Upon My Return to the Chair

Identity and academic sacred space in Middle Eastern and
South Asian studies

Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Vol. 7 No. 1
September 2004

The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Memories of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves to anything around them.
Kerry Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.
Angelika Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Upon My Return to the Chair
Identity and academic sacred space in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies
Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Neuroscience for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

Crossing Boundaries
How intellectual initiatives form and flourish
Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional Research, Office of the Provost


Return to Contents


Upon those who step into the
same rivers different and ever
different waters flow down.

Heracleitus c. 480 BCE

Don’t cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether that advocacy is yours or someone else’s,” admonishes Stanley Fish, the former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the May 21, 2004, New York Times. Our job in the academy, he writes, “is not to change the world, but interpret it.” For universities to engage in “moral and civic education,” he further argues, would require them first to decide “in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one. . . . But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.”

Ten days after Fish’s essay appeared, I returned to a post I had held three years earlier—chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies (mesas). In these last years, my department and the world have changed. Our fields of inquiry have become more intensely contested in public discourse. September 11, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the war in Iraq have all had their impact. What is our role now in the aftermath?

As I look to the work ahead of me, I find myself agreeing with Fish in one sense. In my area of the academic world, we are best equipped to analyze complex scenarios that mix elements of culture, identity, religion, and politics. Analysis is, after all, taking things apart. It is parsing the scene, looking at the individual parts, and evaluating them.

Fish says that is solely what academics ought to do—as though we do not have any responsibility to the subjects we study or to the larger society, either directly as public scholars or indirectly through training our students. It is there that I disagree. We have an obligation to our subjects not only to take them apart for analysis, but also to use our knowledge to create new understanding. My graduate professor, the late Cyrus Gordon, contended that scholarship needs both synthesis and analysis: synthesis to make the salami, as he said, and analysis to slice it. But slicing it too thin means that it will not cohere and will not make a good sandwich.

We also have a public obligation to disseminate our new understandings to those outside the academy. We in the academy live in a privileged time and space. Our positions allow us to question and analyze our most cherished as well as our most despised assumptions, to parse, to label, and to argue about the meaning. That privileged space protects us from coming to conclusions too quickly, from skipping over things out of pragmatism. When we put on our everyday hats and step out of the academy, we encounter practical challenges. We often make quick decisions. We vote for people and ideas, for example, based on incomplete information—sometimes for good and sometimes not. The skills of analysis and the tools we perfect in the academy can help all of us meet the everyday challenges.

Fish wants to cloister us and say that we should not be looking to the outside, that we should not find ways of translating what we are doing to the outside world. This misses the point of our obligation as scholars, because with this privilege goes the responsibility of bringing our analysis as clearly as we can to our students and the outside world without resorting to indoctrination. It is a hard task, and we don’t always do a good job of it. We certainly do not always agree with all of our colleagues with whom we debate. But we are not excused from beginning the task of passing on our thoughts to the everyday world.

Like it or not, the world is paying attention. Our whole program in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies and our teaching are coming under intense scrutiny by external groups. For example, when I was learning Arabic, one of my texts had grammatical exercises that looked very much like the Latin and Greek texts I was familiar with. One of the paradigm sentences I remember from this Arabic book was, “My grandmother has a she-cat and an ape.” The assignment was to put this sentence in various grammatical forms and change the verb tense. It is hard to imagine any cultural context in which that would be an authentic statement. It is harder to imagine a native speaker not having the same reaction as someone else—to laugh at the strangeness of it. We did learn the grammar, but we did not get the culture and idiom that are an essential part of the language. It was form out of context.

At Emory, we have decided to use texts in our language courses that reflect the real culture of the language. There are, however, consequences to authentic representation: Which texts do you read? How do you read them? Who gets to choose them? Which texts are appropriate for people to read who are just learning the culture? At any place on the political spectrum, people beyond the academy are looking at the selection of texts and asking: How are you representing Hinduism? How are you representing Judaism? How are you representing Islam?
Our choices have real political power. Within the academy, we sometimes create enclaves of the celebration of identity that can serve some of the outside public demands. We have seen this with African-American studies, Chicano studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, disability studies. Because academic attention conveys status, the academy has become a place for people to say, I want a program or department that reflects my identity.

What do these demands do to a department of Middle Eastern and South Asian studies? We are subject to external forces in our academic space, both from inside and outside the academy. Outside the academic sacred space, there are those who may have some connection to Emory, who are strong advocates for one political point of view or another. For example, there are those who are willing to say that any criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies is not only anti-Israeli but also anti-Semitic or that any use of Western paradigms applied to Indian religious texts is anti-Hindu.

And inside the academy, there are those associated with Campus Watch, an organization that monitors the writings and sayings of academics on the subject of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian issues. Often their point of view is popularly understood to mean that balance requires that every pro-Palestinian statement be countered by a pro-Israeli statement on the same program. The result has been to perpetuate a binary view of issues, like the for-and-against format popular in the media. mesas itself then becomes a kind of identifiable lightning rod for advocates from all sides, a place where they can focus their diatribes.

I feel that true conversation and debate must be allowed a safe, protected space. As chair of this department, it is incumbent on me to maintain that space, so that ideas can be exchanged freely and divisive voices can be heard without retribution. We need to pay attention to the events and ideological currents outside our space, to mediate them in a way that others can understand. Real and good discussions that lead to growth in understanding are both complex and contextual. To encompass this complexity, debate must be multi-vocal and persist over an extended time. That is the enterprise of comparative scholarship.

It is very difficult to convey this message to undergraduates who often arrive with an ideologized cultural or religious identity. They arrive ready to develop pre-professional knowledge and skills but not to experience the challenges of self-doubt. They come with the suspicion that we academics will subvert their values. In truth, we might. If we think back to Socrates, our task is in some sense to use the “poison” of analysis to purge young minds of their unexamined preconceptions and free them to become mature minds. As such, they can challenge assumptions, think critically, and develop ethical perspectives within their values. This is an ideal developmental process. We do our job by helping young minds become immersed in the protected space that is the academy for the time they are here—to learn how to question, to learn how to use intellectual tools well, and then go back to the everyday world.

My response, then, to Stanley Fish is that we do not and cannot live in the cloistered vacuum he imagines. We live in the mainstream of the world. That world shapes us as it has always shaped the academy, and we, in turn, shape it. As I return to the polarized flow of ideas swirling around my department, I remember the words of Heracleitus and wonder if I will recognize the waters to which I return.