A time for reflection

A Big Problems course helps students returning from study-abroad programs see the familiar in a new way.
Photo by: 
Tom Tian, Class of 2010
I'm 20 and for once I felt 20. I'm American and I felt French...

It's the first Tuesday of Spring Quarter. One of the best-named College courses ever, The Ugly American Comes Home, is about to start.

"Hello, travelers!" Martha Merritt, executive associate dean of the College, calls out to the 30 or so students gathered in Cobb 110. All of them have studied abroad. By a quick show of hands, about half were away this academic year; about a quarter have just returned.

"When you try to explain your experience abroad, what do you say?" says Merritt. "'It was great! It was awesome!'" The students laugh.

"The first few times when you were asked, did you try to explain in more detail?" she asks. Most of the students nod. "And then you watch their eyes glaze over. It's hard to convey what your time abroad meant and what was significant." So the first assignment, to be done in class, is for students to write a brief description of their study-abroad experience: "This is what you should have said," says Merritt. "You can even memorize it and respond this way in the future."

The description will be the first entry in the students' journals, to be kept throughout the course. They will also read the entries aloud in a few minutes, Merritt says: "our way of taking roll."

At this, a bearded man gets up and leaves without a word. He does not return.

Merritt first taught her Ugly American class—inspired by post-study-abroad courses at Notre Dame and other institutions—in Spring 2011, when she was associate dean for international education. It's a Big Problems course, one of more than 40 interdisciplinary classes cotaught by instructors with different academic backgrounds.

This year Paul Durica, AM'06, PhD'13, creative writing instructor and purveyor of the Pocket Guide to Hell tours of Chicago, is Merritt's coteacher. Durica's tours, which he conducts in period costume, include the Hidden History of the University of Chicago, the Working Man's Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition, and Ben Reitman's Hobohemia. He also leads quirky historical reenactments—most infamously, a recreation of the 1886 Haymarket Riots, albeit with foam-rubber nightsticks.

The students finish scribbling or typing and, one by one, read their descriptions: "I'm 20 and for once I felt 20. I'm American and I felt French." "I was both stupid and brave for studying in Beijing." "It was simultaneously the best and worst year of my life." "Exactly no one thought I was Egyptian. And pumpkin milkshakes are delicious."

Merritt observes that many of the descriptions were more autobiographical than geographical: "Sometimes if you are completely focused on the 'I,' you're neglecting place." But the more you travel, the easier this becomes. "You have a lot more years and places to go," she says. "I'm 51, and I'm still traveling. It can be done."

At the end of class, Merritt explains why she chose Durica as her coteacher: the students' final project will be to design a campus tour, with future study-abroad students in mind.

Her inspiration, she says, was a downtown tour she took in 2011, designed by an Australian theater group in conjunction with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The tour—guided by audio recording, text message, and at one point by someone who came running out of nowhere to grab her by the hand—led to unusual places, such as blind alleys and historic hotel rooms. And yet many of the sites "were in full view, and other people were passing and didn't even see them," says Merritt. The goal of the assignment is to "reexperience the city of Chicago as if it's a foreign place to you."

Ten weeks later, the students have formed into four groups, each of which has produced a tour. On the last day of class, presentation day, the room is extra crowded; the guests include study-abroad staff members: Dean John Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, and Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the City of Chicago.

Each group leads a virtual tour, using slides and commentary. The first tour, Personal Places, Beautiful Spaces, includes stops at the members' favorite spaces on and near campus: the Osaka Garden, the Law School reflecting pool, a "squashy gray couch" in Pick Hall, Eckhart Library. In each place, the students explain, "we attempt to reconnect with the personal and reconsider our familiar environment in light of study abroad."

The Fringe Tour, which requires a bicycle, looks at "the fringes of UChicago": the Fountain of Time sculpture, the Hyde Park Arts Center, Louis Farrakhan's house in Woodlawn, the Drexel Square fountain. It ends at the mulberry tree outside the Quad Club with the instruction to eat some of the ripe berries. "If you collect enough, perhaps you might even like to make a pie."

The Reorientation Experience supplies clues to guess the stops: "Provost Richard Saller once said about UChicago, 'On our campus, it's not the biggest football game that draws the biggest crowd, it's the evening study in the library.' Head north to the space that has housed crowds for both." The destination, of course, is Old Stagg Field/Regenstein. This tour ends in the Pub.

The tour called Why Are You Here and Not Somewhere Else? begins with a pointed question posed by a work of art at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. On the tour the students explain, "At times you will be uncomfortable, at times you will be reflective, and you will always see your surroundings in a new light."

 


Required reading

According to the syllabus, the aim of The Ugly American Comes Home is "to interrogate not only the experience of studying and living abroad, but also the condition of coming home and facing a range of needs to assimilate and articulate your experiences."

During the course, students read The Pig and the Skyscraper: Chicago: A History of Our Future by Marco d'Eramo, Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China by Rachel DeWoskin, We Are All Islanders to Begin With: The University of Chicago in the Late 19th and 20th Centuries by John W. Boyer, The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson.

Tagged: study abroad, College Newsletter