Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

Classes from disciplines such as art history, economics, geography, history, politics, religion, and sociology comprise the classes available within this cross-disciplinary path. 

2020-2021 Courses

Art and Society in the Lands of Islam

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course will explore the architecture and visual arts of societies in which Islam is a strong political, cultural, or social presence. We will follow the history of some of these societies through the development of their arts and architecture, using case studies to explore their diverse artistic languages from the advent of Islam through the contemporary world. We will begin with an introduction to the history surrounding the advent of Islam and the birth of arts and architecture that respond to the needs of the new Islamic community. We will proceed to follow the developments of diverse artistic and architectural languages of expression as Islam spreads to the Mediterranean and to Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, exploring the ways in which arts can help define and express identities for people living in multi-confessional societies. We will then draw this exploration into the present day, in which global economics, immigration, and politics draw the architecture and artistic attitudes of Islam into the global contemporary discourse. Our work will include introductions to some of the theoretical discourses that have emerged concerning cultural representation and exchange and appropriation in art and architecture. One of our allied goals will be to learn to read works of art and to understand how an artistic expression that resists representation can connect with its audience. And throughout this course, we will ask: Can there be an Islamic art?

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Art, Religion, and Identity: Christians Jews and Muslims in the Arts of Medieval Spain

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

As an intermediate course, some of the things that would qualify you to enroll for this course would be having previously taken a course in medieval art or Islamic art, having taken a course in medieval or Islamic history or civilization, or having the ability to conduct research in Spanish. You are also welcome during interviews to make a case for other skills or background that you feel might qualify you.

How can we read peoples’ sense of identity in the arts? How do religious identities interact with national, regional, and cultural identities? Is European identity necessarily Christian? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this seminar. From 711 to 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was home to a number of kingdoms with constantly transforming demographics, cities marked by religious pluralism, and kaleidoscopic political alliances between political and religious groups. Opposing forces rarely aligned simply with religious affiliation in medieval Spain. If documents give us a biased and incomplete picture of the relationship between and among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the arts can provide a different kind of testimony to these rich and complex histories that continue to have an impact on our lives today.

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Introduction to Property: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Perhaps few issues are more contentious in the environmental arena than those surrounding struggles over rights to private, as well as common, property resources. What is property, and how is it made? Who makes property? How are property rights performed, publicized, and enforced? What is a commons, and what is common property? Debates over the “commons” implicate ideas of citizenship, community, the public good, justice, and governance. Controversies over public space and community gardens, genetic recombinant research and rights to the genome, and North-South disputes over rights to biodiversity in the geographic South—as well as debates over property in the Middle East—form some of the hotly contested terrain of property rights and the commons use and ownership. Property rights on a variety of scales—from the biomolecular to whole organs and organisms, from individual trees to whole ecosystems—are examined in varied geographic, biological, cultural, and historical contexts. This course is an introduction to ideas and cultures of property (private, public, and collective); debates, claims, and arguments over the commons; and the environmental and social consequences of different property regimes.

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First-Year Studies: Introduction to Documentary Filmmaking

Open, FYS—Year

Nonfiction filmmaking is a tool and practice of observation. It has a way of starting out as a quest for truth and becoming a new way to be in the world—as a witness, a scholar, and an artist. During the course, we will hone our creative practice alongside building a foundation of practical, hands-on production experience. This art form requires an ability to both co-create and lead, to build relationships and practice humility as you honor your subjects. In this introductory course, students will be exposed to a wide range of nonfiction possibilities, particularly those opened up as we “decolonize the archives.” Screenings will also vary, tailored to the interests and questions that students bring to class. Each student will make several 1-2 minute, short exercises in addition to a 4-5 minute conference film. Finally, students will be asked to create a digital space where all of their work will live, learning how film is professionally distributed and innovating themselves as they lean into their own knowledge as digital natives. This course will have weekly conferences for the first six weeks; biweekly conferences thereafter.

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Introduction to Television Writing: Writing the Spec Script

Open, Seminar—Spring

The fundamental skill of television writers is the ability to craft entertaining and compelling stories for characters, worlds, and situations created by others. Though dozens of writers may work on a show over the course of its run, the “voice” of the show is unified and singular. The best way to learn to write for television—and a traditional component of your application for important career development fellowships and for your portfolio for agents, managers, show runners, and producers—is to draft a sample episode of a preexisting show, known as a spec script. Developing, pitching, writing, and rewriting stories hundreds of times extremely quickly, in collaboration, and on tight deadlines is what TV writers on staff do every day, fitting each episode seamlessly into the series as a whole in tone, concept, and execution. This workshop will introduce students to those skills by taking them, step-by-step, through writing their own spec (sample) script for a currently airing American television series. The course will take students from premise lines through the beat sheet, then outline, to writing a complete draft of a full teleplay for a currently airing show (no original pilots). The class collectively decides a handful of shows on which to work. All work will be based on that handful of shows, which will include comedies, dramas, and animated shows originating on broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms. If this course is held remotely, it will be taught live, synchronous, via Zoom or similar platform.

