Educational Voyage
Through USC Dornsife’s many study abroad opportunities, students gain a more worldly perspective and a greater appreciation for the global community. Illustrations by Andrew Cobb for USC Dornsife Magazine.

Educational Voyage

Bookpacking in Louisiana. Examining art and culture in Cuba. Digging up ancient artifacts in Greece. Exploring hip hop culture in Paris. USC Dornsife students reap the educational rewards of travel — benefiting from a tradition that stretches back as far as ancient times.
BySusan Bell

Max Novak will never forget the moment he pulled a bronze Hellenic sword out of the ground.

“It’s one thing to see it cleaned up … in a museum,” the classics and art history major said, “but another to pull it out of the ground … covered in dirt and thousands of years old.”

Novak, who graduated in 2017, achieved this remarkable feat last summer during an archaeological dig in the Greek city of Thebes where a sanctuary to the Greek god Poseidon once stood.

He was able to travel to Greece as one of the first recipients of three annual $5,000 Kallins Hellenic Studies Summer Fellowships, which offer a new opportunity for undergraduate and graduate research and travel through the Classics Department. The award is open to anyone who has taken a course in classics, regardless of their declared major, as a way to encourage students to study Greek history where it unfolded.

Novak’s participation in archaeological digs reinforced his interest in archaeology and material culture, he said. He’s now studying for his master’s in a program combining classical art and archaeology at the University of Oxford.

After spending a year in Greece as a graduate student, Greg Thalmann, professor of classics and comparative literature, knows firsthand the value travel brings to education.

“It was a transformative year, traveling all over Greece, then working on an excavation,” he said. “I really understand how enriching this kind of experience can be for students because of what it did for me.”

Thalmann believes that having that visual and tactile experience with history helps students become better scholars, better citizens and better human beings.

“One of the things that humanities do best is give students an understanding of people who are not them, who are different, whether it’s through literature, arts or history,” he said. “It makes us more ready to be empathetic with people different from ourselves.”

The idea that travel plays a vital role not only in a well-rounded education, but in creating a well-rounded human being, is not new. In fact, we can trace it as far back as the Roman Empire, when elite Romans serving as governors of distant provinces took young aristocrats with them to gain experience. By the second century B.C., powerful and wealthy Romans were traveling to Athens to study philosophy.

By 400 A.D., the value of travel in expanding the mind is so widely accepted that Saint Augustine of Hippo makes the still oft-quoted quip that “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Skip to 17th-century Europe and we see the dawn of the Grand Tour — a widely-practiced custom that will endure for two centuries in which young members of the European aristocracy and members of the wealthy landed classes embark on lengthy and lavish voyages to explore the cultural patrimony of classical antiquity and the Renaissance.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The desire to help students reap the rich rewards of travel sparks the development of USC Dornsife’s innovative Problems Without Passports (PWP) and Maymester programs, which take students on learning experiences across the globe. Here, USC Dornsife faculty and students describe the benefits of these programs and trace the historical antecedents that inspired them.

Travel teaches us to respect other people and cultures and creates a fuller education for our students, making them responsible world citizens, argues Peter Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and professor of history and anthropology at USC Dornsife.

“While we recognize that we can provide a great education on campus in Los Angeles, there’s a much wider world out there,” he said. “Travel opens the mind, not just intellectually, but in ways that will help students handle the challenges they’ll encounter for the rest of their lives.”

The Grand Tour

A noted authority on travel in the early modern era, Mancall points to 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Europe and the legacy of the Grand Tour as the defining historical example of a travel-based educational rite of passage.

“No British person, for instance, could claim to be educated during this period unless they had seen Italy, France and Greece, had gone to the places where the ancients walked, had seen the Colosseum,” said Mancall.

Indeed, travel became a prerequisite for holding any position of power and prestige within the British Empire — power, Mancall noted, that was not just about economic or military might, but about cultural superiority.

“Travel opens the mind, not just intellectually, but in ways that will help students handle the challenges they’ll encounter for the rest of their lives.”

“One had to prove one knew the world in order to come home and be part of the class of people that would govern and shape the world,” he said.

