February 2009


ردوا علينا ليالينا التي سلفت و امحوا الذي قد جرا منا

Return to us the nights that have been lost to us,
And erase, by Your favour, that which has been issued from us.

فكم زللنا و انتم تصفحوا كرمآ و كم اسانا و نزجو حسب عفوكم

How much we have sinned, yet out of generosity You forgive!
How much we have erred, yet we still hope for Your good pardon!

ما لي سواكم و انتم حزني و قد جهلت و ما لي غير ستركم

Nothing but You have I- You are the recourse of my sorrow,
I have been ignorant, and possess nothing but Your indulgence.

لو كان الف لسان لي يبش بها شكرآ لم يقم يومآ بشكركم

Were to have a thousand tongues with which to express
Thanks to You, I would not stop thanking You for a single day.

Abu Madyan, Qasida in Mim

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A rather brief article in the New York Times today addresses something my fellow graduate assistants and I have been learning this year: our students genuinely expect to receive a good grade (by which they mean an A), and are sometimes simply shocked when you assign them anything less. One common refrain we hear is, “But I get As in all my other classes!” Or the if-I-don’t-do-well-I’ll-lose-my-scholarship (or law school/medical school/etc chances) refrain. Or, as I’ve run into already a few times this semester, the pity card- everything from random tough luck to dead cell phone battery to terrible home life. That, and the complaint that the work is too much and the grading scale is too difficult.

What do I do about it? I’m a first year graduate student; I did a stint last school year subbing in high schools, and had the prerequisite half-day seminar our department requires. That, plus the teaching and mentoring I received last semester, is the extent of my teaching experience and training, so I can’t offer myself as any sort of expert on pedagogical techniques.

Instead, here are some things that I try to keep in mind when dealing with students: first, I genuinely want them to learn and do well. I wish I could do more, I wish I had greater control over things, but I don’t- I’m a teaching assistant. My jurisdiction in many ways ends as soon as it begins. But I do largely control the one thing my students care most about: their grade. That a lowly first-year M. A. student with his own heavy load of work outside of teaching responsibilities is the one in charge of determining whether the nearly sixty students under his tutelage pass or fail is itself somewhat disconcerting, isn’t it? If you’re reading this and are considering attending a large research university/have children you want to send to a large research university, well, caveat lector. But anyway, the possibilities open to me for assigning material and teaching style are very limited. I must follow the guidelines laid down by the professor; I cannot go off and do my own thing. This means I must follow the guidelines- this semester, very strict guidelines- for grading. And therein lies the struggle.

When my students complain of the difficulty of the work or protest for a better grade, part of me thinks: I never did this when I was an undergraduate. Granted, I usually made good grades, but when I made a poor one, I didn’t whine to the professor and demand a better one. I am terribly sorry if you worked hard and still came up short. I really am. But I am not grading you on how hard you worked- I am grading you on performance, on whether you apprehended the material, not just whether you read it.Yeah, I know everyone’s been telling you how special you are and how you deserve the best etc etc- it’s not true, ok? Be glad I didn’t grade you on your real merits.

That’s the nastier, be-glad-you-don’t-have-to-read-850-page-economic-history-tomes side of my internal dialogue. It has its merits, I suppose- it’s true that we’re faced with a culture that teaches our students that they deserve a good grade, that they deserve a college education, and that they are exceptionally smart, and so on. But at the same time, I feel- maybe dirty is the best word?- when I assign a bad grade to a student I know has in fact worked fairly hard, yet is still lagging far behind. I don’t want to assign him a bad grade. I know that the reason this student is probably in college is not because he wants to learn all about the Byzantines and Clovis and the rise of modern capitalism, but because he knows that the minimum benchmark for a decent job is a college degree- that’s the minimum benchmark. He’s been fed the absolute necessity of going to college his entire life, and he really does need to go to college- not because anyone cares about the values of a liberal education (it’s hard to type that phrase without an ironic snicker), but because a degree has become the function equivalent of a high school diploma, it’s the least an employer looks for so as to eliminate other applicants. My hard-working student needs good grades and a diploma because it’s just one more necessary marker in the system. He’s probably taking out loans, because the bait-and-hook “scholarship” he was awarded his freshman year ran out when he couldn’t pull a 3.5. Chances are he’ll end up dropping out, still carrying those loans, but without the degree- just debt. Here I am, a nice quiet cog in the system, happy to have my little stipend and my library card, knowing that I have neither the authority or the time and ability to change anything. It’s one of the most insidious things about the academic system- you very quickly learn your place and the advantages of not rocking the boat.

