Possibilities of teaching in Islam

My course over the Qur’an is nearing its end, and I think it has been pretty successful. While my lack of proper expertise poses some problems, and while certain aspects of the readings could have been better selected and arranged, at the end of the day we will have worked through the entire Qur’an, addressed its primary themes, and gotten a handle on the major differences between the Meccan and Medinan periods.

The current plan is for me to offer a variation on the course again next year, at which point I anticipate that I will have a fairly confident grasp on the Qur’an (at least in English translation). My question is where to go from there. I could offer some version of the Intro to Islamic Thought course again, or perhaps something specifically on Sufism or on Islamicate readings of Aristotle. Those would be relatively easy to put together and would constitute a “near reach” for my existing knowledge.

But a bolder idea has occurred to me: a course on Islamic legal reasoning. On a practical level, this may be more immediately relevant to students’ understanding of political events than expertise in the text of the Qur’an itself.

My question is whether such a course would be logistically feasible in a semester. Are there convenient editions of primary texts of relevant hadith and legal debates that would be usable in an undergrad course? How would such a course be structured? Is it something that you just have to have Arabic to do responsibly? Keep in mind that this is an introductory course for undergrads who may have little to no previous background in Islam, not a course for grad students or budding specialists (hence why I would dare to attempt it).

Feature or bug: On bad pedagogy

It’s commonly acknowledged that traditional pedagogical methods emphasizing passive listening and rote memorization are suboptimal. “We now know” that there are superior methods that focus on student engagement and discussion. What I sometimes wonder is whether people in those benighted traditional days knew this as well. After all, it’s not as though the aspects of human nature that make active learning preferable just sprang up 20 years ago, and presumably everyone involved in a community of learning stumbles into a productive discussion at some point.

And then it hit me: the badness of traditional methods is a feature, not a bug. The goal is not so much to teach people as to sort them by ability. The truly gifted students will overcome the crappy pedagogy and learn the subject anyway, whereas the laggards will be revealed as the laggards they always were. The task is not instruction, but judgment.

Writing to order

Over the last couple weeks, I have been working on a report for a committee at school. It started in a subcommittee made up of four people, but the intention was to produce a report that would reflect the whole committee, so there were subsequent rounds of editing that may or may not be over even as we speak. The report is on an issue that is important to me, but at this point, I can’t even gauge whether it reflects “my views” — nor what that would even mean or if it’s relevant. Even in its first draft, my goal was mostly to capture the views of my subcommittee members (in this case, all students).

I like to think that it still hangs together as a piece of writing and doesn’t have the open seams one associates with writing “by committee.” There’s a certain pride in the craftsmanship of the thing — even the formatting, as I tweak line spacing and fonts to keep it on the front and back of a single printed page — that somehow transcends the actual content. Whenever I’m the primary author of a group report, I always want more than “something everyone will sign onto.” I want a piece of writing that won’t embarrass me.

This misplaced pride afflicted me even in grad school, when I made extra money by writing up mutual fund reports. Obviously the content is fairly stereotyped, and I developed a range of synonyms to cycle through each piece. When I received queries that claimed my carefully honed wording was confusing or misleading, I felt defensive — and then immediately felt ashamed, because who cares? Indeed, I’m still not even sure who read those reports, if anyone.

One hard lesson I learned in that process is that when you receive a query, it’s never sufficient to explain why what you already wrote suffices. You have to make some kind of token change to satisfy the demand. And doesn’t the same thing apply in academia? Don’t editors sometimes advise us to tweak certain things as a way of going through the motions of peer review? Don’t we all instinctively know that saying, “No, the way I had it was fine and the problem is yours” is no way to make your way through academia?

We may chafe at it, but I think our academic writing is often more like those committee reports or mutual fund results than like an authentic expression of our creativity. At every level, we are writing to order at least to some extent. This is true of journalists, obviously, but also of other more traditionally “creative” fields. Whenever we write, someone else is party to it. Someone has to sign onto it, or someone is paying us, or someone is lending us a sliver of their prestige — and they want to leave their mark.

Sometimes I am puzzled that my students seem so stressed out when I tell them they can choose their own topic. But then I reflect that I’m mainly thinking of older students, who should be “past that” — i.e., they should know how to generate a topic within the implicit boundaries. I’m not expecting them to be genuinely creative or self-expressive, but to have caught on to “the kind of thing” that one writes in an academic paper at our peculiar school. I wonder, though, if even the pretense of open-endedness is serving them poorly — or if I should at least include an explicit requirement that they “pitch” their topic to me ahead of time. Cruellest of all, perhaps, is the marriage of open-ended free exploration and exacting judgment.

