“So I thought: Why not make a whole campus?”
Palmer and a team of undergraduate students collaborated virtually through a Discord server to build the world from scratch. Tasks included learning the map editing software, brainstorming ideas, and designing and building rooms. Gather Town is also being utilized by the College Core Tutor program: To find help, students can visit digital versions of the cubicles in Harper Library’s North Reading Room, which include access to shared whiteboards and Google docs.
“Gather Town is a great resource that the community can use to build relationships during this time of remote learning and social distancing,” said first-year Nikita Munsif. “It’s definitely not a replacement for in-person interaction, but I think its potential is nearly limitless, especially once we start adding in more cool spaces.”
Read more about Gather Town at the UChicago College website.
Wrestling with apocalypse
The name of the class is “Are We Doomed?”—but its professors insist they didn’t plan their syllabus with an answer.
“It’s not a class where we came in with an agenda,” said Prof. Daniel Holz, who co-instructs the course and is a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which sets the hands of the Doomsday Clock. “These are questions that everyone is struggling with, and it draws together so many different ways of engaging with the world—from history to art to economics. The idea is that we would all wrestle with it together.”
An astrophysicist, Holz is co-teaching the class with Prof. James Evans, who directs the Knowledge Lab at UChicago and teaches in the Department of Sociology. Although the idea originated long before COVID-19, holding the class during a pandemic has given it additional weight: “The questions we’re discussing are a little less abstract than I was expecting,” Holz admitted.
Though he doesn’t think this pandemic itself is world-ending, it still has meaning. “If you look at it as a test case—is the world ready for a global threat?—I think the answer is very clearly no,” Holz said.
The students, who come from a wide range of majors, are assigned nonfiction readings every week on a different apocalyptic scenario: nuclear war, climate change, artificial intelligence, and of course, pandemics and related biological issues. Then guest speakers from UChicago and beyond, each an expert in their particular field, give a presentation and host a free-ranging discussion.
But each week of the course also includes creative works of art that struggle with the same questions: cinema like Dr. Strangelove and Snowpiercer, as well as novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Parable of the Sower.
“At first, we weren’t planning to make art so central,” Holz said. “But in addition to being a bit more accessible and giving you a common language to discuss these interdisciplinary topics, they envision the future and our possible paths, and that’s a very productive way to engage with these questions.”