Saturday, November 26, 2011

How I Define the Educated

I've been wanting to write on this ever since the third or fourth week of my Music/gender class, taught by an amazing, generous, and open-minded ethnomusicologist. If you asked me, I still don't know what "open-minded" would be defined as, since I think it can be very relevant at times, but I know what "educated" means now. I know what an educated crowd looks like. I know what what the impact of an educated society would be like. I know what education has the power to do to you and others around you. Of course, I can't explain all of this in just one sentence or one definition--so prepare for another lengthy post of mine, dear readers!

As I may have mentioned in other blog posts, I'm taking three classes. One is the music/gender/sexuality one I mentioned above and that I'm writing the Gender Performance paper for; another's sort of an Intro to feminist/gender studies for graduates; and the last but never least is the Self and the Other one for which I'm writing that Pashtun Identity/Pashtun Nationalism Online paper.

All are worth taking, all have a lot to offer me, and I don't regret taking any of them. But the one where I sense education far more than in any of the others, illustrated not just by the students but by the professor as well, is the Music/Gender class. It's beautiful, folks. In many classes I've taken, teachers assert authority in a very obvious and often intimidating way. Some will make it very known to the class that their opinion is the ultimate opinion. Others will make sure to step on an opinion if it differs from theirs. That's always disturbing. It actually happened in one class this semester, but I won't go into details about that. 

So, in the Music/Gender class, the teacher is the type who rarely makes a claim and lets you have your say. You know how a question is often a statement and reveals a lot of about the questioner's stance or opinions and is thus not merely a question? Well, in this teacher's case, she asks her questions in such a subtle way, with such interesting facial expression, that you really can't guess what her personal opinion about the issue is! I remember in one of the first weeks, she asked us something like, "What is the role of feminism in music and media? Can there be feminist music? Or even, is feminism necessary?" Or something like that. The way she asked the questions, no one was sure what to say immediately because she wanted to us to really think about these questions and not be hasty in giving an answer. And even if someone were to say in that class, "No, feminism is not necessary," she would accept that as a perfectly legitimate opinion and not question it. I'm sure that's because everyone in the class has intelligent opinions such that they can back them up very well, whether with experience or observation or knowledge, and so no one's gonna say something just like that because they feel like it.

Here's how the class is structured. It's a 3-hour course. The first half of the class is reserved for a student who facilitates the discussion. On the first day of class, all students chose a theme and week they'd like to facilitate the discussion for, and last week was mine. The teacher keeps silent and takes notes during this time. When the student is finished, the teacher makes comments, asks questions regarding our comments and questions and some ideas that came up, and we discuss a little more for about 15 minutes. Then we take a 15-minute break. And then the teacher starts preparing us for next week's discussion, telling us what sorts of questions we should be focusing on during the readings, what themes and ideas need to be picked up from the readings, and so on. Annnnd did I remember to say we have snacks in class? :D That's the only time I eat chips, and, my God, are they dellllicious!!

This class is one of the very few (if not one of the two?) that is not centered on western feminism or the west. We have readings from all over the world; we look at music and gender from the Muslim world, the Hindu world, the western Christian world, the eastern Christian world, the Buddhist world, the "indigenous" of Africa and the Americas -- and the list doesn't end. When we were going over the syllabus and the teacher asked us if we had any suggestions for her, I said, "This is fantastic! I love it!" Now, in this other class on gender, when we were going over the syllabus and the teacher asked if we had any suggestions, I said, "Yes. I think we should have some readings on Islamic feminism and Hindu feminism and feminism not associated with religion in the east. Let us have only one article or book-excerpts to read for these feminisms, but we need to know about them." And then I ended up giving a presentation in that class on Islamic feminism. It was a delight. And the other students were given the opportunity to present/introduce other (forms of) feminisms, too. That was an equal delight!