And then I think about what my students’ educational background is- I’ve done a little time in public high schools, I’ve an idea of things. I was privileged- I was homeschooled, then went to a nice little liberal arts college where I knew my professors and hung out in their offices talking history and politics and life. My average student here probably went to a ho-hum high school, maybe was able to get a few minutes in with his adviser, possibly spoke to the instructor of the present course once because he had a technical problem- that’s it. He’s only other point of contact with the discipline of history is a graduate student with fifty-plus other students he only sees once a week. I will assume a fairly similar experience in other classes- maybe I’m wrong. Still, where in all of this is he supposed to receive hands-on, intensive instruction in the life of the mind, in the skills necessary for really learning in the humanities? I expect my students to be able to read well enough to grasp the material and think about it- how do I know they have ever acquired that skill? What am I to do if they haven’t? Sure, it’s partially their fault- no one held my hand and made me learn- but I wasn’t continually in an anonymous, ho-hum educational environment either.

So. I make no claims in the above thoughts to originallity or great subtletly- nor do I pretend to have any particular answers. I didn’t come into academia expecting roses and candy, to be sure, and I had struggled with the whole idea of getting into academia at all- for the reasons above, and others. I still do. I wonder- should I get out while I can? Is this whole thing right? Is it worth it? I don’t spend much time thinking about these things- Friday evenings are a decent time, I suppose, but one tends to stay occupied (I guess that’s part of the genuis of the system…) with other things filling one’s mind. But those questions shall wait- I’ve ranted long enough as is.

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The road here passes alongside the big green liminal space that lies between Fes al-Bali- the oldest part of the Old Medina- and Fes al-Jedid, the rather newer (fourteenth century) construction that once housed the Sultan and Fes’ Jewish community. Today the King still has a residence but all that remains of the Jewish community are a couple synagogues and the white-washed cemetery.

The region between the two halves of the city is mostly covered in green space, with the old water channels- the restructured pieces of the streams that made Fes a desirable city in the beginning. Now they are home to at least a few frogs, who start to show up as spring evenings warm and lean towards summer. I passed through one evening as the crowds along the avenue were thinning out and the frogs starting up, down in the warm, mucky green water of the canals, fresh and vigorous against the late medieval bulwarks behind. I thought- here, at the edge of the desert (the dust was already starting to intrude, coming in through the open window of my bedroom, and the shopkeepers beginning their war upon dust in the streets), under the weight of the centuries of the city, are frogs, singing, as they have no doubt been singing under these walls for centuries, as the mulberries come into leaf. Kids run by, one chasing a ball (maybe they are the same kids I would see climbing the mulberries gathering fruit and leaves?); a single car mumbles by, the crowd moves along, laughing, calling, the snatches of Maghrebi Arabic ring in my ears. Frogs, children, the vigorous clip-clip of Maghrebi, spring over all- life, wonder, the ancient, the eternal, what I know, and what I can only listen to, and feel.

Frogs, near Fes al-Jedid. Spring, 2008.

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A few weeks ago the weather briefly- it’s now turned back cold- warmed, the sun came out, and the weeks of bitter cold passed into memory. It was warm enough that, for a few days at least, the frogs came out along the banks of the French Broad River at the Seven Islands Refuge, a Knox County park east of town. I was coming down the big limestone ridge towards the river when I heard the frogs singing, filling up the still wintry looking woods and fields. I scrambled down to the edge of the little flood-water pond, its quiet waters having swallowed up part of the trail and the clumps of weeds and brush. This also is a sort of liminal space, stuck between the wooded ridge behind and the river banks beyond, the pond precarious and temporary, the frogs unexpected- frogs in February? Where did they come from- I suppose frogs hide in the mud during the cold- what woke them?

The frogs seemed to be spread out in a line up and down the little pond, rising and falling in their song. I squatted beside the water and listened, closed my eyes, breathed the spring, the return to life, the womb of water and the song, all things bright and beautiful and alive.

Frogs, Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. February 2009.

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When we were at the ninth mile-post from Alexandria, we visited the monastery of Abba John the Eunuch for the benefit of our souls. There we found a very old man who had been at the monastery for about eighty years. He had more compassion than anybody we ever saw, not only for men, but also for animals. What did this elder do? No other work but this: he would rise early and feed all the dogs at the lavra. He would give flour to the small ants, grain to the bigger ones. He would dampen biscuits and throw them up on the roof-tops for the birds to eat. Living like this, he left nothing to the monastery when he died, neither door nor window nor spy-hole nor lamp nor table. In brief (not to say it all and make the story too long), he left nothing whatsoever of the world’s goods behind. Not even for one hour did he ever possess books, money or clothing. He gave everything to those in need, investing his entire concern in those things which were to come.

