Trivia!

Details, inclusivity and generosity in the teaching machine

On September 8th 2018, my wife and I were naturalized as United States citizens. The ceremony ended at 3 pm. At 4:30 pm, I was arrested for civil disobedience. After the naturalization ceremony, I joined a group of colleagues from different Boston-area schools in civil disobedience to protest the Trump administration’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, a decision that threw hundreds of immigrant students into uncertainty and danger. For the educators participating in the protest, the act was pedagogical as well as political. As our students stood by watching, we hoped to present a version of engaged scholarship, one that understands the intersecting layers of privilege, and mobilizes this privilege into action, no matter how small or symbolic that action may be. For me and other historians in the protest, the act of protesting under the statue of Charles Sumner (1811-1874), an abolitionist who spent much of his career resisting the Fugitive Slave Act, endorsed a reading of American history which privileges dissent, resistance, and disobedience as integral parts of the nation’s narrative. In becoming a citizen, one is invited to become part of a particular history, and to partake in the affective economy that characterizes nations as modern units of belonging. As Benedict Anderson explained, these imagined communities, that are modern nations, are built not only on boundaries and laws, but also on shared mythologies and common readings of history.[2] By inaugurating my inscription in this nation with an act of civil disobedience, I looked to favor a narrative that values protests, revolts, and acts of disobedience by Native Americans, slaves, workers, women, and immigrants, over acts of empire committed against many, including my own people in Africa and the Middle East. In other words, the act of protesting was also an act of writing and teaching history.

Similar to the act of protesting, the act of teaching is rooted in time and space The work of the [historian] pedagogue is positioned at the intersection of three spaces: the archive, the classroom and, what I call, third spaces. While archives provide the historian with the substance for her research and teaching, they also pose challenges of legibility, organization, and reliability. The classroom, as traditional a space for teaching as it may be, is tied to the ever-changing world from which the instructor and her students hail. While usually confined within physical walls, it is a malleable open space that also demands organization. Finally, I posit “third spaces” as assemblages of interactions in offices, hallways, and over the internet, where learning is conducted in interpersonal encounters. Each of these spaces, the archive, the classroom, and the third space, is in itself a metaphor that relies on long and extended traditions. Each is constantly reproduced in the processes of pedagogy and scholarship, offering new challenges and opportunities. In the coming pages, I will look to investigate each of these three spaces, and inquire about some of the challenges they offer and the opportunities they afford. Through this analysis, I will argue for a tri-partite approach to pedagogy: detail-rich and anecdote-based instructions, diversity through radical inclusivity, and solidarity-based generosity. I will argue that this tri-partite approach, which is rooted in spaces and encounters, provides a foundation on which we can implement various new pedagogical strategies or revamp old methods and techniques.

1. Detailing—Rethinking Archives and Chronologies

In his On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe explains that the postcolony’s chronology is produced in two intersecting temporalities, ages and durées.[3] While an “age” refers to a long temporal structure that invites investigation into ‘what happened’, a “durée” is a topical temporality that is always attributable (a durée of something), and that makes sense only within such thematic identity. In this sense, a “durée” of science is not simply a period for the history of science, but is indeed structured around preserving the coherence of “science” as a category. Mbembe’s characterization of temporality from a postcolonial perspective is made necessary by the fact that traditional Western historiographic categories and chronologies were produced from a colonial perspective, and enabled by the suppression of indigenous temporalities, and chronologies. In this context, the naturalness of chronology is not a priori, but is established through colonial acts that render the indigenous, their time, and their meaning-making unnatural, and abhorrent. This is perhaps most apparent in history of science. Despite the work of many historians to question the triumphant traditional story of Western Science,[4] the narrative force of popular (and some scholarly) accounts remains overwhelmingly behind a teleology that celebrates the Scientific Revolution, as the moment in which Europe met its destiny of progress, secularism, and world domination.[5] In this story, religion is presented as monolithic superstition that should, at least, be removed from the way to allow for the march of science. In this sense, the durée of science, as part of the age of the modern, is a chronology structured to preserve the coherence of western science, including its revolutionary mythological character. It highlights the uniqueness of this triumphant story and suppresses in the process all other parallel or antecedent stories.