While the ostentatious displays of wealth associated with these voyages no longer play a role in modern-day educational travel, in many other ways the Grand Tour was a precursor to USC Dornsife’s PWP and Maymester courses: Young people were accompanied by tutors, or well-informed guides, just as USC Dornsife students travel with their professors while also drawing on the knowledge of local experts.

The Grand Tour also offered participants the opportunity to perfect a foreign language or to learn a new one. The opportunity to cultivate contacts — what today we call networking — was another draw.

“One expanded one’s circle of associates, which invariably brought advantages later in life,” Mancall said. “Those bonds are powerful, and you still see this in the modern world — with our own Trojan family, for instance.”

In return, there was an expectation that those on the Grand Tour should record their observations and experiences, which could then be passed on to society at large to improve its welfare. This seeing, recording and sharing with others is, as Mancall points out, the basis of modern scholarship.

Young people on a Grand Tour didn’t even behave so differently from students today. Just as 21st-century students snap selfies next to tourist landmarks, young men on a Grand Tour had their portraits painted against backdrops of iconic monuments. And just as modern explorers bring back souvenirs from a trip, those on the Grand Tour brought back cultural artifacts to display in their stately homes.

The popularity of the Grand Tour declined with the democratization of travel in the mid-19th century, but its influence persists today.

However, Mancall notes, while modern study abroad programs share similarities with the traditions they grew out of, there are also important differences.

“Unlike the time of the Grand Tour, where it was almost always those from an elite class traveling abroad, at USC Dornsife we are trying to broaden the benefits of a liberal arts education to as wide a population as possible,” he said. “With our extensive financial aid, we want to make it possible for those who might not otherwise be able to afford to see a different place, to go there as part of a class. That opens up new opportunities that are good for our students and good for society.”

Paris through another lens

Most first-time visitors to Paris focus on the French capital’s much-romanticized tourist triumvirate: the holy grail of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées. Edwin Hill, associate professor of French and Italian and American studies and ethnicity, introduces his students to a very different side of the City of Lights.

Illustration depicting hip-hop in Paris.

Students in Edwin Hill’s Maymester course “Global Ciphas — Hip-hop Circles Around the World” discover an unexpected side to Paris culture.

Students on Hill’s Maymester course “Global Ciphas — Hip-hop Circles Around the World” venture off the beaten track to discover the vibrant creativity of Paris street art and the French capital’s unexpectedly dynamic hip-hop scene.

It is a side of Paris that Hill says is hidden in plain sight, but which tourists usually miss because they are so focused on seeing the established landmarks.

As well as examining the history of cultural movement within the larger framework of the African diaspora, students are invited to think about how hip-hop culture, cultural objects and artifacts, and practitioners, move back and forth between the United States and France.

Hill traces this exchange back to the Jazz Age and the many African-American musicians, dancers and writers who traveled to Paris, which was viewed as a space of refuge, creativity and growth.

“There’s definitely a lineage there, a special relationship that exists between African Americans and France,” said Hill, whose book Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) explores this period.

“What’s interesting today is that you discover that hiphop is its own international global language that allows people to communicate across countries, across oceans, across continents,” he said. Visiting bastions of the Paris hip-hop scene like Djoon, a small club a stone’s throw from the august towers of the National Library of France, helps students begin to identify different genres, influences and styles.

“People might dance in the cipha, or exchange rhymes and pass the mike around the circle,” Hill said. “It’s something that you see a lot in African diasporic cultural forms, that coming together to form a circle and that being a special, even spiritual, place for the performance and shared creation of culture.”

A firm believer in the importance of travel, Hill says the experience of being able to live and study abroad as a student changed his life.

“It altered my understanding of the world, and my understanding of my place in the world,” he said. “It transforms your understanding of other people and it makes you care about the world in a new and really personal way. You read the news differently because you know people, and you know how events are going to affect their lives.”

Bridge building in Cuba

One such trip was USC Dornsife’s Maymester “Visualizing Cuba: Arts, Politics and Society in Today’s Cuba,” which enabled USC students from diverse majors to see through stereotypes about the island nation and its people.

Led by Ivette Gomez, assistant professor (teaching) of Spanish, the course allowed students to immerse themselves in Cuba’s vibrant culture while analyzing its visual arts, literature and music.