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Food, Agriculture, Environment, and Development

Open, Lecture—Year

Where does the food that we eat come from? Why do some people have enough food to eat and others do not? Are there too many people for the world to feed? Who controls the world’s food? Will global food prices continue their recent rapid rise? And if so, what will be the consequences? What are the environmental impacts of our food production systems? How do answers to these questions differ by place or by the person asking the question? How have the questions changed over time? This course will explore the following fundamental issue: the relationship between development and the environment, focusing in particular on agriculture and the production and consumption of food. The questions above often hinge on the contentious debate concerning population, natural resources, and the environment. Thus, we will begin by critically assessing the fundamental ideological positions and philosophical paradigms of “modernization,” as well as the critical counterpoints, that lie at the heart of this debate. Within this context of competing sets of philosophical assumptions concerning the population-resource debate, we will investigate the concept of “poverty” and the making of the “Third World;” access to food, hunger, grain production and food aid, agricultural productivity (the Green and Gene revolutions), biofuels, the role of transnational corporations (TNCs), the international division of labor, migration, globalization and global commodity chains, and the different strategies adopted by nation-states to “develop” natural resources and agricultural production. Through a historical investigation of environmental change and the biogeography of plant domestication and dispersal, we will look at the creation of indigenous, subsistence, peasant, plantation, collective, and commercial forms of agriculture. We will analyze the physical environment and ecology that help shape, but rarely determine, the organization of resource use and agriculture. Rather, through the dialectical rise of various political-economic systems—such as feudalism, slavery, mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism, and socialism—we will study how humans have transformed the world’s environments. We will follow with studies of specific issues: technological change in food production; commercialization and industrialization of agriculture and the decline of the family farm; food and public health, culture, and family; land grabbing and food security; the role of markets and transnational corporations in transforming the environment; and the global environmental changes stemming from modern agriculture, dams, deforestation, grassland destruction, desertification, biodiversity loss, and the interrelationship with climate change. Case studies of particular regions and issues will be drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States. The final part of the course examines the restructuring of the global economy and its relation to emergent international laws and institutions regulating trade, the environment, agriculture, resource extraction treaties, the changing role of the state, and competing conceptualizations of territoriality and control. We will end with discussions of emergent local, regional, and transnational coalitions for food self-reliance and food sovereignty, alternative and community supported agriculture, community-based resource management systems, sustainable development, and grassroots movements for social and environmental justice. Films, multimedia materials, and distinguished guest lectures will be interspersed throughout the course. One farm/factory field trip is possible in each semester if funding permits. The lecture participants may also take a leading role in a campus-wide event on “food and hunger,” tentatively planned for the spring. Please mark your calendars when the dates are announced, as attendance for all of the above is required. Attendance and participation are also required at special guest lectures and film viewings in the Social Science Colloquium Series, which are held approximately once per month. The Web Board is an important part of the course. Regular postings of short essays will be made there, as well as followup commentaries with your colleagues. There will be in-class essays, a midterm quiz, and a final exam each semester. Group conferences will focus on in-depth analysis of certain course topics and will include debates and small-group discussions. You will prepare a poster project each semester on a topic of your choice that is related to the course and which will be presented at the end of each semester in group conference, as well as a potential public session.

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‘In an Antique Land’: An Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies

Open, Large seminar—Fall

This will be a 25-student course, with one lecture and one seminar a week, in addition to small-group work.

This course is designed as a broad overview of the cultures, religions, history, and politics of the region typically referred to as the “Middle East”—one of the most complex and least well-understood areas in the world today. Rather than viewing the Middle East as a unified whole—and in sharp contrast to prevailing Western media images of the Middle East as hyperpoliticized, overly ideological, or inherently violent—the course adopts a multilayered, bottom-up approach in order to emphasize the region’s fundamental underlying social and cultural diversity. Topics to be covered in this course include: the origins and spread of Islam and “Islamicate” civilization; an overview of the region’s major ethnic and linguistic groups, including Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, among others; the evolution of Middle Eastern empires and their political structures and institutions; the varied geographies of the Middle East (ranging from empty deserts to storied metropolises); the dynamic impact of key forces of modernity (such as capitalism, globalization, and nationalism) across the region; gender and the status of women and the family in the Middle East; and the consequences of various 20th-century wars and conflicts (ethnic, sectarian, revolutionary) for Middle Eastern history and politics. 

