For the Western world, Homer’s Odysseus is a hero. The legendary mythical king of Ithaca is admired for his cunning intelligence; his slaying of 108 misbehaving suitors who attempt to court Penelope on his long journey home is widely considered a heroic feat.
But as Aara Suksi discovered this summer, Odysseus is no hero for students studying The Odyssey in China.
“One of the things I teach at Western that students respond most readily to is Homer’s Odyssey. I chose a condensed version of it and talked about how in Western culture this foundational hero is manifested,” said Suksi, a Western Classical Studies professor who taught an intensive one-week course on the classic text at Shanghai University earlier this year.
“With the (Shanghai University) students, we talked about how they reacted to this model of a hero, how it might compare with what their idea of a hero might be. They admired his smarts and resourcefulness, but were critical of his harshness and violence. That was interesting – I never hear that from students here.”
For the Chinese students, Suksi said, heroes are individuals who avoid battles, who put themselves into a position of strength where no one wanted to attack them. That’s what (ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s) The Art of War teaches. It is why students did not respond well to Odysseus, and it is just one cultural distinction she hadn’t considered prior to visiting Shanghai.
Over the summer, Suksi joined Modern Languages and Literature professor Laurence De Looze at Shanghai, having been invited by Yanxiang Wu, a former Western Comparative Literature doctoral student, who now teaches at the university. Shanghai hosted a litany of international professors who were asked to teach a course of their design for the university’s undergraduate students. While it was an internationalization initiative for Shanghai, Suksi and De Looze walked away equally inspired to explore similar initiatives at Western.
“Shanghai University brings in about 45 professors from all around the world to do this; the idea is we teach for one week, for two hours a day. The second week, we give public lectures and seminars to the faculty there and are involved in a large conference on teaching and innovation,” Suksi explained.
“It was great to have the opportunity to talk to all these different professors from all over the world and hear what they were doing. Neither of us had been to China and we both realized all the preconceptions we had that need to be re-examined.”
At Western, when Suksi teaches The Odyssey, she teaches as many as 700 students, many of whom are Asian. The experience in Shanghai opened her eyes to “values they hold and the way they might come into play” in their responses to texts, she explained. Now more acutely aware of different backgrounds and perceptions, she hopes to draw out the diversity in her classroom to enrich the learning experience for all.
But it wasn’t just about the in-class experience, De Looze added. Both he and Suksi – and the students – walked away with a well-rounded, culturally enriching experience.
“I taught a course on the alphabet and how, from the ancient Greeks to modern times, it conditioned the view of the Western world. The alphabet is something they know, but don’t really know. It turned out to be a great vehicle for confronting Western culture,” he said.
“China revamps your view of the world pretty quickly. I went through a kind of baptism. I lived my whole life knowing China was off there somewhere, but it was always on my periphery. Now I realize, if anything, we are the periphery and they are the centre. One out of five people in the world speaks Chinese. That’s 20 per cent of the world, and yes, they’re almost all in China, but it has caused me to reflect on my worldview.”
Suksi and De Looze left having discussed the potential of student and faculty exchanges, and internationalization efforts at Western similar to what Shanghai is doing.
“We already have a lot going on in terms of internationalization, but this whole idea of one week – I love that idea, setting up teaching opportunities, collaborations and exchanges for students. This seems like a fantastic vehicle to expose students here to this whole range of cultures,” Suksi explained.