Kha, so, back to the Music/Gender class. So, last week's theme was gender performance in ethnography, an ethnographer's attempt to un-gender (or, as the students and I realized later, re-gender) her/himself while conducting fieldwork. [NOTE: Ehtnography is a branch of Anthropology, which is the study of people (literally "man"). Ethnography focuses on the everyday life and practices of a particular community/race/society.] So, one of the texts we had to read for it is called Shadows in the Field, and in it, one of the chapters was titled "Virtual Ethnography" or something like that. That rrreally fascinated me because I realized, at that exact moment, that what I'm doing with the whole Online Pashtun Identities is in fact virtual ethnography! That my deep personal interest in online Pashtun communities is also an intellectual interest, and it has space in academia! God, did that make me happy or what! I was so relieved! Khair, so I brought this up in class, and a lot of students discussed the importance (or lack of importance) of virtual fieldwork. One student pointed out that he doesn't really consider this fieldwork because of anonymity purposes (you don't really know who's talking, and you can't really verify their identities -- and also that their opinions may not really reflect the opinions of the people you're studying; it's therefore not authentic ethnography), and some students agreed with him; others said that, no, there are some communities that exist only on the Internet and not in "real," and one student gave an example of this; other students expressed, in response to the first comment, that the communities on the internet are just as legitimate and authentic because 1) who defines authenticity and legitimacy? and 2) what makes us so sure that the people we study in "real" ethnography are giving their real opinions and are real selves? I think as long as recognize our limitations in conducting both (or all?) types of fieldwork and bear in mind that we can never really know the truth about a people, if that's our ultimate goal, it doesn't matter which type of ethnography we decide to go into. And the teacher then later commented that we must always keep in mind that terms like authentic and legitimate are always up for debate, and to dismiss a certain form of ethnography or another field simply because it doesn't conform to the standards that have been established, perhaps in different time periods and not applicable to all societies and communities, is not a wise move. And so on.

So, what is so "educated" about this class and the teacher? Everything. We can watch all kinds of music videos, listen to all kinds of music, talk about many performances of gender across the world, and they'll conflict with our personal views and understandings of the world and life, but not one student will laugh or mock or think, "Wow. That's sad." I'm no longer ashamed of Pashto music videos, and I look forward to showing the class a typical Pashto song with a music video when presenting my paper, and I know they'll find it an opportunity for research and study, not an opportunity to laugh or express amusement. We read books like Tri Minh-Ha's Native, Woman, Other, and we admit to the difficulty of reading a book that's written differently from what we're used to, but no one dismisses it as crap just because it ignores conventional rules about writing an academic book. We read other books like Chandra Mohanty's Feminism without Borders, and we discuss the book, and we talk about how important it is -- and for all of these texts that we read, we also provide criticism. We discuss the limitations of the studies, of the book, of the arguments, of the theories. And we're allowed to do this. The teacher loves it when we criticize the author's arguments! And she reminds us in every class period that we should read each text carefully, noting both its advantages and disadvantages, its positive and its negative aspects. Which reminds me ... in our last class, someone asked, "What exactly is the perfect study or the perfect book? No matter what anyone writes, someone's always going to criticize it. So what is a complete study?" And we laughed, and someone said, "Yeah, it will be perfect but also very boring!"

Another thing is that one of the things I've learned in this class has to do with Pashto music videos (what I'm doing my study on). I'll tell you in a sec what that is, but know that I'm learning how to interpret things, events, people, actions, practices, etc. more rationally and more objectively. I'm learning when and how to ask myself, "Hm, is this really is the only way to see this?" And if it's a practice, I've to ask myself, "How does the person doing this see it?" I have to get in the person's mind. And I've to stop assuming that just because a certain practice in the Pashtun society is "bad" in my eyes, it really is bad. So, you see, in many Pashtun weddings, especially in Swat (and all weddings there are gender-segregated, though the immediate male members of the household will drop by every once in a while, to relay a message or to check something in their rooms or whatever other reason), girls will get up and dance (or others will beg them to dance, and they seem to like being begged ~rolling eyes~ .. omgosh! I need to stop it with these parentheses :S okay last one for now.)... so, I was saying that in most Pashtun weddings, especially in Swat, girls will dance, right. And these girls are not professional dancers, although some of them can dance really, really well. But they're somehow not required to dance to the beat.  And this is precisely what some Pashto music videos are like: the girls will just be dancing around, moving their bodies and doing this and that, but not dancing to the tune at all. Now, before I took this class, I'd find this so embarrassing, and I didn't consider it dance at all. But I noticed how differently I started to interpret it after having taken this class when I was talking to my teacher about the study, and I pointed this out. And my teacher gave me that look that says, "Wow! That's very interesting!" And she says, "So it's a different form of dance, then, a different form of entertainment." And afterwards I thought to myself, "Wow, yes, yes it is! It's entertainment still, but just a different form than the one that we're expected or programmed to find entertaining enough or to enjoy." Because your surrounding defines entertainment; it's your society, your surroundings that decide what's entertaining enough and what's not. So it just so happens that for certain segments of the Pukhtun population, this form of dancing is very entertaining, and they find nothing wrong with it, nothing laughable about it, nothing mortifying about it.

