Op-Ed: Reading Inclusively in Encounters

Elyse Semerdjian, Associate Professor of Islamic World/Middle East History

I would like to thank Mr. Jordon Crawford for publishing his opinion in “Considering the Western Canon in Encounters.” His courage prompted me to break my own silence as an Encounters professor, who was also once a liberal arts student.  As a faculty member at Whitman since 2003, I criticized the white supremacy of “Antiquity & Modernity” (the predecessor to Encounters).  I voted to eliminate the term “Western” from the original course description, which made it possible for texts like Hind Swaraj, The Bhagavad Gita, The Battle of Algiers, and The Qur’an to be included on what became the “Transformations” syllabus.  I consider the inclusion of those texts a step toward diversity, though all four were produced by men. Yet, over the years, I have come to think that it is only within a world historical framework that the organic, non-essentializing links across texts and peoples can be made.  By reading inclusively, we can achieve a deeper understanding that is lost when we think of people within what are largely imaginary borders.

When I came to Whitman in 2003, I confess that I was immediately disappointed as a professional historian with the first year required course that I had to teach for the six years that followed.  The course that so many called “Core” (understood to present “the canon”) offered an antiquated understanding of history that was alien to me both professionally and personally.  In the old syllabus, the non-West served as a resting place for ancient religion, a languid, sleepy little place left behind by the rise of Modernity in the West.  I knew that this place was far from languid.  I was writing the dynamic history of Syria while teaching texts in a syllabus that actively undermined my own scholarship and pedagogy with its reification of a fictitious “West” and propagation of normative whiteness.

When I read Mr. Crawford’s opinion piece in The Wire last week, I empathized with his feeling of alienation from the syllabus.  The various iterations of the first-year course are unfamiliar to many of us, and I certainly don’t see myself when I read Plato; however, I benefitted from reading Plato in ways I could not have predicted at age 18.  What Plato has taught me is that it is about how we read in Encounters as much as what we read.

I’ll never forget when I first read al-Mas‘udi’s Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma‘adin al-jawhar (Meadows of Gold) as a graduate student.  Al-Mas‘udi’s impenetrable ninth century Arabic prose seemed weirdly familiar to me.  Then, I realized I was reading a retelling of Plato’s Symposium by Baghdad’s premiere historian.   I was the only student in a classroom at Georgetown who recognized Plato. As a first-generation working class kid who went to public school in Flint, Michigan, how was that possible?  Though al-Mas‘udi set his symposium in Grand Vizier Yahya’s home instead of Agathon’s, I had read Plato before as a liberal arts student and recognized the story. At that moment, I realized the cultural capital a liberal arts education gave me as student who would not have known Plato otherwise.

Today, I am teaching the “Transformations” course for the very first time, and I see a syllabus far superior to the one we had 14 years ago.  The syllabus dispels the mystique of the so-called “canon” and for that I am thankful.  This is perhaps where I respectfully disagree with Crawford; the course does not claim to be “the canon,” though Art Spiegelman would likely be flattered!  The course eliminated the focus on Europe seven years ago with some contention among the faculty.  Eliminating the word “Western” from the course description does the subaltern a great service.

But let’s be clear, we could read more global texts written by non-whites and women and still not accomplish inclusivity. For example, placing the Qur’an on the syllabus doesn’t confirm inclusivity.  The text of the Qur’an can still be taught and has been taught on this campus in ways that confirm dominant stereotypes of Islam.    Inclusivity is not just about what we are teaching (i.e. which texts) but how we are teaching it.

There is no greater example for teaching us how to read inclusively than Edward Said, a scholar who did not work in Arabic and Islamic literature, yet was able to forever alter my field of Middle East and Islamic Studies (and many others) through his critical reading of French and British literature.  Said consistently references how his personal identity as a Palestinian inflects his understanding of texts and how his research questions were driven by the fact that he didn’t see himself reflected in the texts he was reading.  Here I seek to make a case for pedagogy being about both about content and form.  And that a pedagogy that shifts to a world historical perspective may offer us some answers to the dilemma we face with Encounters precisely because it is exactly what is missing in our conversations about the syllabus.   By understanding the actual historical global links and circulations of peoples and ideas that worked to produce these texts, we foster inclusivity.

When we think through a world historical framework, our texts take on a new life.  We can point to Ibn Tufayl’s use of Aristotle in his Sufi treatise Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.  We can consider how Ibn Tufayl is only one of many Muslim scholars to be engaged with Aristotle alongside other noteworthy Muslim scholars like Ibn Sina and al-Farabi.  We can also consider how Machiavelli is engaged in a Mediterranean tradition of “Mirrors for Princes” literature also found in Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian.  There are no hard civilizational lines when you examine these texts from a world historical perspective.  Europe and its Others are exposed as the myths they actually are when we read in historical context.

Travel narratives, imaginary or real, like Homer’s Odyssey, have links to oral story telling in Central Asia in the form of the Turkish epic Dede Korkut or in Iraq in the story of Sindbad from the Arabian Nights.  Galileo and Copernicus owed much to Muslim scientists and mathematicians whose work had only been translated a couple of centuries before during the massive Latin translation movements in Constantinople and Cordoba.  I teach the thirteenth century Tusi couple, a mathematical formula upon which Copernicus’ theory was partially based in my “Islamic Civilization I” course.  A Persian mathematician, al-Khwarizmi, invented the concept of algorithm whose contribution to math is usually excluded from science textbooks.

These historical references are a small sample of the dynamic, synthetic, and boundless intellectual interactions that have brought us to where we are today as humanity. We must start from the premise that the past— something absolutely alien to all of us—matters. In our discussions of Encounters and our curriculum, the past is often missing from our conversations.  In fact, one could argue that the past should be a stand-alone distribution area in the curriculum. To understand how our world developed, we have to be willing to read texts that are strange and unfamiliar rather than opt out when we don’t see ourselves and our present reflected in the syllabus.  Hypothetically, students could mirror this logic to opt out of reading the Qur’an and other non-Western texts that seem boring and irrelevant to them.  A world in which we only read texts that are familiar and relevant, texts that confirm our own perspectives, would be a dystopian world indeed.