Banking and Stacking

So after the enriching discussion on the evils of online learning with my students, I went to the meeting of the Faculty Congress of which I am a member. There I discovered that my colleagues are passionate, brilliant people with great insights into the problems plaguing our university. I also learned of two new practices that our administration is trying to impose on us. One practice is called “banking.” It means that if one of your courses doesn’t get the required number of students to enroll (say, you get 14 students instead of 15), you are forced to teach that course for free. Meaning, for no money. For free.

“Stacking” means that a 300 and a 400-level course are rolled into one with the goal of getting rid of professors.

Obviously, these news suck. But my colleagues rock. So that’s good.

Now, I will be celebrating by eating roast duck decorated with Buddha’s Hand and rambutan. (My husband have a tradition of celebratory dinners 2 or 3 times a week.)

All would be well if only I weren’t so damn exhausted. I feel like I’m walking through fog because of how tired I am. I’m so tired that I can’t even fall asleep. In the future, if anybody suggests that you go without a summer vacation, send those idiots to hell in a basket. I did it this year and now I’m completely useless. My classes are fantastic (the best course selection I’ve ever had), my research is exciting, I have so many fun things to do, a new house to decorate, a car to explore the area, but I can enjoy nothing because I feel completely dead.

Please don’t recommend vitamins. I’m already taking vitamins and supplements prescribed to me by my doctor. And when I ask the doctor why I feel so exhausted, he looks at me like I’m an idiot and asks in a very concerned voice, “But what did you expect after the year that you’ve had?”

Students on Online Learning

I almost started a popular uprising among students today.

I’ve been invited to participate on a panel that will discuss our administration’s plan to move most or all of our courses online. I find it bizarre that nobody is asking students what they think, so I came to class today and asked my students what they think and whether they would like to talk to the panel.

The reaction was so strong that the blowback almost kicked me in the gut and slammed me against the wall. Students were almost violently opposed to the idea of turning our university into an online or mostly online school. Their arguments were brilliant, profound,  and insightful. Everybody spoke at length and with extreme eloquence. Students expressed anger at not being placed at the center of a conversation about a change that will impact them in a major way. Words like “activism, protest, 99% , revolution, and uprising” were flying around.

In the end, everybody volunteered to speak to the panel and write statements against online learning.

I barely managed to get students to settle down.

“And now let’s talk about a happier,  more optimistic topic than this,  namely the Spanish Civil War,” I said.

God, I love my students.

The Muslim Spain, Part II

And then a disaster of unimaginable proportions struck. Between 75 and 200 million people died in Europe within the span of just 7 years. This means that between 30 and 60% (and in the south of Europe up to 75%) of all population died. Even today, seeing every other person you know die in front of you would mess with people’s heads a lot. We’ve heard of 2 people dying of Ebola in this country, and there is already an unhinged response to that. Of course, the illiterate, unsophisticated Europeans of the XIVth century did not react calmly and rationally to the devastation of the Black Death. They freaked.

It seems that the plague had been brought to Europe on the merchant ships traveling to the continent’s southern shores from the East. More often than not, there would be Jewish merchants on those ships. So what was the conclusion that the medieval Christians drew? Obviously, they thought, “Jews, East, all of those dark-haired people who speak Arabic, weird religions and habits, all of that travel here and there – God is punishing us for tolerating all this stuff.”

So Christians freaked out and started persecuting first the Jews and the Muslims for not practicing the right religion and then, when there were no more Jews and Muslims, they were persecuting each other for not practicing their shared religion correctly. In 1492, after the Jews were expelled from Spain and the last Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula destroyed, the King and Queen of Spain sent Columbus to look for more people to convert to the right religion and then persecute for not practicing it correctly. What ISIS is doing to less fundamentalist Muslims today, Spain did to Protestants in the XVI and XVIIth centuries. And then again to the Republican Spaniards in the 1930s and 1940s.

This freakout lasted until the XVIIIth century when, finally, Christians looked around, scratched their heads, and said, “OK, what the hell was that, again?” Obviously, these were not all Christians but a tiny minority of the most educated and intelligent among them. They started realizing that maybe it would be best to leave religion in the realm of the spiritual and the private and organize societies according to the principles other than the correctness of people’s religious practices. 

