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.

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.


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