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The Social Psychology of Immigration

Open, Seminar—Spring

Immigration is a worldwide phenomenon in which people move into another nation with the intention of making a better life for themselves and/or residing there temporarily or permanently. While anchored in a multidisciplinary perspective, this seminar explores the crucial role of psychology in understanding the processes associated with our conceptualizations of immigrants and immigration. The course will begin with some theoretical perspectives on immigration, as well as a brief historical overview of some sociological and some social psychological research on immigrants. We will then examine the identity of the immigrant, stressing the profound distinctions between forced and voluntary immigrants. We will explore the processes through which “illegality” is constructed by reflecting on the lives of undocumented immigrants. We will also look very closely at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and culture to see how they shape the psychological experience of immigrants. Seeking to extend our analysis to immigration’s impact on the host population, we will conclude the course by discussing several social psychological issues, such as intergroup relations, discrimination, and modes of adaptation.

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Mobilization and Social Change

Sophomore and above, Seminar—Fall

In light of recent national—as well as international—calls for racial justice, which have propelled several movements, this course will analyze the chronology of the various theories and research in both cultural and social psychology, highlighting the need to re-examine intolerance not only in the heads of people but also in the world. Given that these biases are often defined as individual prejudice, even though their persistence is systemic, we will see how they crystallize in ways that are marked in the cultural fabric, the various artifacts, the ideological discourse, and most institutional realities that all work in synchronicity with individual biases. In this class, we will highlight various examples of historically derived ideas and cultural patterns that maintain present-day inequalities (gender, sexualities, class, persons with disabilities, and various other forms of social injustice). We will first explore the theory of minority influence, a theory that stands in contra-distinction to conformity, providing a model to develop and articulate change. With the help of cultural psychology, we will then see how injustices are anchored and objectified in our everyday world. We will analyze how our preferences and selections are maintained through the contexts of our interactions. This perspective will lead us to explore the theory of social representations, moving us away from individual tendencies to focus on changing the structures in which collectively elaborated understanding is maintained and reproduced as a system.

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First-Year Studies: Islam

Open, FYS—Year

This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the foundational texts of Islam, the historical development of different Muslim cultures, and the contemporary issues that animate Islam’s ever-evolving manifestations. We will begin with the Qur’an, a book whose juxtaposition of narrative fragments, apocalyptic imagery, divine voice, and sociopolitical themes conveyed in rhymed Arabic prose has both entranced and confounded readers. We will look at the historical roots of the “isms” used today to describe the orientations of Sunnism, Shi‘ism, Sufism, and Salafism. Looking beyond the Middle East, where only about 20 percent of the current global population of Muslims reside, we will examine how migrating people, concepts, texts, and practices both transform and are transformed by existing traditions in different geographical locations. Contemporary preoccupations—such as the status of women in Islam and the relationship between Islam and violence—will be examined from a variety of perspectives, illustrating the intricacies of Muslim and non-Muslim acts of interpretation and their relationship to power and authority. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

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Religion and Power: Islam, Christianity, and the United States

Open, Seminar—Fall

Theology, whether it is acknowledged or publicly noted, has often played a significant role in the political life of the United States. Religious arguments and positions have provided the theoretical underpinnings for institutions such as slavery and incarceration and policies in the areas of immigration, foreign relations, and military interventions. In this course, we will focus on the intersection of Christian and Muslim theologies in America from the early republic to the Trump era. Some of the topics to be explored are the religious justifications used for owning slaves and creating barriers to citizenship, the religious/nationalist ideologies of black Muslims and white supremacists, the phenomenon of apocalyptic reasoning, American religious positions on the state of Israel, and white evangelical support for President Trump. Although the number of Americans identifying themselves as having a religious affiliation has been dropping steadily over the last decade, the influence of religion on American politics has not.

