By Joseph Gualtieri
At the University of Hong Kong, all undergraduates are required to take a number of “core curriculum” courses, each of which is open to students from any faculty. The consequence of this (indeed, the purpose) is that these courses are filled with a diversity of first-year students from all sorts of academic backgrounds and pathways. My course, Countries of the Mind, taught by Dr. Paul Smethurst and tutored by Jessica Ng and me, set out to introduce students to historical and contemporary discussions of human responses to the environment. Owing perhaps to the superstar team helming the course (or, most likely, to its snappy title and convenient time slot), ours quickly became one of the more popular of the common core offerings, and our lecture hall was flooded with upwards of 130 eager (and terrified) first-year students, the vast majority of whom had never studied literature before.
Teaching is never easy; this is especially so for introductory courses (where one may not presume any foreknowledge in the students) and for humanities as a whole. With all due respect to my colleagues in the sciences, where truth is arrived at by means of formulas and repeatable, provable experimentation, teaching the humanities, where strong concepts like “right” and “wrong” give way to more impressionistic assessments like “interesting,” “relevant,” or “novel,” requires a certain verve and intellectual openness from both instructors and students. The twin specter of introducing students to both this new mode of thinking and to an unfamiliar (and, frankly, difficult) body of theory would require a reserve of patience and pedagogical empathy as well as a ready supply of antacids.
One might think, as I did at the outset, that in order to be relevant to seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, a common core course would have adopt one of two unsatisfying tactics regarding its source material. The first option would involve selecting straightforward and fairly low-level works of theory and fiction which would be accessible even to the students least familiar with literary study. The other tactic would call for choosing higher-level texts but presenting them in such a watered-down, simplified way as to deprive them of all critical purchase.
Countries of the Mind, I’m happy to say, deftly avoided both horns of this dilemma. In fact, the syllabus was packed with many of the same blue-chip theorists I use in my own doctoral studies: David Harvey and Raymond Williams, Henri Lefebvre and John Rennie Short. By means of carefully crafted lectures augmented by collaborative in-class exercises, Dr. Smethurst managed to present an expansive breadth of theory. In one semester, our students were given a comprehensive overview of two hundred years’ worth of thought on the relationship between humanity and the environment.
Of course, as my old boss in New York used to say, in education presenting is easy, engaging is hard. When the time came for the students to submit their papers, would they show a genuine understanding of the theories at hand or would they simply parrot back their lecture notes? Again, I was skeptical. Their first assignment called for them to visit a public space in Hong Kong and analyze it in terms of the theories they had examined in class. Thinking back to my own years as a clueless teenager (and, full disclosure, the years of limitless cluelessness since), I braced myself for the worst.
Reader, I was wrong. The essays were peppered with such astute references to signifiers, learnt environmental responses, spatial practices, simulations and simulacra as to my melt my poststructuralist heart. Some students really went to town with the assignment, deploying their new-discovered theoretical vocabulary to critique the forces remaking their experience of Hong Kong’s built and “natural” environments (they would want to me use the scare quotes). In fairness, our class had its fair share of draft-dodgers and lecture-nappers, but I’m sure Dr. Smethurst and Jessica would share my confidence that every student who wanted to was able to walk away from our class with a set of new conceptual tools to analyze the world around them and their place in it.
Therein, I would say, lies the genius of the university’s core course system; the disciplinary spread among the students yielded a diversity of responses uncommon in upper-level courses. Far from stultifying discussion or limiting the depth of engagement with the critical texts, the students’ differing academic backgrounds and relative unfamiliarity with literary study produced a meshwork of differing responses that intersected with and diverged not only from each other, but also from the kind of critical orthodoxy that often sets in after students begin to develop a sense of the received wisdom. What I had identified as a critical threat to the course’s viability revealed itself as its greatest strength.
In the course of serving as a tutor on this course, I learned my own version of the same lessons as the students. Just as they learned to see the environment and their places in it differently, I learned to look around the lecture hall and see not a mass of uninitiated students who needed to receive wisdom and think like me, but a variegated field of differing and vital perspectives from which I had as much to learn. And isn’t that why we study the humanities, in order to transform our experience of the world around us and to connect with those with whom we share this planet?