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.