The students explored Old Havana, rode in vintage American cars along the Malecón, Havana’s fabled seafront promenade, and experienced the beauty of the country’s architecture. They visited Ernest Hemingway’s house, discussed Cuba’s upcoming elections with a Cuban political science professor and met a female Afro-Cuban rap duo.

Meeting journalists, artists, doctors, religious leaders, faculty, writers and musicians, students were able to explore issues related to international relations between Cuba and the U.S. and to learn more about Cuba’s universal health-care system and high literacy levels.

Staying in casas particulares (private homes) with Cuban families enabled students to get to know their hosts and familiarize themselves with the Cuban way of life.

“They immediately experienced the friendliness and hospitality of the Cuban people,” said Gomez, who grew up in Havana. “Many students told me, ‘This is not what I expected.’”

Indeed, the students were shocked to discover that the reality of Cuba is very different from the way it is often portrayed by politicians and media.

Economics major Nicholas Mockabee ’17 was struck not only by the lack of any visible military presence, something many students had expected to see, but also that Cubans embraced their American visitors with open arms.

“I had this preconceived notion that the Cuban people didn’t like Americans, that we just didn’t get along because of the whole Cold War situation, but it wasn’t like that at all,” he said.

Indeed, Gomez said the students were surprised to find they had so much in common, especially with younger Cubans.

They formed a close bond with Ollie, their young scuba diving, Afro-Cuban guide, who spoke perfect English, which he learned from listening to rap music.

“The students noticed how well-informed and political he was,” Gomez said. “They asked, ‘Will you ever leave Cuba?’ And he replied, ‘No, this is the moment to be here.’ ”

“We live in a very divided world, in a very divided nation, and only by stepping into other peoples’ cultures can we break out of the molds we have set for ourselves.”

Books in the Big Easy

Another groundbreaking Maymester takes students to Louisiana for “Bookpacking ‘The Big Easy’: A Cultural and Literary Journey.”

Award-winning British filmmaker and presenter Andrew Chater of English is the creator of the bookpacking concept, an innovative form of literary travel in which novels serve as portals through which participants explore regional history and culture.

The idea — a new, holistic approach to studying the humanities — grew out of something Chater has been doing all his life: traveling with novels that are set in, or somehow strongly linked to, the places he visits.

“What I find as I travel with books is that the book informs the place and the place informs the book,” he said. Chater, who picked Louisiana as the destination for his first USC Dornsife bookpacking course because of its extraordinarily vibrant and diverse literary culture, encourages students to use novels almost as guidebooks, so that literature, history, geography, politics, and social studies combine into a unified course of study.

Chater’s selection of novels for the course reflected a cultural gumbo, including works that addressed the region’s Creole, Cajun, rural white Protestant, Catholic and African-American roots. In New Orleans, the students read Walker Percy’s existential novel The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s rambunctious comedic romp, A Confederacy of Dunces. Students visited Baton Rouge, where they studied Robert Penn Warren’s tale of a corrupt Southern politician in All the King’s Men. They then spent time in Lafayette and Cajun country, where they met Ernest J. Gaines, author of the classic A Lesson Before Dying, set in the rural black South.

The course began in Grand Isle, an island off southern Louisiana that is the setting for Kate Chopin’s late 19th century novella The Awakening. Students stayed in a traditional wooden fisherman’s house on stilts overlooking the Gulf and followed in the steps of the book’s unorthodox heroine, Edna Pontellier, as they ambled along the sandy path that leads through the dunes and down to the sea.

English major Olivia Jones described how, when the students reached New Orleans, bookpacking informed a deeper understanding of the city, its history and its culture. “We had become part of that dialogue, part of the story of New Orleans,” she wrote in her course blog, “our books shedding light in corners of the city that would have otherwise been overlooked.”

If there is one thing Chater says he wants students to develop from this bookpacking experience, and indeed all USC Dornsife’s travel programs, it is a spirit of empathy.

“We live in a very divided world, in a very divided nation, and only by stepping into other peoples’ cultures can we break out of the molds we have set for ourselves,” he said. “It’s only by walking alongside people of different cultures, whether fictional characters or people we meet on our journeys, that we are able to appreciate their lives and learn to truly engage with each other.”

Find out how USC Dornsife Writer in Residence Geoff Dyer finds inspiration in travel — and learn a few tips.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring-Summer 2018 issue >>