Teaching and Self-Doubt

Friday was a difficult class day for many reasons.  In one class, I had a student refuse to take a quiz because he said he didn’t know any answers, despite the fact that it was a simple reading review quiz (and he did know some of the answers).  But it was the other class that proved more challenging.  At present I am teaching about Islam and the topic for discussion was jihad.  This day is always a loaded given the way the media throws around the word, often incorrectly.  My approach is often to have them read about the concept in their textbook, then I hand out Osama Bin Ladin’s 1998 Fatwa calling for jihad, as well as a part of a brochure from the Islamic Society of North America.  My goal is for the students to see the contrast between the two different views and also to recognize the degree to which Osama Bin Ladin’s fatwa doesn’t stand up to the standards of set by much of the Muslim world.  I’m hoping they walk away understand the complexity of the concept. That’s the goal.  Here’s what happened…

We started with Bin Ladin’s fatwa. In it he opens with a very controversial passage from the Quran, which calls Muslims to slay the pagans wherever ye find them, which he doesn’t cite.  For some reason, a very precocious and intellectual student focused in on this section, asking where it came from and wanting to know the context, etc.  While my general memory is that this passage references a very specific instant of tribal warfare where pagan didn’t just mean of a different religion, but spoke to tribal loyalty and implied that the person was opposing Muhammad’s tribe, I didn’t know the specific passage and couldn’t cite my reading/interpretation.  Of course, this was the one thing I have not come prepared to answer.  I have taken notes on Qutb, Wahhabism, Salafists, Ibn Taymiyya, etc.  I was ready to talk about the development of political jihadism.  But I wasn’t ready for this and I felt so idoitic.  Especially because this student then tried to make the argument that Bin Ladin’s fatwa really did represent Islam better than the other, despite my arguments to the contrary.   I walked away from the class feeling like this sophomore had steam-rolled over me somehow.  I mean, I have studied Islam in at least four college and graduate level courses; I went to a conference focused on the Quran; and I spent most mornings of my summer reading about modern-day Islam, one book being Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.  I know I know more about this than this student, but rather than acting like a confident, intelligent teacher, I walked away feeling like an idiot.

While I haven’t dwelled on it all weekend, as I reflect back on the experience, I think there are a few valuable lessons to be learned.

  1. I need to have more confidence in myself as a teacher and intellectual.  It seems like the more I learn about any given subject, the more I realize I still need to learn.  I walked away from my hours of reading this summer overwhelmed by what I hadn’t gotten to read.  While I do still have an incredible amount to learn, I need to also be confident in my knowledge and work to this point.
  2. I shouldn’t let a over-confident speech make me doubt myself.  I have always had a problem of assuming that just because someone talks like they know something it means the actually do.  Then I get nervous that my own knowledge is incorrect and I begin to doubt myself.  I remember one time during graduate school taking a course at Yale College on Eastern Philosophy.  I was sitting around a table with the group talking about the Dao De Ching and putting forth my opinion and this undergrad told me I was wrong and went on to explain how I should correctly view it.  I so I shut up.  Then we returned to large group discussion, only to have the professor explain what was going on in terms very similar to my own.  t(This is not to say I was always right, but it is to say that I didn’t say much after that because I let some girl make me feel stupid).
  3. I also need to find a way to make what happend Friday into a teaching moment that includes the entire class.  As the one student and I debated jihad and Quranic interpretation, I realized that no one else really cared.  While I do want to intellectually challenge this student, I also need to make sure its a challenge that can bring the other students along.  It’s a class of 14, not 1.  Moreover, it can be a good opportunity to teach students how to debate intellectually or how to humbly admit that I don’t know everything.
On to next week.  On Tuesday, we are talking about Women in Islam (equally controversial), you better believe that I’m going to know the citations of my Quranic passages – veil, polygamy, divorce – here I come.

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