CIE Expands Its Footprint Through Collaboration with Chinese University of Hong Kong
This year, a global component has been added to select sections of the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) thanks to the college’s ongoing partnership with the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
Students in CIE sections led by Paul Stern, professor of politics, and Robert Dawley, professor of biology and co-director of the Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good, are collaborating with students in CUHK’s “In Dialogue with Nature,” which is part of the General Education Foundation Program for first-year students. Over the course of the semester, students study two texts: one from the Ursinus syllabus (The Allegory of the Cave, an excerpt from Plato’s The Republic) and one from the CUHK syllabus (Science and Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham).
Students come together twice synchronously and then, periodically, asynchronously. With a 12-hour time difference, students and faculty on both continents have been flexible for the synchronous sessions, with one group logging on at 7:30 a.m. and the other logging on at 7:30 p.m.
“Using technology to facilitate this kind of cross-cultural collaboration and expand our students’ worldview is important,” said Associate Dean and Professor of English Meredith Goldsmith, who helped coordinate the program in conjunction with Dr. Kenneth Li of CUHK, and other CUHK faculty and staff. “This partnership started under the late President Bobby Fong, but it has endured … And in a period when study abroad has been suspended due to COVID-19, we wanted to create additional opportunities for students to get to know people and cultures that are far away. The hope is that this will inspire students, in that once they’ve experienced some international contact, they’re going to want to do more.”
Both sets of faculty have created videos to help teach the texts. For professors at CUHK, that has meant videos related to Chinese philosophy. On the flip side, our faculty worked with Tommy Armstrong ’20, who is now a digital communications specialist for the college, to create a video about The Allegory of the Cave.
Noah Garber ’20 is another graduate who is involved in the course. As a one-time international relations major who studied at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, he is sensitive to some of the political issues in Hong Kong. “He’s our diplomacy and etiquette expert,” said Goldsmith. “He facilitates conversations and helps determine topics that would help engage students from both ends of the partnership.”
It is an issue that faculty members from each institution discussed during frequent summer planning sessions via Zoom.
“We talked with our colleagues there about just how restrictive the conversation might have to be given what’s going on politically in Hong Kong with the crackdown by the Chinese on various democratic institutions, which obviously would include the university system, and especially since CIE encourages students to think about the principles of their political community and assess them,” said Stern.
Given that The Allegory of the Cave analogizes the political community to a cave, in which the inhabitants are compelled to watch shadows that they think is their reality but is really manipulation on the part of political rulers, Stern said it was inevitable that the issue of repression would be a topic of conversation. But the students of CUHK were more than willing to discuss—quite candidly—those issues.
“It’s really gratifying to know how deeply committed they are—as we are—to genuine liberal education,” said Stern. “One of the things that is most impressive to me is that we engage in this kind of question-based inquiry, really trying to think of the premises—moral, political, and religious—of our lives, and it’s difficult; there are obstacles to it. But we don’t really face the kind of concrete obstacles that our colleagues in Hong Kong face. Their willingness to do that shows the worth of what we’re doing, that people are willing to take those risks—and there are risks. What they do and say online is monitored. It reaffirms how valuable this kind of inquiry is.”
For Dawley, collaborating with CUHK faculty members Kenneth Li, Ph.D., and Sandy Hoi, Ph.D. (who visited Ursinus and worked with our faculty in 2017 as part of the CIE Summer Institute), has felt very familiar. “The Chinese University of Hong Kong is a liberal arts university that must be a lot like Ursinus. Getting to know Kenneth and Sandy seemed more like meeting the same members of a global academic intelligentsia than it did like meeting people from a really different culture. There are probably important cultural differences that we never had time to dig down into, but frankly I was more struck by the similarities. As a non-social scientist, I was experiencing the phenomenon of globalization.”
On average, Dawley did not find any significant differences in points of view between Ursinus students and CUHK students in regard to The Allegory of the Cave. He is curious if that will change with the second text of the semester.
“Science and Civilisation in China is a traditional reading about traditional Chinese Science, which is a worldview different from modern science in some important ways. Most of the CUHK students are science majors, so I’m curious to learn to what extent they are already deeply immersed in modern science. It will be interesting to see if there is a range of students who adopt both traditional and modern versus if any reject traditional Chinese science and fully embrace modern science. We may see some more differences there.”
The collaboration will repeat in the spring semester with, in the U.S., CIE sections led by Chair and Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies Sheryl Goodman and Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Nathan Rein, and, in China, students in CUHK’s “In Dialogue with Humanity” course.