Thoughts on teaching Islam in a “Great Books” style

At Shimer College, we pride ourselves on teaching “primary texts” as much as possible. The goal here is to make sure that all the reading we assign is “discussable,” which secondary sources providing background usually are not. In general, I prefer this approach, but so far in my Islam class, I have begun to see its limitations. Class discussions have a greater number of uncomfortable silences than usual, and it seems to be mostly because the students don’t feel equipped to approach the texts.

On one level, this is strange, because although Islamic intellectual traditions are of course different from their various “Western” counterparts, they’re not that different. Indeed, in many cases they are drawing from literally the same broad traditions as the “Western” sources we discuss in other classes — above all, the biblical prophetic tradition and Aristotelian philosophy. In the grand scheme of things, the surah “The Cow” from the Qur’an is more similar to Deuteronomy than different, and ibn Khaldun’s political philosophy is more similar to Machiavelli and Hobbes than different. Yet in both cases, the latter would most likely produce a much more fluid and comfortable conversation.

I’m not sure the problem is that the students lack background. It’s not as though the Islamic world has radically unintelligible social standards, and I’m confident that the texts I’ve provided have given them at least as good a rough and ready background on the general shape of cultural life as they tend to feel like they have of Greek society or medieval times. Most of their assumptions about the Greeks and medievals probably wouldn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, and I do sometimes cringe when students pull out a facile argument about how something would’ve made sense “in the culture of the time” — but that sense of initial familiarity, even if partly unfounded, gives them confidence.

Yet it’s not simply foreignness as such that’s at issue. I don’t have direct evidence here, but I suspect that students would be more prone to jump right in with texts from other “Eastern” traditions. They would come to those texts expecting to find fascinating new ideas unparalleled in the boring Western traditions with which they’re familiar — and even if their sense of knowing what to expect is unfounded, it gives them the confidence to get started.

With Islam, by contrast, American culture conveys a consistent impression of inscrutable Otherness, utter impenetrability. Orientalist scholarship of course exacerbates this, as even introductory works throw an unconscionable number of Arabic terms at their readers, creating the impression that Muslims make use of bizarre, foreign concepts that we Westerners can’t fully understand. Further, engaging with Islam feels much more fraught and dangerous than engaging with Buddhism. Political circumstances give us the sense that it’s urgently important to “understand Islam,” but fear of making insensitive remarks or perpetuating stereotypes produces a unique degree of reticence and caution.

In the short term, I plan to deal with this problem next semester by simply giving up and using more secondary sources in my course over the Qur’an, for instance by opening the course with Sells’ much-recommended Approaching the Qur’an and using a translation of the Qur’an with much more robust explanatory notes. If students feel like they need more background to get started discussing, I’m probably not going to achieve much by repeatedly insisting they don’t.

In the long term, though, I think the only solution for Shimer College, if it wants to remain faithful to its general approach while doing the needed work of exposing students to Islamic thought, is to include Islamic sources alongside Western sources as a self-evident part of the dialogue that we’re trying to create. This doesn’t mean that every course must include Islamic sources, but I do think we would be well served to include Islamic texts beyond the obvious realm of philosophy and theology — why can’t ibn Khaldun appear alongside Hobbes and Machiavelli, or why couldn’t we read portions of ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic? Why can’t we read Hallaq alongside Foucault?

Yes, this would mean cutting something out in order to make room, but maybe every “Great Books”-style curriculum would do well to give up on the self-defeating goal of “covering everything” and think more intently about what we want students to get out of the texts and their juxtaposition (aside from checking them off the list of books that “everyone must read”). I’m sure that if we really had to justify every choice on a pedagogical level, we would find that no, we don’t actually need to read every single canonical early-modern political theorist, for instance, since our students are not at the level where they can detect the fine distinctions among them anyway. And in some cases, we may indeed find that the Islamic sources are actually more accessible and more suited to a background-free, “Great Books”-style approach than some of the Western texts we throw at them.

Speaking as one with authority

As I grow more accustomed to Shimer’s discussion-centered pedagogy, I am increasingly coming to understand that a big part of my job is not simply to encourage students to speak in class, correcting them or encouraging them as appropriate, keeping them on task and on topic. Instead, it seems to me that I’m there to provide and model certain ways of talking about the material. This is most acute in teaching music, where most students find themselves at a loss for what to say. Some of them will claim that they want something called “music theory,” and I have sometimes not taken that claim as seriously as I could because it was so obvious to me that knowing technical music theory would not be helpful to them in the way they hoped. In a recent conversation about how class was going, though, a student rephrased that request in a way that made much more sense to me: they want to be able to feel like they’re speaking with some kind of authority. They don’t need to be experts, but they want to feel confident that they’re not making up something totally random and off-base.