And now I know that I can share Pukhto music videos with them and they'll watch them as researchers, as scholars, not as ignorant westerners suffering from superiority complexes. This, folks, this is education.

I should also tell you about our writing assignments. So, each week, our teacher gives us some questions or major theories we should be focusing on during our readings, right. Typically, we write precis (plural?) of the books/articles we're reading for that week, provide critiques (positive and negative), and then tie the readings in with our research interests. Especially for the last portion of the assignment, we are given the freedom and the space to write whatever we want however we want to write it. We can be as creative as we want. We can write in any form we'd like. And the more creative we are or the more we think outside the box, the more points we get. (You can get, for instance, 7 out of 5 points in this class!) I once wrote about Kashmala's birth and why I love Kashmala. That's when I realized why I love her so much. I'd been asking myself for months now why I love her so much I go crazy without her, and when writing that assignment, I realized. And I was so happy about the realization that I love her much more now--if it is possible to love her even more than how much I loved her last month! I get to write about my experiences as a Pashtun woman, as a Muslim woman, as an immigrant, as a woman, as someone interested in the formation of online communities, as a feminist who has been betrayed and defended, loved and hated, a friend to some and an enemy to others. I get to write about the conflict I experience in being a practicing Muslim studying Islam academically and what that does to my own sense of faith at times, and what it means to be a Muslim feminist from Swat, Pakistan, studying Islam in the west, or a practicing Muslim finding it close to impossible to practice the Islam I learn about from the Qur'an, hadiths, and the ratiocination of the classical and medieval Muslim jurists and scholars because I live and work within a system that makes it unbearably difficult for me to put my knowledge into practice, and I can't do it as an individual.

So, that's my Music/Gender class. The best class I have this semester. The sort of class I look forward to having all throughout my graduate career, the one I'd like to base my own classes on when I become a professor, inshaAllah. I've learned that the way the students respond to something depends half on how they think the teacher's likely to respond. If the teacher makes it clear, especially indirectly and subtly, that we're not going to make judgments about any ethnic, racial, religious, national group of people and that we will keep our minds open to the possibility that all are correct or all are wrong, then the students will prove to be much more open-minded. Their education proves useful, then, in that they are aware of other ways and expressions of life and recognize that theirs are not the only possible ones but that there are in fact alternatives. If the teacher is not this type, the class will not hesitate to express judgment and bias, often negative and unfair, and not be reminded to keep an open mind.

To this teacher, I will forever be grateful. You are blessed if you have had at least one teacher in your lifetime similar to this one I have. Sometimes it takes only one person to transform you completely.



  1. Wow, this class sounds absolutely amazing, I'm getting a bit jealous!

    It really is how it ideally should be in all classes, with a teacher who is confident enough about themselves that they don't need to be "right" - and realizes that just because I'm right, doesn't mean you're wrong.

    I'm happy for you that you are blessed to have such a community, continue to enjoy and take full advantage of it.

  2. Precisely! It takes confidence to acknowledge the moments when others are right and you're wrong - and/or that more than one person can be right at the same time despite their differences.


Dare to opine :)

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...