I recently gave a midterm in my section of Myths of the World, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.
I have been extremely proud, and more than a little shocked, that since introducing this version of the midterm in my classes, several students have told me that they actually had “fun” answering the essay question.
The essay asks students to make comparisons between texts we have read by considering the question:
What makes a hero?
In class, as we read each text, I have challenged them to think about several issues related to this topic:
- By what means does the author establish for us that the character is heroic? What details of his/her representation make it clear that we are meant to valorize a certain character? What do these choices help us understand about what it means to be heroic in the context of the story?
- How does the depiction of heroic figures help us to understand the beliefs, attitudes, and values of the society that produced them? If a hero is represented as an ideal, an object of admiration and aspiration, what does this show us about the traits and behaviors that were valorized in a particular culture?
- How might stories of heroic figures inspire but also constrain real individuals in a society as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to be?
- Would we, now, consider this figure heroic? Why or why not? How does this help us understand our own sociocultural beliefs, attitudes, and values?
The exam asks them to consider these questions in relation to two of the texts we have read and discussed in class so far, but it also adds an unexpected element:
Then, for your final paragraph, choose a heroic figure from our own contemporary culture. This doesn’t necessarily need to be your own personal hero – it should be someone you feel is admired by a large number of people in our society. This could be a fictional character (like a superhero, or action hero), or a real person who is considered a hero by a significant portion of society. Discuss what this heroic figure reveals about our own cultural values, AND, whether this represents a change from the values of the ancient cultures you discussed, or remains consistent with those ancient values.
This is the part my students really like. Making connections between the stories we have read and their own experience and frame of reference helps make the texts we have read together seem more meaningful to them. And they love having the opportunity to talk about stories and characters that they feel strongly about, and comment on aspects of their own culture and society.
The first time I gave students this question, I was fascinated to see which figures my students picked, so this time around I decided to catalog their responses.
Here is an overview of my students’ choice of heroes.
Sixty-six students responded to the essay. The nature of the class ensures that I get a broad cross-section of students from the university–all levels, ages, and disciplines.
The most popular choices overall were:
- Black Panther
- Barack Obama
I found it interesting how many of my students chose to discuss a superhero, rather than a real person, but then the superhuman heroic figure resonates strongly with the mythic heroes we have read about in the course.
Of the superheroes chosen, students overall zeroed in on the classic favorites (Superman, Batman, etc.), but I was fascinated to see how many were influenced by the recent release of Black Panther. I was surprised, on the other hand, that summer’s release of the Wonder Woman reboot did not have more of an impact.
A random point: I noticed that my students referred to these characters exclusively by their superhero persona, with one exception. All the students who chose Iron Man discussed him as both Iron Man and Tony Stark in their writing. While many superheroes have a “mild-mannered” secret identity that contrasts with their more forceful heroic persona, Tony Stark is just as bold and brazen as his superhero incarnation, and students seemed to recognize heroic qualities in both personas.
The most striking aspect of the essays was the representation of race, gender, and sexual orientation in my students’ selections.1
Though my classroom is extremely diverse, my students more frequently selected white heroes over people of color. The most common choices representing people of color were Black Panther and Beyoncé, while Barack and/or Michelle Obama have been popular choices both this year and last.
Even more pronounced was the disparity between male and female. Ranked by frequency of selection, only one woman made it into the top ten: Beyoncé. The other women chosen were Michelle Obama, Wonder Woman, and Mulan. None of the individuals selected by students were acknowledged transgender or intersex individuals.
One of the most striking disparities was the lack of representation of diverse sexual identities. Only one individual selected by one student was openly queer: Wonder Woman. In one way, I found this extremely surprising, since I know that many of my students are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and was surprised that they weren’t more actively and pointedly choosing queer characters. On the other hand, in a way it’s not surprising at all, since our culture furnishes so few visible examples of heroic figures who happen to be queer–particularly in mainstream media.
When I shared this breakdown with my students, I explained that this was precisely the point: to think about how our society conceptualizes heroism, and under what conditions individuals are able to be valorized as heroic figures. I emphasized that I was not criticizing their choices as biased; they were, after all, instructed to choose not necessarily their own personal heroes but popular heroic figures for our society. Instead the point was this: what kinds of heroes do our culture and our media make visible?
It seems we have our answer.
1. Five students selected not a specific individual, but a class such as “firefighters,” “police officers,” or “military personnel.” These were excluded from the demographic breakdown. ↩