Prof. Katherine Perry
Students read and investigated tales from throughout the world, including Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Egypt, Greek mythology, native America, and western Europe. Students used the stories to learn about different cultures and societies throughout the world. Students also wrote their own fairy tales with modern morals, with the goal of having a positive impact in a global society.

Explorations in Ecocinema – Prof. Deike Peters
How do films shape our experience about the world and the natural and built environments we live in? How are documentaries different from fiction films or animated films in conveying environmental content? What different kinds of environmental films are there and what exactly do we mean by “ecocinema”? How have wildlife and nature documentaries changed over time? Is all ecocinema activist, or can it also be merely meditative/contemplative or have even other aims? The core emphasis of this course was environmental documentaries released in the last 10-15 years as anthropocentric climate change has begun to loom increasingly large over our global environmental consciousness.

Yoga for Transformation – Prof. Nalini Rao
Yoga for Psychological Transformation was a path towards ‘self-discovery’ through the usage of tools of concentration, such as postures, meditation, mental concentration, recitation, diagrams, and readings from ancient texts. It hoped to empower individuals to lead a life of values and positive behavior through which they can contribute to being a productive global citizen.

Film Theory and Criticism – Prof. Sandrine Simeon
This course surveyed major directions in classical and contemporary film theory and criticism with an emphasis on the avant-garde, realism(s), auteurism, gender and race relations (postcolonialism, feminism, masculinity and queer theory, Blaxploitation), film and theater, the spectator, and documentary. It also explored larger issues pertaining to the philosophical, ethical, political, institutional, and cultural domains, and focused on discussing film aesthetics and conducting film analysis to appreciate the fundamental link between form and content.

Inclusivity in STEM – Prof. Susan Walsh
It is imperative to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in science, not just for PEERs (Persons Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race), but to eradicate any form of prejudice, including language gap, disabilities, gender, sexuality, and even content-related bias, so all people have an equal opportunity to succeed. Through a curated list of readings, lectures, and podcasts, this course worked to identify the barriers in STEM fields and find solutions that can help eliminate those barriers. By listening to various speakers’ stories about their experiences in STEM, students sought to gain a better understanding of the obstacles in achieving DEI, what kind of approaches can help, and what actions can be taken to improve inclusivity in STEM with the end goal of making an impact in their own lives and through communicating their findings to their communities.

Astronomy with SUA Nieves Observatory – Prof. Bryan Penprase
In this course, students worked together to explore both the experiential — or subjective — nature of the sky, and also the objective and scientific basis of astronomy, using telescopes — such as the new Nieves Observatory on campus. The observatory has allowed members of the Soka community to take wonderful pictures of the moon, planets, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. Students have also taken pictures and time lapse movies of the sky using their cell phones. Along the way they’ve explored the human story of astronomy – and how it has been practiced in nearly all cultures of the world over the centuries. 

—Nagisa Smalheiser ’21