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Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction

Open, Seminar—Spring

In current global circumstances, Islam is all too frequently represented solely in terms of political and militant ideologies. For those who wish to dig deeper, there are the rich and varied traditions of classical religious scholarship and jurisprudence. But to look at Islam through these lenses alone is to miss alternate sensibilities that are just as important in providing the material from which many Muslims construct their identities. In 1988, the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz became the first Muslim writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although Mahfouz was one of the first to adopt the format of the novel, in recent years many new writers emerging from Muslim majority and minority areas around the world have found broad audiences. Their works embrace, resist, reject, transmute, and/or show nostalgia for the beliefs and practices with which the authors grew up or have adopted. As natives, immigrants, third culture, or converts, some of the writers to be explored here have actively promoted themselves as Muslim writers while others question this label or view it as only one signifier of many. The writings that have been selected will be ones that deal substantially with issues of Muslim identity. All of them were either written in English or have been translated into English.

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Veiled Lives: Women and Resistance in the Muslim World

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course is designed to enable participants to better understand the complexities, nuances, ambiguities, and contradictions that surround our understanding of the lives of women in those places designated as the “Muslim” world. Our examination will not be based on a comprehensive historical accounting of women’s lives in the geographical spaces under scrutiny. Instead, it will be informed by central guiding questions, including the following: What are the different conceptual frameworks that inform our perceptions of women in the Muslim world? What politics and histories are embedded in different “ways of seeing”? What are the various discursive and material forces that inform women’s lives in the places under scrutiny, and how do they serve to restrict women and simultaneously provide openings for women’s resistance to their oppression? We will analyze the debates surrounding the origins of women’s subordination in the Muslim world; consider the harem and the veil, both as representational devices and embodied spaces; examine the multiple modalities through and in which women’s lives are lived out (historically and socially); and examine the shifting and dynamic constitution of their existence. In order to do so, the course will take into consideration colonialism, modernity, and postcoloniality in relationship to women’s ability to carve out their own histories. For our analysis, we will draw upon ethnographic and visual materials, colonial and literary writings, sociological texts, films (including documentaries), and (auto)biographies. For conference, possible topics include an analysis of women’s movements in a particular place or in multiple spaces, the roles of the state and the law and their impact on women, representation of women and Islam in the media and in colonial writing; and women’s writing and voice(s). The course will be of interest to students who wish to pursue studies of gender and sexuality, colonialism and postcoloniality, media and Islamic studies, law and society, studies of the global south and diaspora studies, as well as writing, film, and media studies.

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Contextualizing Communications: The Poetics of Seeing

Open, Seminar—Spring

Seeing is not a natural process or an individual activity; rather, it is embedded in social forces and imbued with historically and spatially constructed meanings. This seminar is designed to interrogate how we communicate and make meaning from such a vantage point. While this course takes a broadly construed sociology of culture as its point of departure, it understands sociology as what a British sociologist called a “parasitical” discipline that frequently disrupts and violates disciplinary borders and boundaries. The course will follow in that vein. Our initial readings, which will include Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Aime Cesaire, and John Berger, will set the conceptual framework for what follows. We will draw upon literature; film and music; (auto)biography; letters, diaries, oral histories; and archival and legal texts emanating from different parts of the globe, with an emphasis on cultural productions about and from the Global South and/or diasporic communities. Our analyses will be framed in terms of a number of themes and questions, relating those to the contexts within which the works were produced. We will start with an overview of historical and methodological questions; examine colonial texts and their critique, the production of nationalism(s) and identities, censorship, postcoloniality, and the violence of “home”; and conclude with transformative visions. It is hoped that this perusal of a diversity of genres and voices will enable us to rethink the relations between objectivity and subjectivity, fiction, biography and fact, political and social censorships to which their producers subscribe or against which they struggle, as well as struggles over voice and/in the remaking of space. Our goal is to problematize naturalistic “ways of seeing” (a term borrowed from John Berger) and thus show how seeing (through sonic, cinematic, and literary constructions) is both an ideologically regimented activity and a creative form of emancipatory action. Rather than seeing our readings as the expression of individual genius, we will engage with them as a way to become astute readers of the material poetics of social life.

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Practices, Techniques, and Strategies in Photography

Open, Seminar—Year

$200–$400 materials expense per semester

The course offers a trio of necessary skills to build a photographic practice, including critical theory, art histories, and technique. Students will learn analog and digital, from photographic capture to scanning and printing. Through a series of assignments and lectures, students will consider the overarching concepts that inform their work. Dynamic themes include working within and against a field of influence, the roll of documentary and conceptual approaches to photography, subjectivity versus structural systems of production, and photography as event and narrative. Our time will be divided between group critiques and lectures. In the spirit of experimentation and play, drawing from research and the everyday, students will test their theories in practice. Students will develop a cohesive and original body of photographs and develop a generative practice based on a process of making, thinking, and remaking. Final work will be compiled into an artist-made, print-on-demand book.

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