HKU Bulletin June 2011 (Vol. 12 No. 2)

Icon for the Course: 'Catastrophes, Cultures, and the Angry Earth.' Professor Xu Guoqi Diverse in scope While writing a major book on Sino-American relations for Harvard University Press, Dr Xu is offering a research seminar for undergraduate students starting this spring and titled 'Chinese and Americans: a cultural and international history.' In this course, he asks his students to choose a subject for research and then inform the rest of the class of what they have found. "One student researched the role of Korea in China-US relations, another talked about Chinese prostitutes in San Francisco in the 19 th century, and another looked at the image of Japan in US- China relations. I didn't know anything about these subjects. It was the students' job to convince me of what they had learned. They find it very exciting, and it also makes it more interesting for me as a teacher." For a small Department of just eleven regular academics, the courses on offer are remarkable diverse in scope. Those eleven academics hail from nine different countries. "We all bring something unique," says Dr Xu. "This concentration of international expertise is not available anywhere else in the world." And he argues, "It could be said that no-one else in the world can do what we are doing here, because of the unique mixture of international expertise and our location on China's doorstep. We are the only University in Asia to have launched a Centre focusing on Humanities and Medicine, for example. I believe that what we are doing here can really stand out globally." Those who think of History as a fusty, dusty subject best relegated to the pages of ... well, history, may be forced to think again. For the Department of History has unveiled a series of common core subjects that has had students scrambling to sign up. And it's not hard to see why, with titles that could have been plucked from the pages of this morning's paper: 'Catastrophes, Cultures and the Angry Earth' sounds more like news than history, given the recent earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Sendai, Japan. Such was the attraction of the Department's common core submissions that it remains the only Department in the Faculty of Arts to have all five contributions accepted. Alongside the aforementioned 'Catastrophes' are 'Battles for Bodies: Public Health in the Modern World' , which promises to explore the position of governments in managing the most intimate aspects of our existence, from the food we eat to our sexual behaviour; 'Making History: Engaging with the Powerful Past' , which asks why we should care about the past and what relevance it might have to our future. It also poses the question, 'Is there such a thing a 'true' historical account?' Meanwhile, 'Contagions: Global Histories of Disease' seems particularly apt in the age of swine flu and regular doomsday warnings of influenza pandemics. It investigates the ways in which epidemics have shaped the modern world and wonders how globalization has contributed to the spread of disease. Finally, 'Sports and Chinese Society' , to be offered from next year to coincide with the London Olympic Games, will deal with the body, mind and spirit. Fun and interesting Undergraduate co-ordinator, Professor Xu Guoqi, who will be teaching 'Sports and Chinese Society' , says it was the overall attraction of the five subjects that led to every one being accepted. "The standard criteria for common core subjects are that they be attractive to the University's general community. Secondly they must be exciting, and all of our history courses are based on cutting edge research. A lot of what we do in this Department is new, nobody has covered it before. So we make history interesting, exciting and relevant based on our research. You cannot take these types of courses anywhere else in the world, because each of us is an authority in the area we are teaching. "For us, teaching and learning are complementary. Everything that we offer is relevant to students' lives - the human body, the powerful past, natural disasters. They're all very topical. Everyone thinks History is boring, but for us it's so relevant to reality. We make it fun and interesting." Another course Professor Xu has been teaching explores China's relation to the wider world since 1600. "It's a very popular course," he says. So popular, in fact, that it was oversubscribed. "Students assume History is all about memory, but we tell them we don't have exams, we emphasize critical thinking in writing and research skills. This is important for any career. We force students to go beyond conventional wisdom and to think creatively. We have leading scholars in their field here and for us it is both a teaching and a learning process. I learn from the students too." Teaching and Learning 25 The University of Hong Kong Bulletin June 2011 A New Approach to an Old Subject Sexing up the history curriculum is paying dividends.