By Sebastián Portilla, Class of 2025
Professor Caio Yurgel is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Duke Kunshan University. He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Freie Universitat Berlin, a postdoctoral fellowship at Peking University, and an incredible command over most Romanic languages. Yurgel’s admirable academic journey reveals his commitment to diversity appreciation and cultural exploration, which are core values of Duke Kunshan University. I took “The Art of Interpretation” (ARHU101) with him, where aside from honing my reading and writing skills, I immersed myself in distinct genres, embarking on a journey starting in 1580 with Michel de Montaigne and ending with a contemporary British comedy-drama Fleabag. It was a thrilling seven weeks during which the selection of texts provoked me to write wholeheartedly.
He begins the course by depicting a “cynical” student who sits at the back of the class and questions everything taught to them. Consumed in an above-it-all personality, the student seeks to shatter the professor’s authority, challenging the class’s content. Instead of resisting the student’s mindset, Prof. Yurgel lays back and acknowledges that the classroom is a bubble: a projection meant to depict authentic societal questions. By detaching himself from the traditional authority figure, he invites students’ criticism, transforming deprecating remarks into legitimate world critiques. It is no longer a bitter comment directed against a professor but at society itself, thus turning the authority figure into a mirror reflecting the student’s reality. Loosening the classroom’s power relations adds authenticity to lectures, where the professor becomes a vehicle for actuality rather than an untouchable superior shielded by a podium. Thus, the professor descends and becomes one with its students, forging a collaborative learning environment that fosters student engagement. Rather than discarding the student’s belief, Prof. Yurgel welcomes criticism by expanding on its foundations. It becomes a course where students teach with their experiences and learn from each other. In the Journal of Educational Psychology, Leonard Springer (Springer, Stanne, and Donovan 1999) concluded that peer-to-peer learning promoted academic performance, self-esteem, and interpersonal skills by allowing students to actively participate in discussions, acting both as learners and teachers. Learning matures by letting students and professors mutually take the reins, not by strengthening the normative authoritative power relation between professor and student.
Diversity’s Role in Global-Mindedness
Aside from unwinding the Student-Professor relationship, a purposeful selection of texts amplifies the course’s examination of the human condition. Along with the other faculty responsible for instructing ARHU 101, Prof. Yurgel selects topics that steer students into a personal space, resonating with their experiences and stories. For example, in the first week, the central subject is human identity, focusing on surroundings and cultural contexts. The third week’s theme is home and how immigration rethinks belonging. The readings for each week are deeply entrenched in a human theme likely to elicit a response in the student. Each week students must reflect on their stories and ask themselves how they have tackled these complicated questions. In writing their short stories, students will ponder what immigration, war, adolescence, and other topics mean to them, resulting in a unique introspection that transcends scholarly pursuits. It becomes therapizing: a humanities course that acknowledges its student’s emotions and stories.
Moreover, the texts Prof. Yurgel selects are engaging because they spotlight neglected voices, resulting in a diverse repertoire that resonates with the backgrounds of students. ARHU 101 rejects the quintessential privileged, white, heterosexual, and cis-gendered male stance. Prof. Yurgel uses stories that pay homage to the contexts behind the people at DKU. With a student body representing more than 50 countries, it is pivotal to include texts outside the Western Hemisphere, delving into the peculiarities of the Global South and Asia. For example, the course examines Ocean Vuong’s The Night Sky with Exit Wounds. A closer look into their poem “Immigrant Haibun” reveals a disheartening tale of a family forced to immigrate due to war, where their only solace lies in the stars above them, navigating them through a treacherous ocean.
Utilizing marginalized voices like Vuong’s improves critical thinking, cultural competence, and global citizenship. In the journal Research in Higher Education, Gerald Gurin (Gurin et al. 2002) established that introducing diverse perspectives in lectures improves abstract thought, for empathy becomes an integral part of a student’s identity construction. Exposure to ethnic-inclusive stories increases students’ social awareness by promoting cultural exchanges that foster compassion, challenge preconceived notions, and break down stereotypes. Moreover, sources from marginalized contexts invite students to consider viewpoints that differ from their countries’ mainstream narratives. Increased social awareness fosters cognitive and academic growth by rendering students more global-minded. Likewise, exposure to diverse perspectives strengthens DKU’s mission of forging global citizens, as students will know how to interact in dissimilar cultural contexts.