This durée has also served to organize different archives around the world. On one hand, the valuation of particular modes of knowledge production contributed to the loss and destruction of oral and material records of indigenous peoples across the world. It also led to the many archival lacunae surrounding history of women, and unlearned practitioners of science. On the other hand, this durée and its attendant system of worth endow particular events and actors with value and significance. For instance, and in my work on the history on Islam and science, the archive is often structured around a narrative of “Golden Age” and “Decline.” While many historians questioned this narrative, it continues to survive in large part because of how it fits within the master narrative of Western Science. There, Islam serves as a reservoir that preserved and delivered Greek (perceived as European) knowledge (back) to Europe. The focus on the “Golden Age” impacts not only the metaphorical archives, or the historiography and pedagogy of Islamic sciences, but also the physical archives in the Middle East, and the Islamic World, many of which were reorganized during the colonial period. There, schedules of maintenance, priorities of preservation and digitization, and even the revision and verification of catalogues are all structured around the centrality of the “Golden Age.”

In his analysis of the construction of memory surrounding the “discovery” of the new world, Aimé Césaire explained how this memory is built around a moment of perceived rupture that creates one archive of “us,” and another of “them.” The “us,” rooted in the perception of relevance, proximity, and kinship to the present, is dated after the “encounter,” and the “them” is a pre-history where the indigenous self is ambiguous, trivial, and distant. The construction of an archive and its attendant chronology is thus a process of kinship-making. The traditional archive of the history of science, and of science and religion, one that is admittedly easier to teach because of the resources, and efforts that were dedicated to it, excavates a history that is kin to contemporary science, and labels other histories as trivial and distant. It reinforces a kinship structure that extends beyond historiographic narratives, and excludes many students, who can only be inscribed as strangers.

On another level, this kinship-based structure of the archive is strengthened by a focus on relevance, and seriousness as organizational principles. Social life, art, literature, and religion among other aspects of human life are presented as “context” or a mise-en-scène, in front of which serious events take place. J. Halberstam argues that queer historiography rejects “seriousness” and, instead, embraces the trivial and prosaic as spaces, where queerness, and difference reside beyond the bounds of normativity.[6] In this view, embracing seemingly “trivial” acts constructs new kinship structures, which involve different identities and variant narratives. Moreover, narrativizing the “trivial” enables the historian to write and teach a history from below—one that is rooted not in the elites and their production of value, but rather in the quotidian, the suspect, and the ephemeral. The result is a detail-rich history that moves back and forth between “text” and “con-text,” and that admits different and conflicting perspectives at once. Questioning the Euro-centric archive and its chronology, and dismantling traditional structures of “relevance,” invites new modes of pedagogy, which I call anecdote-based, detail-rich historical pedagogy. This pedagogical approach is built on three intersecting techniques: (a) thematic organization of the syllabus, (b) signposting, and (c) methodological engagement.

  1. The thematic syllabus

Organizing the syllabus thematically means that the period discussed in a given course is covered not in successive steps but rather in overlapping layers, where we go over the same period over and over again dissecting a particular theme each time. For longue-durée survey courses, the period can be broken into units of manageable size, which are covered in layers over a number of weeks before moving to the next unit. This thematic organization brings to the fore the question of kinship and relevance as tools for organizing historical materials, and invites students to restructure the archive in new ways. Thematic construction invites the incremental production of a detail-rich chronology, created as students weave the historical narrative, adding layers of details one after another. As such, the historical arc, as a process of learning “What happened when?,” is made into a historical narrative, “How did this and this happen? And what happened alongside what?” As such, the “when” is demystified and reproduced as a function of detail.

