Roma, Friday, February 1, 2002
After going through your comments on my "green-form" for 2001, at the beginning I thought that, having discussed all those matters with you extensively, I need not bother with additional comments and complaints. But as I woke up this morning, and having just completed my Napoli pilgrimage, I felt energized enough to put all this on paper. I love provoking people, and as long as provocation rests on professional ethics, it's worth defending one's attitude in writing. After all, I always felt bad about American higher education turning oral, as if we're suddenly in that high-tech society turning into a pensée sauvage, so that texts, whenever assigned for classroom reading and discussion, are transformed into orally transmitted class-notes. Hence my "going back" to a written mode of communication.
I won't ask you to include this letter --which looks like Kafka's letter to his father-- in my 2001 assessment form, which, I'm sure, you've already submitted to the Dean, but I nonetheless request to include it in my departmental file, so that any future Chair would have a record of my positions, and so that I won't repeat myself indefinitely with pleas and excuses. I will, however, post it on my website, first, because I don't take your criticisms personally, and, second, because I think that both point of views and approaches are symptomatic of what's going on in academia these days, meaning that they go beyond us, and should be therefore addressed to the community at large.
In every course I always felt that I was not only fighting the social representations of students, but also that of faculty like yourself: people who, in the final analysis, love the status quo, because it keeps them with all the social doxa and privileges they need. Simply looking at the so-called portfolios of our history students, I realize that most of the papers that I went through are for all purposes useless for my type of courses. Most of them do not even come with the basics: cover-page, footnotes, bibliography of sources, etc., so that it's even impossible to guess at times what the topic was and where did those ideas come from. They indeed look like home-movies, drafted overnight for the satisfaction of a busy instructor. I'm sure that those professors will be looked upon favorably by their students, and that you will also perceive them very favorably. Let's hope that you rewarded them with an "above expectations" and that they'll receive a 0.1% raise for their high merits and for keeping large classes busy. I won't even discuss here the kind of books that all of you assign, since you're closer at present to the university bookstore than I am: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But if you happen to be in Rome anytime before I leave in May, I'll take you on the wild side, so that you see for yourself what assignments we've got in this colonie-de-vacances.
You'll find lengthy comments on your own comments below, if you're patient enough to read them, but the core of the matter boils down to this. In this insupportable laissez-faire mediocrity that we're going through, I'm now penalized for having offered five different topics in a single year --four of them totally new and never offered by the department before. There's always this ridiculous argument about students not being able to follow, etc., upon which I respond below. The important point here is that the department would do people like me a greater service if it offered high-quality texts across the board --beginning with the core: at least I would have students who would have some familiarity with what the valuable scholarly literature looks like. Please let me know if anyone of the major contributors in the European social sciences and humanities had any of their texts assigned: Braudel, Marc Bloch, Max Weber, Durkheim, Pocock, Skinner, E.P. Thompson, Hayden White, Norbert Elias, etc. Please provide me with the important list of texts that I might have missed from our department. Actually, your argument goes the other way round: I'm doing a disservice to both faculty and students for assigning the kind of texts that I've been working on in my courses for years.
A common criticism has emerged over the years regarding my teaching method and style. I'm not that surprised, therefore, that you look at my performance as "below expectations." I'm not disappointed either: Even a "meets expectations" assessment would have been in my eyes an indifference towards what I've been attempting to achieve since 1992. I'm, indeed, very happy and flattered that there's finally at least some concern, and that someone like yourself is being challenged, if not offended.
I don't think that the real issue here is the various topics that I've taught over the years, even though many of them were totally new to the department, beginning, of course, with courses related to Islam and the Middle East. Obviously, the real issue is how to address such themes, and not the themes themselves, even though the choice of topoi could be problematic, but I won't address that complicated issue here --even though that could also become a subject of controversy, in particular if someone is addressing topoi "outside" what is perceived as one's legitimate field of specialization, or on issues that might be offensive, controversial, risky, narrow, or simply perceived as irrelevant.
The real issue resides, therefore, in all the texts that I've been assigning in my courses, and how I've been "explicating" them (to use a common Derrida notion) in my class meetings, and how I expect students to handle such texts, in particular when it comes to writing essays (up to five in each course, since I stopped giving exams a long time ago). To begin, I don't look at a course --any course, for that matter, whether undergraduate or graduate, core or non-core, all kinds of distinctions that are epistemologically irrelevant-- as a finished and ready-made material to be fed to the students once and for all. A course centers around a theme, and the purpose of teaching is to present such themes in terms of the best available research, beginning with the Anglo-American publications, then Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, we're all limited by the cost of those publications, and what the students could and should afford, hence my preference goes generally for paperbacks available on the US market.
It's no arrogance from my part if I make the claim that many of my assigned texts are in general (though not always) more difficult and demanding to read and interpret than the other ones assigned by the department, or by the other arts courses for that matter. I know this for a fact from the way the students react to them: to some it's a pleasant surprise discovering texts they never had access to, and which they were even unaware that they did exist, while to others, who love class-notes and all kinds of shortcuts, going through such sophisticated texts could become a real nightmare. (A brief trip to our bookstores would tell you what kind of texts we're all assigning, and in Rome, things are even worse, since our Italiani colleagues have a hard time figuring out what's going on in the Anglo-American world of publishing.) The instructor, however, is neither an Indian Shaman nor a priest, who could lead the devoted to salvation in one or two semesters. We're not converting students to anything here: we're simply telling them what a sample of the valuable literature is all about --and that's something they'll only discover once they read those texts on their own--no one will read them on their behalf. That's a critical point since it's commonly assumed that it's the instructor's responsibility to "deliver" such texts to the students. In my view, however, the instructor is someone who "proposes" valid interpretations, and the real issue --hardly addressed in our evaluations (faculty and students alike)-- is how valuable or irrelevant those interpretations are.
The choice of texts is here crucial. You ought to address the issue as to why many of the most critical works by pioneering historians are practically never used. Thus, if Braudel's On History has occasionally few chapters assigned in the context of the History 400, his Mediterranean and Civilization & Capitalism remain unknown even to our history majors, including our graduates. (I'm therefore not surprised that, having spend all the year on the complete Braudel, I'm rewarded with a "below-expectations": the department, which functions like a Syrian bureaucracy, is not that interested in longue durée, but only in rehashed fast-food.) The same thing could be said about the works of other historians: Pocock, E.P. Thompson, Skinner, Hayden White, to name only few of the ones that have emerged since World War II. It is as if the department has a paranoiac fear of every historian (not to mention social scientists) who has something called a historical method. All this is, of course, done with a high spirit: by brandishing the all too familiar alibi that our poor students will be massacred by such texts, as if we're sending them to the Tora Bora mountains to detect the al-Qa'ida fighters. Moreover, the works of such eminent historians cannot be fully understood without common references to the likes of Marx, Durkheim, Schumpeter, and Weber, all of which are also hardly assigned in our readings. But maybe we're so much sophisticated that we're already looking for the post-Annales and we won't need all that crap.
Now once we opt for a set of particular texts --and their choice is primordial in letting the students know the best of scholarship-- comes the other crucial issue of how to interpret them and how to encourage the students to come with their own interpretations. Hence the importance of the paper as a tool-for-learning. It is through the medium of the paper that students can learn how to write about a text, film, or image. A student will also have to learn that, even though interpretations are by definition unlimited and personal (in the sense of being created by historic individuals for purposes that suit them and their societies), not all interpretations are equally valid, and many are improbable because they rely on a poor comprehension of the text, while others are simply invalid or stupid. Students are so much at home with their monolithic assertions dictated through class-notes by instructors not fully at home with their texts, that they are more than surprised by such assertions.
I'm unable to follow the inconsistencies of your remarks. On the one hand, you admit that the texts that I've been assigning (and hence the courses that carry them) are challenging and provocative, and that they're demanding (meaning, I assume, high scholarship). But, on the other hand, I'm not encouraged to give such courses. Why? Because the students cannot "understand" them: they're too demanding. But what are we supposed to do in academia? There are several false assumptions in your argument, all of which based on phony divisions between professors who know their texts all too well, and students who are off the hook; or between texts that could be easily understood and are clear as daylight, and others that are more provocative, hence obscure and shadowy. The truth of the matter is that there are various "levels" for understanding and interpreting ("explicating") a text, which apply to both professor and student. Thus, a text is never either fully understood, or not at all: we're always in between gradations and levels of understanding. There's always something that will attract your eyes and that you'll be able to understand, while other things will take more time to be fully grasped. Unless we want to ruin academia once and for all, we'll have to accept that at every juncture we're in the middle of a process. Let's therefore encourage our students (and ourselves) to read those valuable texts carefully, and we'll all realize that there's always something to be amazed at. It's not a day/night issue as it's often portrayed.
Grades that are solely based on paper assessments necessarily bring the whole grading process to its lower end, which, in turn, does not help in the instructor's popularity game. Did you do anything as chair to limit the ravages of grade inflation?
Which brings me to the evaluations forms, distributed at the end of each semester, and which you've been so keen to note that I refuse distributing. What you've forgotten to note, however, is that for all my courses I have electronic lists which the students can use, among others, to evaluate not simply the course in general, but each book, assignment, discussion session, paper, etc. Students learn to be challenged through the feed-back of others. The lists are kept active even when the semester is over for at least another year. Since as chair you have access to all my syllabi, which describe the login process in detail, you could login at any point and see what goes on in a course. Better still, you could request a "digest" of all the messages that were posted on a particular list. The Loyola forms are obsolete, as is the green-form we've got to fill every year: that's old outdated technology that only helps in keeping up with the good old cowardly habits. Let me remind you here, en passant, that based on American common law, the university cannot impose on its professors evaluation forms, and if it does, we have every right to agree on the questions that are posed and on the evaluation procedures (distribution of the forms, etc.). That's why the faculty handbook does not make such forms mandatory: doing so would have trapped the university into a legal nightmare.
Accusing me of academic alienation only hides the main problem that the department is now facing: namely, that in spite of the fact that it's unable to meet its core requirements, it still insists on its core courses as if they're its crown jewel. Yet, they're its lowest dominator courses: poorly designed, overstuffed, dogmatic and unchallenging, in addition to giving the students the worst image of history within the domain of the social sciences and humanities. Primo, a lot of research published in the last few decades points to the fact that, as far as modern Europe is concerned, the mutation towards modernity began in the tenth/eleventh century, when the European continent, in its formative period of the high Middle Ages, broke with late antiquity and the early Middle Ages of the Holy Roman Empire. Those ten centuries ought to be therefore considered as a single continuous unit. I don't know who originally designed the History 102, but let's hope that you were not involved in that pathetic process, because it seems that everything the organizers were unable to understand, they trashed it into the 101. So we've got a 101 with over 20 centuries, and a 102 that begins only with the 17th century. An irrelevant and idiotic periodization that only illiterates in history could have performed.
Secondo, both the 101 & 102 give the longue durée a very bad reputation, which it certainly does not deserve. Professionally speaking, the longue durée requires lots of skills, and the ability to handle several centuries in a row is not something that amateurs can step into that easily, hence their need for "textbooks." Indeed, many professional historians leave that kind of synthesis towards the end of their career. We're supposed with the 101 & 102 combo to do at least 25 centuries in a row as if it's a preliminary exercise, as some kind of a hors d'oeuvre to the other "more advanced" courses, and all this with students who cannot even read and write properly.
Tèrza, the "textbooks" used are far below the level of our regular professional books. They serve more the purposes of hapless instructors in organizing their lectures than the needs of the students, who anyhow do not read them and rely instead on lectures and class-notes.
To conclude. You need a philosophy of history, a method, and a theory to be able to teach and write. If you don't have a philosophy and an historical approach to interpret texts and see their relevance, your writing becomes dogmatic and trapped into the infinite weights of details and facts. To be sure, such approaches need time to develop and mature. I attempt to render my method and theory manifest in every course I teach and in every writing. If my students and readers find me at times difficult to comprehend, it's partly due to the difficulties of such an enterprise, but mostly because higher education, lost as it is in its bureaucratic manners and professional divisions, doesn't care that much anymore about the values that made western civilization possible.
I very much appreciate your concern for the publication of my just-completed manuscript. However, and in light of your criticisms, I would like to underscore the following banalities:
a. I don't like fragmenting my writing into smaller units simply
for the sake of making it more "accessible." You're
actually creating a different text once you open it to fragmentation.
If my manuscript won't get published, I won't accept that as a
defeat. The important thing is that it simply exists. I can feel
it sitting on my hard-drive. You're asking me to cut down my manuscript
without having even read a single page of it, and without any
familiarity in the field of Islamic law. To put things mildly,
you're behaving like a bureaucrat who doesn't care much about
content and value.
b. It took me over ten years to master the Islamic legal material, and hence fragmenting it indefinitely would have been a big distraction, something to be avoided in an immature field which, at present, looks hopeless.
c. I like presenting my narratives as a totality, as a complete story from beginning to end.
d. As you pointed out, I stopped attending conferences (more precisely, since Vienna in 1998). Is that supposed to be a duty, like having sex with your wife every night? The important point here is that I've always maintained an active research agenda (sometimes with great physical risks), and it's up to me to decide how and when to present it to the broader public, which doesn't have to be limited to a narrow élitist academic audience. It's not true that we get greater scrutiny from professionals: once they accept you and you're part of their inner circle, they become all too complacent. Try, for a change, to publish an article or book-review in The New Yorker or The New Republic and you'll immediately feel all the difference.
f. You seem to think that our minds develop mainly in conferences and through peer-review, etc. Not for me, however: only a contact with the non-academic world enriches my spirit, beginning with the courses that provide me with the opportunity to provoke and be provoked by regular laymen. Then, the importance of research and writing comes from the fieldwork itself and from being able to connect with individuals from totally different social origins than my own.
g. You'll have to admit that ending my participation in conferences in September 1998 was no coincidence. I received $1,500 from the department for presenting a paper in Vienna, and beginning in 1999/2000 the department stopped funding us properly. Considering that most of the invitations I receive come from Europe and the Middle/Near East, I cannot afford receiving a mere $400 for a conference that would cost me over $2,000. Already my financial losses to transfer to Rome this academic year are enormous.
To conclude. The field of Islamic and Mideast studies needs to construct for itself a modern tradition of reading and interpreting texts, and hence it needs a philosophy of history, a method and a theory, all of which lack in American academia. That's why conferences, workshops, and professional journals are lost in details, Byzantine discussions, and internal wars with no end in sight. If you want to work properly and constructively, you'll have to struggle on your own, with the help of those few who are willing to listen with a critical mind. On the long run, something positive should come from those solitary attempts. A light will emerge from the dark tunnel of solitude.
That's my favorite joke. Do you really believe in all those committees and the useless paperwork they engender? Was there at any time any committee that had the courage to opt for a decisive decision? Why is the university still drowning rapidly in spite of all this committee work?
We need to find a reasonable answer to all those questions. If not, we might be out of work soon. But surely, mon tour sera le premier.
To quote my favorite American hero, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "If my fellow citizens would like to go to hell, I'm willing to help them."
Loyola Rome Center
Department of History
Via Massimi, 114-A
00136 Rome, Italy
fax: (39) 06-35588352