This is a worldview that many people still haven’t managed to adopt fully. The political life of the US, for instance, still centers around this issue, although civilization is steadily, albeit slowly, conquering minds, one brain at a time. But the legacy of the terrified Medieval folks is still here. Whenever something goes amiss, the XIVth-century thinking of “something must be wrong with the evildoers’ religion” switches on. Just yesterday, I read a long and passionate article, arguing that Islam makes people violent because blah blah something in the Koran blah blah blah while something else in the Bible blah blah blah blah. Of course, as a literary critic, I can tell you that any work of literature can say to anybody whatever that anybody chooses to see in it. Blaming violence on books is as intelligent as blaming it on TV shows or video games. The course of human history has demonstrated that if people feel like killing, raping and torturing, they can find a justification for that in pretty much any book, newspaper, speech, TV show, online game, or the way the clouds look in the sky this morning.

The Muslim Spain, Part I

John Hayden, whose blog I highly recommend, left a long and interesting comment on our blog yesterday. Here is an excerpt from the comment that can be found in its entirety here:

Conflict between the Moslem world and the Western world has been ongoing for a thousand years, give or take. It used to be called a conflict between the Moslem and Christian worlds, and some would continue to characterize it as such. However, it is no longer reasonable to characterize the Western world only by Christianity. The hold of western religions on populations has weakened in many places. But the hold of religion seems to have intensified in much of the Moslem world.

Almost from the beginning, Muslims were expansionist, conquering Northern Africa and half of Spain. During the era of the Crusades, Christianity, led by the popes, saw the Muslim world as “Infidels.” Likewise, the Muslim world saw Christians as “Infidels.” Centuries of land and sea battles ensued.

This longstanding battle between east and west has been on hold for a century of more. During that pause, “modernization” has tremendously widened the gulf between the Muslim world and the West, with Turkey sort of caught in the middle. Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in many places. But the breakup of Yugoslavia is instructive. As soon as central government disappeared, ancient enmities between Christians and Muslims turned violent.

Thank you, John! I love long, intelligent, passionate comments like yours. Since you mentioned Spain, I was inspired to write a little comment of my own. If any of my students are reading this, I warn you that you will be bored to death because you’ve heard this a hundred times already.

In 710, the Iberian Peninsula (the part of the world where Spain and Portugal are located today*) was a very sad place. The barbaric tribe of warrior Visigoths had conquered the peninsula and destroyed the great civilization of the Roman Empire that used to be there. These barbarians had no appreciation for the philosophy, art, and culture of the ancient civilizations of Europe. They ravaged the peninsula, enslaved the Jews, demolished the repositories of knowledge, and the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans was lost. The situation in rest of Europe mirrored that on the Iberian Peninsula.

Then, in 711, an enormously more advanced and civilized culture came to the the Iberian Peninsula. Muslims crossed the Straight of Gibraltar and soon conquered almost the entire peninsula. They brought with them the scholarly, artistic, and scientific sophistication that the poor, dumb Visigoths couldn’t even begin to imagine. They built palaces, gardens, repaired the Roman roads, and – most importantly – they brought to Europe the greatest gift our Western Civilization ever received. Muslims brought back the lost knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Iberian Muslims established the Caliphate of Córdoba which was later destroyed in a civil war and was substituted with a number of smaller Muslim kingdoms called “reinos de taifas.” In all of these Muslim states on the territory of the Iberian Peninsula, Christians and Jews could practice their religions freely, with only few minor restrictions (for instance, the sound of the bells on a Christian church was not allowed to drown out the call of the muezzin and the tallest church was not allowed to be higher than the tallest mosque.) Jews were known to reach highest ranks in the management of some of these Muslim kingdoms. The most famous example of that is Sh’muel HaLevi ben Yosef HaNagid who served as a vizier to the Muslim king Habbus al-Muzaffar. 

Now, let’s remember that this was all taking place in the Middle Ages when everybody was constantly at war with each other. Christians kings fought other Christian kings, Muslims battled with other Muslims. Often, Christian leaders would recruit Muslims to fight against other Christians. Then, one Muslim kingdom would turn against a former Christian ally, and they would fight against each other, etc. Everybody had their religion, everybody’s religion was super central to their lives, but somehow, all these folks managed to co-exist quite well together, creating what today is our Western civilization. Crowds of scholars and intellectuals from all over the known world would congregate on the Iberian Peninsula to imbibe the great knowledge of the Western and Eastern civilizations.

* Of course, the words “Muslim Spain” in the post’s title are incorrect. While there were still Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula, there was no Spain. Once Spain started to consolidate around a shared manufactured identity, Muslims (and, of course, Jews) had to be expelled and vilified.