Help with course planning!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to be offering a course on the Qur’an next semester. One thing I didn’t factor in when I volunteered to do this, however, is how quickly I need to complete the book order (due to some changes in how Shimer is managing its book ordering). So I have two questions:

  • Is there any standard, classical commentary on the Qur’an by a major figure (like al-Ghazali) that is readily available in English translation?
  • Is there any specifically Sufi commentary on the Qur’an that plays a role similar to that of the Zohar in Judaism? Is it readily available in English translation?

I welcome other recommendations as well, but those questions are the most urgent for me.

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.

Questions on online ed

A few questions for those of you more familiar with the landscape in online education:

  1. In your view, is the current state of video conferencing technology adequate to simulate a lively, seminar-style discussion session?
  2. Do you know if any schools have tried to offer such a thing, as either a substitute for or supplement to “traditional” online pedagogical methods?
  3. Do you believe that there would be a significant market for such an approach? (I ask this particularly in light of the fact that the necessarily synchronous nature of such class sessions might cut down on one of the primary appeals of online ed, namely its flexibility.)

Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.

“Theology and Politics of the Devil” syllabus

Here is the syllabus for my devil course at Chicago Theological Seminary, which begins on Thursday. As you can see if you compare and contrast on my CV page, it’s substantially, though not totally, different from the Kalamazoo and Shimer iterations.

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Help me with a course on the Qur’an

Let’s say I were to do a course next semester on the Qur’an only, with some attempt to achieve coverage over the whole of the text and to strike a balance between contemporary and historical commentators. Do you have any recommendations?

This fall

This week, I’ve been settling back into my Chicago apartment and mostly letting my brain rest after the brutal monastic discipline of this summer. I’ve also had a couple meetings at Shimer, which has got my mind starting to churn on my teaching. I think it should be an interesting semester. At Shimer, I’m teaching two sections of Humanities 1: Art and Music (something like “intro to fine arts”) and an elective course on Islamic thought, and I’m also doing a graduate seminar at Chicago Theological Seminary based on my devil research. It strikes me as a good balance — I get a chance to solidify a course I taught for the first time last year (Hum 1), do a new course in a new area, and rethink an old course in a new setting.

On Hum 1, I’m teaching in parallel with my colleague Aron Dunlap, and we both agreed that we needed to make the class more rigorous. Students have sometimes not taken it seriously, in large part due to their skepticism that fine arts are a “real” academic topic, but also in part because we sent the wrong message with the workload. So we’ve beefed up the reading and (more crucially) the writing requirements. We’re hoping that the need to write a paper on the materials will help to add an element of urgency and focus to the discussion. To compensate, we’ve cut the previous element of requiring students to do brief “conversation-starter” papers, an assignment that is often very helpful in other classes but never seemed to work as intended in Hum 1. Another element I’m excited about is that all the sections are scheduled during the Art Institute’s hours of operation, so that we’ll have multiple class sessions that will meet directly at the museum.

While I’m going to be doing more teaching than I’m used to, I’m hoping the CTS devil course will feed directly into my writing due to the ability to incorporate a lecture element into the course (an option unavailable to me with the Shimer version I taught last spring). Being in Hyde Park every week should also be helpful as I work on the complex bibliographical elements involved with my Agamben translation. Another nice element is that my Shimer classes are all bunched together in the morning, so that I should be able to keep working steadily on the translation in the afternoons.

In addition to my teaching, I’m going also to be presenting at a conference on core curricula at religious and secular schools hosted by the Association of Core Text Colleges and giving a talk and a seminar session on Zizek and religion at Portland State University.

Overall, it should be pretty busy — so much so that I can’t really “see” beyond the end of the semester, if that makes sense. So if anyone has recommendations for TV shows to binge-watch starting around December 15, let me know.

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