Draft syllabus: Intro to Islamic Thought

I have completed a draft syllabus for the Introduction to Islamic Thought elective I’ll be teaching at Shimer this fall. While I still have time to tinker — and I am most open to suggestions on the selections from the Qur’an — I am basically “locked in” on the books I’m using and don’t have the space to add anything into an already crowded syllabus. I hope to offer the course again soon as a way of solidifying my own knowledge, though, so I’d keep any suggestions in mind for future iterations.

One challenge of offering this course at Shimer is the fact that our primary source-only, no-lecture format made it very difficult to work in the necessary background information. Hence I lean on ibn Khaldun to give me background on Bedouin life and on the Caliphate (the excerpts at the beginning and middle of the syllabus, respectively), in addition to treating him as an important thinker in his own right at the end of the course. I am also using extracts from ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, supplemented by a simple timeline to help them get the overall flow of the narrative. At times I sneak the editor or translator’s introductions into the reading assignment as well.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to the various advice threads I’ve posted. You may be hearing from me again in the fall, as I’m planning to propose an elective for the spring semester on the Qur’an. It’s long past time for me to seriously engage with Islam — and even if it didn’t exactly fit with my plans for the summer to develop a course on the topic, I’m glad that Shimer gave me the necessary kick in the pants by assigning me to do it.

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Progress on my Islamic thought course

I’ve been making slow and steady progress on developing my course in Islamic thought for the fall. I’m starting to see that one of the benefits of Shimer’s text-centered approach is that it makes room for professors to be more exploratory in their course offerings. After all, it’s not as though I need to be writing authoritative lectures every day — as long as I can be confident that I’ve picked texts that are broadly representative of important trends and widely recognized as being among the most exemplary achievements in Islamic thought, we should be okay. At the same time, the requirement to use primary texts does present a particular challenge for non-Western topics, because I can’t assume the broad (if vague) familiarity most American students would have with the background of most of the relevant historical periods, etc.

Right now I know I need to devote a significant chunk at the beginning to Muhammad and the Qur’an. I am planning to use some supplemental contemporary articles here, particularly on issues relating to women. For background, I’m considering trying ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, along with selected hadith. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through the whole Qur’an or if that should even be a priority.

A second unit that I had in mind from the start was on Islamic legal reasoning. It’s a big topic and could perhaps make a good course on its own (maybe paired with rabbinic legal reasoning?). I’m currently inclined to skip it unless I can find an accessible anthology of major original thinkers in Shari’a law — something like that would be the biggest recommendation I would hope for in comments.

Either way, I’d conclude with a kind of “greatest hits” of the Big Names in Islamic Thought: al-Arabi, al-Ghazali (particularly Deliverance from Error, which seems like the nearest equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions), ibn-Sina, ibn-Rushd, ibn-Khaldun. A colleague gave me a copy of ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, which seems like a fun text to include. Fitting in some Rumi might be nice — in general I’m not as sure of footing on Sufi mysticism. I feel like I have good leads kalam and Islamic philosophy, but I’d be grateful for further suggestions, particularly from people who have actually taught the primary texts.

Including women will be a challenge. I’ve been in dialogue with Laleh Bakhtiar of Kazi Publishing in Chicago, who has been very generous with review copies and has a translation of the Qur’an that I may use. I’m already planning to highlight “women’s issues,” and I can emphasize the role of Muhammad’s wives in early Islamic politics, etc., but it’d be nice to find at least something like a woman Sufi saint’s biography or her own writings.

I invite suggestions and criticisms!

Zizek’s pedagogy: Or, The id of the academic mainstream

For decades, Zizek has been expressing his disdain for teaching. Now, for whatever reason, people are choosing to get worked up about it on Twitter. What’s striking to me is not merely the fact that Zizek’s views on this matter were already well-known — rather, it’s abundantly obvious that his claims are only slight exaggerations of widespread attitudes in academia.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

I’ve seen a couple theories on Twitter that Zizek is attempting to subvert the teaching profession from within, but if so, he’s remarkably dedicated to the bit — by all reports, he really does neglect his students totally. We don’t need to posit some kind of conscious intention on his part to use his approach as a starting point for reflection, though. It does seem as though most universities do not highly value teaching. They show this through their standards for advancement and through their staffing practices, which treat the majority of teaching faculty as totally disposable. They rely on people’s passion and/or guilt to generate acceptable pedagogical results. Zizek is in a unique position as an academic who can walk away from any faculty position and be totally fine, and that enables him to take the “offer meant to be refused” and treat teaching as a pointless formality compared to his real work. In other words, as ethically objectionable as we might find Zizek’s pedagogical practices, the real problem is the system that makes his approach plausible.

Islam course idea

As I work on my Islam course for the fall, it occurs to me that I’ll likely have more material than I can use in one course. Hence, I’m pondering the idea of proposing another Islam-related elective for the spring semester as well, which would have the added benefit of helping me solidify my own preliminary grasp on Islamic thought. I’ve thought especially about something like the Qur’an and the Bible, and more recently about something comparing St. Paul and Muhammed. What do you think, readers? Does any of this sound plausible, particularly that last idea?

On that one grade inflation article that’s going around

You know, this one. I’ve never faced nearly the level of complaining that some do, perhaps because I’m an old softy and also perhaps because I’m a white dude with a beard. Maybe a combination of the two — one year I should shave and see if it makes a difference.

My general guideline is that the average for a given class should be in the B-range. I’ve had classes that are more at the B+ level and a couple that were closer to B-, but generally it seems about right. The problem I see conceptually, though, is that I don’t have “room” to make the kinds of distinctions I’d like to make. If B is average, then A is “solidly competent” — it’d be nice to have room for “mediocre” (C), “competent” (B), and “exemplary” (A). I wind up skewing it so that “competent” is in the B+/A- range, but obviously students don’t feel like those are similar grades at all. Another problem is that it doesn’t seem like there’s any actual role for a D. The distinctions are harder to make the worse the papers get, so it doesn’t make sense to have a wider range of distinctions on the low end of the scale.

As the article points out, though, however satisfying it would be to recalibrate back to a grading system that actually reflects our sense of the quality of the work, it’s not realistic as long as the stakes are so high. Does a student really “deserve” to lose a scholarship, for example, because one professor is randomly being a hard-ass and grading “correctly”? Do they deserve to have their career prospects permanently blighted?

I don’t think they do, but I can only treat the symptoms by grading according to generally accepted grade inflation practices — the only real solution to grade inflation is to decouple college from debt and brutal meritocratic competition. Then people could study what they want to if they show an aptitude for it, and we could afford to do that because we’re the richest society ever in human history and maybe we can get by with fewer baristas so that people can enrich their lives, get in touch with their cultural heritage, and learn useful skills. It would cost money, but there are huge piles of money in corporate coffers and rich people’s bank accounts that are doing nothing but either sitting there or else promoting asset-price bubbles — so we could just take all that money away from them and do something that contributes to something with a recognizably human meaning and purpose. And then our grades would not be inflated and everyone would be happy.

The Broken Hammer

It is something of a commonplace in Heidegger interpretation that the famous example of the broken hammer provides us access to the present-at-hand (as opposed to ready-at-hand) and hence to the scientific stance toward things. When my class read the relevant section in Being and Time, therefore, I expected them to see this in the text — and yet they obstinately refused to do so. In fact, I think my insistence on this common interpretation hobbled our understanding of Heidegger’s actual account of the scientific attitude through the rest of the semester.

The actual point of the broken hammer example is to give us access to the world as such. When I confront a broken hammer, I don’t immediately reflect on the raw materials (except insofar as they might account for its brokenness, its unsuitability for its purpose) — instead, I reflect explicitly on the network of purposes to which the hammer belongs. Our ordinary absorption into our tasks does not allow for such reflection; only when the world “stops working” do we have the necessary distance. (Heidegger’s account of animal life in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics helps to clarify this aspect of our relationship to the world by contrast. The animal’s disinhibitor ring never “stops working” in such a way as to allow room for explicit reflection.)

This distance from the world might lead one to reflect further that the world of human products and purposes is not infallibly effective, hence that the beings we encounter do not exist solely for us. This gives us access to the present-at-hand (beings in their brute existence abstracted from any human purpose), but merely viewing things as present-at-hand is not yet the scientific attitude. (Basic Problems of Phenomenology has an interesting section that traces the origin of the Greek ontology to the experience human production, which accounts for the ontological privilege of the present-at-hand as what something “really” is, before receiving a human-imposed form.)

As he clarifies in chapter 4 of division 2, the shift to science takes place when we project upon beings in a new way — above all, when we project the present-at-hand as belonging to a total system called “nature,” which is defined by its mathematizable laws. This projection leads to a “project” in the normal sense of the word, which requires considerable practical labor and technical apparatuses (i.e., science is not about abstracting from the practical in order to get at the theoretical). And this aspect of projection is why Heidegger needs to wait until this late in division 2, because he needs to have the “future-first” temporality structure in order to account for the unique scientific form of projection.

When I brought this interpretation up with my handful of Heidegger tutorial students (who spent the spring semester following up on Being and Time by reading several of his seminars from that period), they all seemed to think it made a lot more sense. I apologize to the other students for misleading them and promise that I’ll do better next time. I also apologize to any readers for whom this was always painfully obvious.

A hypothetical course on Islam

Let’s say, just in theory, that a friend of mine were to be assigned to teach an introductory course on Islamic thought at a college with a discussion-centric pedagogy based on primary texts. Let’s say further that this friend of mine wants to strike a balance between Islamic scripture, legal reasoning, philosophy, art, and literature — perhaps capping off the course with a modern novel in an Islamic setting. What would you recommend to this completely hypothetical person?

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.

Can we all just admit that the Prolegomena sucks?

I love Kant, but I think we all need to just need to admit that the Prolegomena failed to achieve its intention. It claims to be an introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, but it is borderline incomprehensible if you don’t already broadly know what the Critique is all about. It works as a supplement and at times as a clarification, but certainly not as an introduction or exposition.

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?

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