  • Signposting:

The anecdote-based and detail-rich pedagogy encounters a number of challenges. First, the anecdote-based instruction stands in contrast to the practical, concise lectures that students are used to in natural sciences. It also appears to demand more of the students’ focus and time than they believe they can afford. Second, the focus on details might lead to lectures that move at a breath-taking pace, resulting in the students feeling overwhelmed by information. To overcome such challenges, the anecdote-based and detail-rich lecture is tethered to a roadmap composed of 10min-long sections marked by clear signposts, and articulated at the beginning of lecture. The detail-rich content, therefore, should not be delivered as a long-winding story, but rather as a collection of short narratives linked at movable joints. Here, the anecdotes are offered as pieces of evidence, and levels of texture that enrich and surround the pre-designed signposts. Equipped with a clear roadmap, and a set of signposts for each lecture, students are able to trace the development of the overall narrative, and to place the detail-rich materials in their proper places. Signposting provides a structure that is strong enough to hold details together, but is malleable enough to allow students to cross and restructure these signposts, as they gain more insight. They also provide for a slower pace, and for easier planning and note-taking.

  • Methodological Engagement:

Basing a lecture on details and anecdotes might risk engendering bad writing and historiographic habits, such as generalizations from minor incidents, or fascination with the odd and strange at the expense of the usual and common. To overcome this challenge, anecdotes and details need to be given a clear methodological context. This is to say that anecdotes need to be recounted with provisos that explain their commonality, their sources, the proper mode of historical reading and sourcing required for using them, and the limitations that come with their usage. In this process, the anecdote-rich instruction enlists the student as a historian. Students are constantly trained in historical methods by watching these methods explicitly deployed. Here, the instructor invites students to speculate about the representative nature of a given anecdote, the value of particular sources, the intentions of an author, or the conventions of genres that they encounter in the classroom. This process enrolls them in the process of detail-making, and offers them the chance of being producers rather than simple receivers of historical knowledge. In the same vein, the anecdote-based pedagogy benefits from assignments that are meant to develop skills as well as to evaluate. For instance, early assignments should invite students to experiment with basic historiographic techniques, such as primary source analysis, comparative analysis, object biographies, etc. Later assignments may require students to exercise the techniques that they learned by creating their own historical narrative based on accessible sources. In final assignments, students are given the opportunity to express their learning in different forms, from writing papers, to art work, to cooking, and baking. This diversity offers a space for different modes of learning and training.

The anecdote-based pedagogy is a mode of learning through aesthetics. Anecdotes are not meant to be memorized. Instead, they provide a level of immersion that helps students develop a particular historical aesthetic, and to retrieve the version of reality that historical actors inhabited. By making this aesthetic-learning explicit, students understand that being immersed in context (as opposed to being overwhelmed in details) is part of the class plan, and they are invited to embrace the richness surrounding the signposts, which will continue to structure their study. Moreover, and to emphasize the goals of aesthetic learning, the detail-rich instruction should be conducted across different media. Anecdotes and details should be presented in a mixture of oral retelling (through lecturing or reading), in written handouts, and in artifacts of material culture present in images, in replicas, or through visits to museums and archives. They should also be anchored by visual cues through slideshows and videos. The multiplicity of media allows for a deeper appreciation of details, and better understanding of the historical aesthetic under study. Here, lectures, or other similar units of direct instruction, are not meant to be listings of important events. Instead, they should work in tandem with readings, and other sources of factual information, ranging from reference books to Wikipedia. This allows the class to devote the most time to providing texture and anecdotes that render the historical narrative alive and rich in detail. Here, the study of the “trivial,” with its subversive power proposed by Halberstam, makes history more relatable, and invites students to exercise compassion and empathy with their historical subjects.

As explained before, the focus on anecdotes and details, and the interest in “the trivial” are rooted in an understanding of the archive as a space structured around intentional, and purposeful chronologies, and as a product of certain kinship structures that permeate historical narratives. This mode of reading the archive is inspired by postcolonial traditions, and imbued with queer theoretical commitments. It aims to develop a variant reading of history, and a different form of belonging and kinship that is not built on nationalism, or triumphant narratives but on empathy and compassion with historical materials. At the same time, this mode of reading is one that does not shy away from studying the atrocities of the past–slavery, genocides, and mutilations among other events–that are often glossed over in triumphant narratives. Nor does this narrative look for easy moralistic condemnations or finger-pointing. Instead, its compassionate energy extends to properly understand the past in its own context and meaning.

2. Diversity through Radical Inclusion: The Classroom as an Open Where

Vanessa Sheared explains that womanist pedagogy is based on an inclusive model that looks at possibilities, and potentials, and offers a space of accountability, combined with safety and unconditional support. She recalls her seventh-grade teacher, a black woman, as saying: “Be the best! If you are a thief, be the best one that you can be. If you are a doctor, be the best.” Sheared explains, “This teacher knew that some children would go on to become teachers, lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs. And she knew that others would live their lives in constant retreat from the law. She understood their differing worlds and realities, and she interpreted and reflected these realities in the words that she spoke.”[7] This radical inclusivity is connected to a process of solidarity. As such, spaces of learning become ones of collective problem-solving and deliberation, as Ruth Trinidad Galvan offers.[8] Such spaces are also based on a practice of care that bestows responsibility on those on the top of the hierarchy, as Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant argues.[9] This radically inclusive classroom is by definition tethered to life outside, as it embraces the lives of students and the experiences they bring. In this view, the classroom is not a locality separate from the outside, but rather a temporality intertwined with the outside. It is a temporal space that can exist in a brick and mortar room, on a screen, or even in thought; one that offers the students a chance to ponder the collective potentiality of their becoming. In this context, the humanities classroom is not divorced from the student’s all too practical life, but is necessary to give the student a history, an identity, and a voice. It is a place of becoming aware of oneself—an awareness that is itself a tool for self-fashioning.

The space of radical inclusivity does not practice diversity through permission, whereby a diverse space is built on permitting marginalized students to exist without active harassment. Instead, radical inclusivity means identifying and highlighting the worth of each individual, and accommodating their needs. This process is operative at three levels. First, in terms of physical space: providing facilities that would allow easy access for students with disability, for example, is very important, but it often falls outside the purview of the instructor. The instructor, however, is able to provide a welcoming space that will support a number of needs, such as allowing nursing mothers and parents of small children to bring their children with them when needed. Second, a radically inclusive approach insists on the importance of each and every person, and on the necessity of wide-ranging and differing perspectives for practicing proper scholarship. Here, the move away from “great books” curricula is not a concession to politically-engaged students but a realization that the “great books” project was limiting, and reductive in its failure to recognize the work of women, slaves, laborers and other marginalized actors in knowledge production. This curricular inclusion invites students to belong in the stories that they study.

Third, the spirit of solidarity highlights the importance of technical training, and of diving into the details of academic life. Using archives requires the use of finding aids, which should not be assumed as self-evident or immediately legible. Reading dense theoretical texts may require some students to use a dictionary, which other students may not need, and that these students themselves may not know how to do. Presentation and public speaking, asking a question in a classroom or in a workshop, taking detailed notes, visiting a faculty’s office, learning how to communicate with faculty or colleagues, or learning the etiquette of eating and drinking in academic settings do not come naturally to all students. They represent what many scholars have called “a hidden curriculum” that immediately sets back many students of non-traditional or marginalized backgrounds. The solidarity-based classroom is one that carves time and space for these conversations, which require instructors to give additional layers of feedback on form, and not only on content. This feedback is to be offered in the spirit of solidarity, and with the understanding that everyone has to learn and invest in acquiring different skills.

To be sure, the solidarity-based classroom is a brave space. It is a space that demands a lot and holds its participants accountable to working hard, and trying to be their best. It also demands equal and lateral solidarity, where students are asked to exercise the same generosity, and exhibit the same commitment to their peers. In exchange for demanding students to be “their best,” the radically inclusive and solidarity-based classroom offers unquestionable support, and care with no judgement.

3. Making Generosity: Third Spaces and Thinking Alongside

Alongside the archive and the classroom, other spaces also condition pedagogy. These spaces extend from workshops and conferences to office hours and online encounters. These “third spaces” are by definition less structured, offering the chance for students to experiment and hone their skills and abilities. At the same time, the lack of clear structure, the relatively high threshold for access (as in getting accepted to a conference, or preparing to meet with faculty and senior scholars), and the often competitive and performative nature of these academic venues make these spaces challenging for women and students from non-traditional and marginalized backgrounds. Opening these spaces to all students requires the close mentorship that stems from the solidarity described before. In 2012, I founded the Science, Religion and Culture program (SRC) at Harvard to serve as a third-space for structured mentorship and development.

Like many academic programs, SRC is structured around a bi-weekly colloquium. The colloquium is a work-in-progress space where program affiliates (and a few local guests) share work on a variety of topics. At the colloquium, where the rule is that everyone must ask at least one question, students learn how to engage in a practice of generous reading that prioritizes the work at hand, and invests in its betterment. Students engage in scholarly conversations that are not meant to name-drop or to showcase one’s knowledge and expertise. Instead, the relative stability of the environment, and the unquestionable worth that is given to each, and every participant from undergraduate students, to postdoctoral fellows, to affiliate faculty allow for experimenting and learning how to ask questions, and to engage actively and creatively with scholarship.

Alongside the colloquium, SRC offers spaces for writing and reading. In different topical working groups, affiliates learn how to run meetings, select readings, and direct conversations with true questions and real enthusiasm. Affiliates are also invited to join workshops, where students at the same level (undergrads, masters, doctoral and postdoctoral) work on their writing. They are guided through the entire process of academic writing, from devising a research question to outlining a paper, to completing a final version ready for publication. Moreover, the program offers other spaces, such as a conference caucus, a professionalization pod, and dissertation writing groups, where students are able to prepare conference abstracts and presentations, write their dissertation chapters, or prepare for the job market. Throughout, the focus is on learning the techne of academic research, writing, and speaking, and on honing intellectual and practical skills that permit students to thrive as individuals and scholars. Working in solidarity and with a spirit of generosity and commitment, participants help each other grow, and hold each other accountable.

While SRC resides in an elite, resource-rich university, its key capital is time. Most meetings are either brown-bag or are supported with just coffee and tea. The thriving culture of inclusivity and mentorship at SRC is rooted not in the type of catered food, but in the willingness of participants to give their time in generous engagement with their colleagues. As such, this space is built on the type of solidarity and inclusivity described above, which allows students to place their confidence in each other, and to rely on each other for support and learning. In this view, a “third space” is a space of intellectual generosity. It might be structured around regular colloquia, and working group meetings, but it also exists in informal meetings over coffee or lunch, and in conversations in hallways and over email. It is an environment that is built on the willingness to share one’s work, be it syllabi, articles, working papers or drafts, and to give an honest portrayal of one’s experience, and struggles. I argue that this practice of generosity is one that should permeate our classrooms, colloquia, conferences and other academic venues and encounters, where those who benefit from the generosity of their senior colleagues, and instructors are only asked to give back to their juniors. I argue that these practices of generosity, and inclusivity will allow us to innovate in our teaching and research beyond simply using the latest technology, or deploying the most cutting-edge teaching style.

Third spaces also exist in the street. I chose to start this essay with an account of my arrest in solidarity with my students. To be sure, as a brown faculty of Muslim origin, this act of solidarity relies on generous reciprocity. After all, my family may soon be banned from entering the US, my citizenship may be revoked under the USCIS denaturalization task force, and my name may end up on a Muslim registry. In these cases, I will rely on my colleagues and students to exercise their privilege in any way they can. The act of protest, inspired by my students and my colleagues, was a pedagogical act through which I learned about my place in this society and the meaning of my identity. In essence, I learned from my students and my colleagues that pedagogy cannot stop at the threshold of the classroom.

I argue that the ability to use new teaching and mentoring techniques, and to revive old and effective ones, is conditional on creating generous and inclusive spaces of solidarity. Armed with an understanding of what is at stake in our work, our pedagogy can thrive in various environments and across different media. We also grow more confident in the support of our peers and students, and are encouraged to experiment, seek new techniques and offer new solutions. Such is the nature of pedagogy: a constant attempt to cross the enormous space separating the lectern from the front row of seats. I share my anxieties, worries, and questions with my students and my colleagues, and I rely on their solidarity, generosity and care as much as they rely on mine. I have come to believe that such a virtue of intellectual generosity, which underwrites all practices of teaching, continues to be the key to effective and fulfilling pedagogy.

Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso Books, 2006.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. “A womanist experience of caring: Understanding the pedagogy of exemplary black women teachers (2002).” In The womanist reader: The first quarter century of womanist thought, edited by Layli Philips. London: Routledge, 2006.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, Lee Edelman, Roderick A Ferguson, Carla Freccero, Elizabeth Freeman, Judith Halberstam, Annamarie Jagose, Christopher S Nealon, and Tan Hoang Nguyen. “Theorizing queer temporalities: A roundtable discussion.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13, no. 2 (2007): 177-95.

Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The west and the rest. Penguin, 2011.

Galvan, Ruth Trinidad. “Portraits of muejeres desjuiciadas: Womanist pedagogies of the everyday, the mundane and the ordinary (2001).” In The womanist reader: The first quarter century of womanist thought, edited by Layli Philips. London: Routledge, 2006.

Huff, Toby E. The rise of early modern science: Islam, china and the west. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mbembé, J-A. On the postcolony.  Vol. 41: Univ of California Press, 2001.

Ragab, Ahmed. “Making history: Identity, progress and the modern-science archive.” Journal of Early Modern History 21, no. 5 (2017): 433-44.

Shank, J. B. . “Special issue: After the scientific revolution: Thinking globally about the histories of modern sciences.” Journal of early modern history 21, no. 5 (2017): 377-93.

Shapin, Steven. The scientific revolution.  Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

Sheared, Vanessa. “Giving voice: An inclusive model of instruction—a womanist perspective.” In The womanist reader: The first quarter century of womanist thought, edited by Layli Philips. London: Routledge, 2006.


[1] This essay was submitted as part of a portfolio requested by the Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize—History of Science Society’s teaching and advising award. The recipient of the 2018 prize will be announced in October.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Verso Books, 2006).

[3] J-A Mbembé, On the postcolony, vol. 41 (Univ of California Press, 2001). 12-14.

[4] It is difficult to cite the many works that questioned traditional narratives about the scientific revolution and about the history of pre- and early modern science. Suffice  to mention Steven Shapin’s landmark, The Scientific Revolution, as one of the more influential contributions to this debate (Steven Shapin, The scientific revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996)., REST OF CITATION), and one of the more recent contributions of the debate, a special issue edited by JB Shank in the Journal of Early Modern History (J. B.  Shank, “Special issue: After the scientific revolution: Thinking globally about the histories of modern sciences,” Journal of early modern history 21, no. 5 (2017).), to which I had the pleasure of contributing (Ahmed Ragab, “Making history: Identity, progress and the modern-science archive,” Journal of Early Modern History 21, no. 5 (2017).). REST OF CITATIONS

[5] See Toby E Huff, The rise of early modern science: Islam, china and the west (Cambridge University Press, 2003). See also Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The west and the rest (Penguin, 2011). REST OF CITATIONS

[6] Carolyn Dinshaw et al., “Theorizing queer temporalities: A roundtable discussion,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13, no. 2 (2007).

[7] Vanessa Sheared, “Giving voice: An inclusive model of instruction—a womanist perspective,” in The womanist reader: The first quarter century of womanist thought, ed. Layli Philips (London: Routledge, 2006). P. 269

[8] Ruth Trinidad Galvan, “Portraits of muejeres desjuiciadas: Womanist pedagogies of the everyday, the mundane and the ordinary (2001),” in The womanist reader: The first quarter century of womanist thought, ed. Layli Philips (London: Routledge, 2006).

[9] Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, “A womanist experience of caring: Understanding the pedagogy of exemplary black women teachers (2002),” in The womanist reader: The first quarter century of womanist thought, ed. Layli Philips (London: Routledge, 2006).