Implementing diverse perspectives outside of humanities courses is possible and essential to promoting inclusivity. For instance, the Social Sciences could encourage students to research vulnerable communities, leading to a well-rounded understanding of human behavior and societal structures. Political courses could instruct students to develop policies rooted in social justice, addressing inequalities, and advocating for marginalized groups. Artistic and creative classes could showcase art, music, literature, and films stemming from marginalized contexts, thus breaking down stereotypes and prejudices. STEM fields could foment scientific or engineering projects concentrating on topics that affect underrepresented groups, like health disparities or environmental challenges that affect a specific group. Diversity in education can exist in various ways, but it takes initiative from professors to incorporate it.
Tarot is Actually Good for your Brain
Additionally, Prof. Yurgel incorporates Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Way of Tarot, which, apart from exploring an uncelebrated context, delves into an ancestral art that has become integral to Western esoteric wisdom. It explains Tarot’s importance to Jodorowsky’s coming-of-age, citing a short chapter describing how a divination tool became his spiritual healing. Prof. Yurgel gave all their students a private Tarot reading, giving them an individualized outlook on their spiritual journeys. All students, regardless of nationality, wrote notably moving stories after their Tarot reading, demonstrating how unique and entertaining approaches to instruction (like Tarot) provoke students to reflect upon their lives and experiences, yielding a more resonant understanding of class content.
Likewise, implementing activities prioritizing students’ emotional intelligence is possible in most fields and can improve their interpersonal skills and overall well-being. Social Sciences courses could incorporate case studies analyzing real-life stories, fostering empathy by connecting students with others’ emotions and experiences. Implementing role-playing exercises in economics that simulate business interactions and negotiations could help students train their active listening and emotion management in professional settings. Artistic and Creative courses could encourage students to self-examine themselves in their work, reflecting on their emotions. STEM fields could assign group projects, allowing students to engage in communication, conflict resolution, and teamwork. Acknowledging students’ emotions has proven to aid their interpersonal skills and global citizenship, making its incorporation essential to educational development.
John Dewey’s (Dewey 1986) theoretical roots of service-learning claim individuals learn from their experiences and interactions with the world. Understanding new ideas stems from encounters with the world, deepened through emotions. In their work on the connection between emotion and learning, Felten, Gilchrist, and Darby (Felten, Gilchrist, and Darby 2019) further claim reflection bridges experiences with conceptual understanding, potentiating academic, moral, and moral knowledge. They assert experience needs critical review to encourage learners to form personal reasonings.
Emotion plays a significant role in helping learners understand a concept by catalyzing scientific thought. Learning necessitates the entire realm of human functioning—thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving—to impact a learner. Current studies show that it’s impossible to separate emotion from reasoning, as it is indispensable for rationality. Emotions are an “essential part of the thinking process” (Felten, Gilchrist, and Darby 2019). The elicitation of emotions activates imperative neurological networks that stimulate cognition. Referring to themes surrounding the human condition is more likely to evoke an emotional response from students as they can relate to the content. Reflecting on a human experience may lead to empathy, promoting a more holistic neurological process that leads to extensive cognition.
Prof. Yurgel acknowledges students’ comments, adopts a representative selection of texts, and allows students to reflect upon their experiences. The course gives students valuable agency where they can choose what to explore and express, permitting them to take the reins in their education. It’s also a cathartic space, full of works brimming with honesty and emotion. Despite covering deeply scholarly texts, the course always goes back to its human foundation, embracing sentiments and stories. Yurgel’s methods rely on the human condition, making it effortless to connect to their lectures. Their way of teaching recognizes humanity: an education that enlightens students.
Dewey, John. 1986. “Experience and Education.” The Educational Forum 50 (3): 241–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131728609335764.
Felten, Peter, Leigh Z Gilchrist, and Alexa Darby. 2019. “Emotion and Learning: Feeling Our Way toward a New Theory of Reflection in Service-Learning.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 12 (2). http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3239521.0012.204.
Gurin, Patricia, Eric Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin. 2002. “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review 72 (3): 330–67. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.72.3.01151786u134n051.
Springer, Leonard, Mary Elizabeth Stanne, and Samuel S. Donovan. 1999. “Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational