Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teaching after January 25

Blogging has slowed down, for all sorts of reasons. There is still a lot happening here, most of which I am not especially qualified to comment on beyond the kind of off-the-cuff observations that I often bristle at from others. I do have some pictures that I hope to post—of murals and things from the neighborhood—but that feels a bit pollyannaish right now. Soon, I promise.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Alexandria with colleagues from other universities here about teaching language and literature after January 25. My topic was on “Teaching American Literature and Human Rights” which was nicely complemented by some colleagues who talked about their new translation of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, as something, like much of the American example, to be considered a valuable case study, rather than a model to be emulated. Jefferson demands critical engagement as he embodies so many contradictions as a literary and prophetic figure, representing the best and worst of the US tradition. I like the temperament of this approach to the US at this moment.

For my talk, I used Malcolm X’s insistence (repeated throughout the last years of his life as Manning Marable documents in his biography, which I just finished last week) on seeing the African American struggle as demanding the attention of the United Nations. Part of Malcolm’s argument was that this movement facilitates transnational dialogue and solidarity. What a wonderful way for me to think about teaching American literature in Egypt—what if we think about it as part of a “world” tradition, rather than a national one? What are the possibilities? Specifically, I talked about texts of slavery, incarceration (also always texts of freedom, as Toni Cade Bambara frequently reminded us), and internationalism. For me it is an exciting time to be teaching here since every text, even those I have taught a half-dozen times before is “new.”

The rest of the program was quite exciting because it dealt with everything from the institutional (a campaign by colleagues at another university for direct election of the Dean and other administrators) to the curricular (“The Revolutionary Texts Initiative” and a rhetorical analysis of Mubarak’s final speech) to the pedagogical (how do we implement democratic reforms in the classroom, and the importance of new forms of student-centered learning, which is still a radical idea here).

And perhaps the most encouraging thing for me was to hear the voices of students from several universities. This, for me, was such a thrill because it is a rarity for students to be afforded a voice in this forum. And their professors are listening to them with a new seriousness and attentiveness. The movement of the youth in Egypt during the past several months forces us, as professors, that not only takes into account the material changes that have taken place around us (and which we do, by consensus, support), but to fundamentally restructure academic meeting such as this. It is no longer the teachers talking and students listening. It is, instead, a more democratic process emerging. And I believe we are only scratching the surface of what is possible in this regards.

The specific presentations included analyses of January 25th slogans by linguistics students. Their work was impressively interdisciplinary in that it looked at the interactions of text and image on many of the posters that were seen in Tahrir Square. A colleague also shared a video of a “Democracy Graffiti Art Project” that she has undertaken with her students (who are featured in the video though they could not travel from Cairo to Alexandria for the conference). The restrictions of public expression, public space, and free speech at universities here has been so engrained that this project is really revolutionary in its own way. Large white pieces of paper are hung on the walls for students to write their thoughts. It is not policed or monitored, and has by all accounts been quite successful with students finding the smallest bit of free space to use, with more and more sheets of paper being added to the walls.

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