May 16, 2014

Dabashi, Hamid and Ullah, Sahar (TA)
[ASCM V2008] Contemporary Islamic Civilization

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Dabashi is arguably brilliant, as he seems to know everything about anything within his field and beyond it. The drawback, though, is that sometimes you’re not sure if he might be BSing a little bit of it and being overblown in his own self-importance. Because Dabashi is fairly full of himself—at least half of the assigned works on the syllabus were prefaced in class with “I wrote this” or “I inspired the filmmaker to make this,” etc. Dabashi told us at the beginning of the semester that no question was a stupid question, but he then proceeded to make people terrified to speak by summarily shooting down some people’s ideas that didn’t agree with his own or that he thought were not terribly intelligent. Most of the class is based solely on his own ideas and opinions, no matter how much he claims to be adding in a lot of different perspectives.

Half the time, when Dabashi was lecturing, I couldn’t even tell that this was a class on Islamic civilization. We talked about Kant and Habermas and other Western philosophy and political theory, and there was no real indication as to how we were supposed to connect it to the theme of Islamic civilization. Because Dabashi enjoyed talking about all of the off-topic topics so much, we got incredibly behind on the syllabus very quickly and never really discussed the last five or six items on the syllabus.

The workload for this class was completely unrealistic and absolutely murderous if you attempted to do every reading assigned. We generally had an entire book or movie (or “selections” of one, which generally meant about ¾ of it) assigned for each class, but soon enough, I realized that it wasn’t completely necessary to read all of it. As the two big assignments of the class were papers that you could pick and choose among the assigned texts for, you could choose the texts that interested you and focus on getting a good handle on those (the only drawback to this approach was that if Dabashi randomly called on you to give a summary of the reading for that class—which he did frequently—and you hadn’t read it, you were in the hot seat and subject to his public censure). On one day (two weeks before finals), when it became apparent that literally no one had watched the assigned movie for that class, he asked, “If you weren’t watching this movie over the last two days, what could you have possibly been doing?”—the classic move of a professor who doesn’t realize that we have classes other than his to worry about or might possibly need to have lives that are not 24/7 studying.

By the end of the semester, though, Dabashi lightened up a bit, because the only people left who still came to lecture were the ones who could deal with him. He even started joking a little bit with the ones of us he had come to know. But on the whole, the only thing to redeem Dabashi’s shortcomings in this class was the fact that he clearly has a passion for the Middle East.

My TA, Sahar, however, was AMAZING. She was the shining light in the darkness that this class sometimes was. She knew so much about all of the topics the class covered (from what I saw, it seemed like she knew almost as much as Dabashi himself), and she, at least, made sure that we got through everything on the syllabus in our discussion section. She had a way of explaining things that made it all clear, and she always had suggestions for further reading or research—titles of countless relevant books and movies that she could just pull straight out of her head—if a certain topic interested us. She was also extremely helpful in her office hours, and helped me work through all of my ideas for the final paper and gave me some tips as to what I could do better. She was always sunny and excited to teach, and got almost all of us in the section involved in and excited about the discussion by making us realize that the class material was actually really interesting and full of depth. Sahar was legitimately the one reason I was able to make it through this class with my sanity.

If you’re looking just to fulfill your global core requirement, I would recommend that you take this class (at least if Dabashi’s teaching it; I get the sense that this class is much different when Saliba teaches it)—there are infinitely easier ways of getting that requirement.

Workload:

Midterm essay (25%)
Final essay (50%)
Discussion section participation (25%)