Humanities Out There Program

Every week, a group of undergraduate students cluster around Timothy Wong, a comparative literature graduate student studying at UC Irvine. They go over a lesson plan and make sure they are ready to carry it out and teach low-income juniors at Orange High School.

Together, they are a part of Humanities Out There (HOT), an educational partnership between the School of Humanities at UCI and high schools around Orange County. Because of the budget crisis, though, HOT’s future is very bleak.
Wong is the only graduate student in charge of literature. He coordinates with the English teacher at Orange High and creates specific lessons..

Last quarter, they focused on “The Crucible”; this time, they are tackling Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism.
“The design of HOT is to let these high school students know that college is an option for them,” Wong said. “These are kids from families that have never been to college before so we want to at least give them some exposure to a higher education.”
For five weeks every quarter, the undergraduates then visit the high school and implement Wong’s carefully constructed plan, focusing first on discussing passages from the selected readings and then moving on to writing activities.

“Theoretically, we’re reinforcing what the 11th grade students should already know,” said Peach Kositsawat, a second-year comparative literature and political science double major that has been a HOT tutor since fall. “But more often than not, they haven’t learned or retained what they were supposed to have learned in class.”

With the high school juniors grouped into threes or fours, HOT tutors review typical high school concepts, such as themes, arguments, allegories and theses, while trying to improve their writing skills and reading comprehension.
To make it even more relatable, they add pop culture references to explain heavy themes, like communism.

“The idea is that humanities is not only fun, but it’s relevant, and important,” Kositsawat said.

At the end of the period, they all meet to discuss what teaching methods worked and what needs to be improved, all to repeat it again the next week.

The initiative to make learning fun is something that draws many undergraduate students to volunteer their own time, which is also what makes the program so helpful for the high school students.

“I love interacting with them,” said Emma Shirley, a second-year English major and Spanish minor, another HOT tutor. “Over time, they start to relax and open up, even make jokes with me. I’m really glad that I’m not seen as an authority figure.”

The bonds Shirley builds with the students are part of the reason why she continues to work with HOT, even though she doesn’t aspire to be a teacher, like some of the other undergraduates do.

But these bonds are being threatened with the looming budget cuts and the very likely possibility that HOT may cease to exist come next year.

“The program almost died last year, but somehow they managed to scrape up some money,” Wong said. “Still, HOT was greatly reduced.”

One of the major reductions came in the amount of high schools they are partnering up with. Prior to the budget crisis, HOT served several different schools around the community in its prime years. Now, they are limited to only Orange High.

“The immediate story is not good,” said history professor Lynn Mally, who is also the director of HOT. “During my first year, we had eight graduate students running workshops; last year, there were six; this year, there are two.”

It seems that the walls all around the program are collapsing. A staff member was turned over to work for a different department earlier this year and HOT will be forced to hire a new director, as Mally will be retiring next year.

“I don’t know if HOT will survive beyond this year,” Mally said.

Wong, however, is not willing to let this go down easily.

He is meeting with Mally, as well as the dean of humanities, Vicki Ruiz, who is highly invested in HOT and continues to fight to keep it running.

He hopes that, if he can reduce the overall cost, HOT will survive. Currently, the program costs over $50,000 to run, but Wong thinks he can cut it down to only $10,000.

Of course, HOT would be forced to undergo even more drastic transformations, including reducing it to only one graduate student or even being run strictly on a volunteer basis by undergraduates.

“If it dies this year, it dies for good,” Wong said. “We need to somehow maintain the skeleton, the framework — keep HOT on crutches, so to speak.”

Nobody wants to see the program go. The juniors down at Orange High are responding to HOT, even those with reportedly low grades. At the end of the five weeks, they engage with their tutors, volunteering to read and share answers.

“I would be really disappointed if this practicum was cut,” Shirley said. “It would be absolutely horrible and a big loss to both the high schools and UCI.”

Wong truly believes that the program has a chance because of the people involved. He has taught Writing 39B before, one of the mandatory writing classes needed for graduation from UCI, and he definitely sees the difference.

“The undergraduates who work with HOT elect to be here. They are not forced into it; instead, they all really want to promote diversity and have a passion for reaching out,” Wong said.

Both Shirley and Kositsawat are proof of that level of commitment and dedication.

“What we’re trying to do now is to keep HOT running for free, even if barely, so that the program can survive the budget cuts and hopefully make its rebound later,” Kositsawat said. “There is still hope.”