John Moshcos, The Spiritual Meadow (Story 184 in Wortley’s translation)

I keep telling myself, and am told by others, that I ought to write more, particularly as one of the principal parts of being a historian is the ability to write effectively. And to make progress in writing one must, as St. Augustine wrote in one of his letters, write, and write a lot, as the prolific Bishop of Hippo certainly did.

So as part of my attempt to write more I shall, insha’allah, begin writing weekly (possibly more but I dare not promise beyond that) installments of vignettes and anecdotal remarks from my week, perhaps brief commentary on whatever primary sources I’m reading in a given week (perhaps also secondary materials if it’s interesting enough). I find that blogging is a useful medium for collating and ever so slightly refining ideas that I would otherwise let flit off into space or consign to a Word file or a notebook; the public-ness of a blog compels me to give slightly more thought and attention to the things I write. Not a lot- blogging is, as advertised, push-button publishing, and like pretty much all the instant conveniences of modern life, quality suffers accordingly.

Still, the fact of writing in a public forum, and being somewhat conscious of it (but only somewhat: blogging still feels half-private, as I neither see the audience face-to-face- or very few members of the audience- nor the work itself in a physical, publicly accessible form) shapes how I write, and I think probably for the better. Then there is the whole interesting matter of one’s blog becoming part of one’s personal archive, here for all to see, alongside the stacks of books, papers, bits and pieces and odds and ends that you do not see.

But that’s a whole other matter.

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1. While walking to my favorite café in our venerable Old City I was met, as I often am, by a homeless man. Knoxville has a large homeless/transient population, larger than anywhere in the ‘First World’ I’ve lived. This man struck up a conversation with me, seeing me carrying a couple heavy tomes under my arm: ‘What you studying?’

‘History’

‘Oh yeah, I love history. What part?’

‘Ah-’ I am immediately reminded at this point of a homeless person I gave a lift to a few months ago (yes, mum, if you’re reading, I occasionally pick up hitch-hikers etc., but you knew that already…); at this point in the what-do-you-do exchange, the homeless person asked quite pointblank, ‘What do historians do, anyway? Anything?’ Ah, yes, um…). I continued: ‘Medieval stuff mostly.’

‘Oh, my favorite is Ghengis Khan.’

‘My era is a little earlier, mainly.’

‘Oh.’

We proceeded to speak briefly of the joys and travails of history, and my new friend encouraged me to stick with it. He then asked me for a little change so as to buy himself a beer for St. Valentine’s Day. I admire honesty so I gave him, I think it was, a dollar fifty. Not having anyone else to buy a beer for on St. Valentine’s, I was actually glad this time to do so. We parted company.

There is a whole dialectic of do-I-give-money-to-homeless-people, but I will not engage it here, other than to say I usually do. Cf. St. John the Almsgiver. Caveat lector– he’s a bit radical, might make you a little uncomfortable. At least that’s how it is for me.

At any rate I had been in a rather bad nasty mood- long, dull story that only reveals my propensity for anger under frustration- and this particular man, somehow, helped relieve it.

2. Also seen today, first on Gay Street then later when she was walking along Chapman Highway across the river: a lady who wears red and black, in a sort of uniform that looks like a cross between a traffic attendant and a nineteenth century zouave. Very impressive. She also had a baton which she was swinging both times very deliberately.

3. Sitting in the coffee house studying I overheard the people next to me talking about the church shooting in Knoxville last fall. Turns out one of the women sitting there was in the church when it happened, and she proceeded to describe it in detail to her companions, and to me the unintentional voyeur listening at the table over.

One of her companions was very adamantly in favor the death penalty, swift and immediate; she wasn’t so sure. It was complicated, she said: being at the intersection of death and life (I paraphrase), in the moment when the bullets are- literally- flying and you are thinking about the most trivial things and the most serious things- that man has on a nice tie, is this women lying over there going to die right here should I help her where are the kids? I don’t know how I feel towards that man. Being there changes things.

What I wanted to say but did not say and probably it’s best that I didn’t, because after all I really know nothing: but if we condemn that man to death (as he surely deserves) we condemn ourselves to death, don’t we? There is blood on my hands and on yours; I silently participate in a deeply violent and bloody order of things and it almost never weighs on my conscience. And I myself know myself to have the murderous anger and rage inside of me; hell I felt it this very morning over the dumbest thing and then was angry at myself (angry again!) for my stupid brutish anger. It’s there in all our blood; it’s I who lashed out against God on the tree and cursed him and hoped to die- that will show them/Him! So all I can say and I have to say it over and over and over again is: Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. What else can we say?