As my humanities class has wrapped up a unit on modernism, it struck me that, quite unintentionally, that was what I had done with the theoretical texts we used (Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art). Both of the texts centered on a broad opposition between two terms (Dionysian and Apollonian, earth and world) and gave some indication of how that opposition might play out in terms of particular artworks — and that was enough. Even if students didn’t feel sure how to apply the terms to the artwork at hand, they were at least able to say something concrete about why they were having difficulty. And once that base-level confidence that one is saying something concrete and relevant was achieved, it seems like the biggest problem was overcome.

The basic oppositions were far from the only thing that we talked about, but they opened up the space for the things we talked about. In many ways, the very uncertainty about how (and even whether) the terms might apply to a given artwork was beneficial — unlike with purely technical terms, there was no clear-cut right or wrong answer, so students could feel comfortable playing with them.

The question I’m now pondering is what kinds of texts might be able to do the same work in a first-year class rather than in a capstone for upper-level students. It seems to me that the Nietzsche and Heidegger texts are too difficult to throw at first-year students if the goal is for them to get rough-and-ready tools that let them start talking with confidence. At the same time, we currently use extremely technical primary texts about harmonic intervals, etc., so perhaps Nietzsche and Heidegger would be an improvement over that.

What I’m teaching this semester

This semester, I’m teaching Humanities 4: Critical Evaluation in the Humanities (syllabus), an elective on The Devil in Christian Thought (syllabus), and a small tutorial/directed reading that I’m calling Heidegger’s Middle Period (provisional syllabus). It’s a pretty exciting teaching slate for me, for a lot of reasons. First, I obviously get a chance to teach over my ongoing research, which should prove helpful in a lot of ways. Second, teaching Humanities 4, which has been in an “experimental phase” for the last few years, allows me to have a more direct hand in helping to shape the curriculum than I would normally have, and the music and art sections should help me to consolidate some of the skills I gained teaching the fine arts course last semester. Finally, this will be my first time doing a tutorial, and it should be fun to dig more deeply into Heidegger’s work with some students who already have a thorough reading of Being and Time under their belt.

Aside from my Shimer work, I’m also going to be doing a directed reading with Stephen Keating over Agamben, which should be helpful as I have a major conference paper over his work coming up this spring and will also very likely be working on more translations soon. (I prefer not to discuss this in detail until it’s finalized.)

What about you, my dear readers? What are you teaching this semester?

On being an ignorant schoolmaster

Inside Higher Ed has published an expanded version of my piece on teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. The most notable addition is an introductory bit on Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster.

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Reminder about Shimer’s new transfer scholarship

This is a reminder that the deadline for applying to Shimer College’s new two-year, full-tuition scholarship for transfer students is next Friday, November 15. In addition to sumbitting the regular application materials, students will need to write a brief essay reflecting on a piece by Adrianne Rich. Over the subsequent two weeks, all applicants will do an interview with a Shimer faculty member where they will discuss the Rich essay, among other things. The recipient will be announced on December 6.

If you know of any students who may be interested in applying to Shimer, please let them know about this opportunity.

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Text of my devil lecture

Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil,” and the text of my talk is available in PDF form here. The talk is aimed at an undergraduate level, and so I did not include much theoretical or scholarly discussion. You can get a sense of how I see these ideas relating to the discipline of political theology, however, if you keep in mind that this recent post was written while I was drafting the lecture.

“A Brief History of the Devil”: Lecture at Shimer College

On Wednesday, October 30, at 3:15, I will be giving a lecture a Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil.” It will be a partial sneak preview of my long-promised project on the devil, providing what one early reader of the text for the lecture calls “a really good reckless dash through the history of devil thought.”

Shimer College is located at 3424 S. State St. in Chicago, blocks away from the 35th St. Green and Red Line stops. The lecture is in the Cinderella lounge on the second floor of our building. Feel free to e-mail me at a.kotsko at shimer dot edu for further details. It is rumored that drinks at Maria’s Community Bar in Bridgeport, along with fortification from the Pleasant House Library, may follow this event.


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