Book recommendations: On the Qur’an

It is likely that I will be offering a course on the Qur’an again next spring, and I’m already planning on working my way systematically through the text one or more times before that (likely in different translations). I’ll obviously never have the instinctive command of the Qur’an that I have of the Bible, but it would be helpful in class if I could more readily make cross-references, etc.

Toward the same end, I would like to read at least a handful of additional books on the Qur’an and on Muhammad’s life and the time period. My main sources on the Qur’an as such so far have been Wadudi and Barlas — because everyone’s research into religious scriptures should start from the feminist critique! — and I’ve also worked my way through most of Hodgson’s imposing tomes. I’m already planning on picking up Kermani’s God is Beautiful, which should keep me occupied for quite a while.

And here is the question: what books on the Qur’an and its historical setting should I prioritize? (And please, please respond in comments rather than on Twitter, so that I can use this post as a reference.)

Black Religion in America: Resource Request

I have proposed to my head of department a course for next Fall with the somewhat sterile title “Black Religion in America”. I am very excited to teach the course for a number of reasons. Since coming to this post, I have been trying to correct my lack of learning from black scholars and organic intellectuals. My experience in Philadelphia brought home to me that, if I was to be anything like an effective teacher and a teacher that aimed for something transgressive (à la bell hooks) in my pedagogy, I had to bring myself under the conditions for theory set by the blackamerican experience and blackness as such. I do not mean this in an instrumentalist way, I mean very seriously that the immanent conditions for thinking through some of the most important aspects of reality for me required that I listen to this particular manifestation and that my work had to be shaped by it without in anyway seeking to speak for or even about that experience. So, as one should, I’ve read a lot of really important theoretical work in the black tradition. I am, as in all my intellectual pursuits, utterly amateurish here and I have noticed that the few times I have come across professionals in Black Studies they are unimpressed with the sources I have found inspiring. Importantly there is no single black tradition, there are debates there, and there is reality but no necessity. All of this I take to be important philosophical conditions.

Much of what I have been reading, unsurprisingly, relates to questions of religion. And, while I am very aware of the trap I may have set for myself in terms of falling into unconscious forms of white supremacy, it seemed in our current environment that putting this research to use in a classroom setting would be good for our students. As a campus we are, relative to national averages, very diverse in terms of our students. We do not quite reflect the demographics our city, something that some of us continue to push for, but we are far closer than many of the other universities. We have a lot of work to do to make the faculty reflect even our student body, to say nothing of our city, but until we are given the resources to hire a black scholar I feel like risking failure may be worth it. Especially as I have cultivated a pedagogical method that helps get me out of the way and, if students are willing to take the lead, may be student directed in a way that would offer a corrective to any mistakes I may call into. My hope is that if I can’t reflect for our students what having a black professor would, I can at least provide the framework and platform to engage with the work of important black thinkers, communities, and problematics.

I have a number of ideas for how to organize the course, specifically with regard to readings, but I am hoping to tap into the hive mind of our readers for their thoughts regarding 1) texts they have used or think would be good for a course like this and 2) pedagogical methods for disempowering as much as possible the whiteness of the professor.

Some remarks on how I want to present the class. I think it is vital to spend some class sessions on the religious/theological construction of race, specifically with regards to the Slave subjectivity that both conditioned and was reciprocally underpinned by the middle passage (I am very curious about suggestions here). I want then to look at ways in which resistance via religion manifested. So obviously discussions of mainstream forms of black religion will be there (Black Christianity and the move to Sunni Islam), but I want to look at those other inventive, syncretic forms of resistance and survival. Blackamerican Islam strikes me as particularly important there as it plays out from the Temple Moorish Science to the Five Percenters, but I may also include those groups that push the identity of religion like MOVE.

What thoughts do you all have?

My syllabi for this semester

Shimer’s spring semester begins on Wednesday. This term, I will be teaching two sections of the Social Sciences capstone, entitled “Social Perspectives and Social Action” (PDF syllabus), and an elective entitled “Reading the Qur’an” (PDF syllabus).

What about you, dear readers? What are you teaching (or taking) this semester?

Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.


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