Teaching in the Wake of Trump

Last semester, I taught my freshman lecture course, Cultures and Contexts: Muslim Spain, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The morning after the election, virtually everyone present in the class — myself included — was out of our minds with grief. Many students did not attend that day and I instructed my teaching fellows not to take attendance or penalize absences. “If they’re not here,” I said to them, “it’s because they need to be somewhere else.” This was in line with directives that would ultimately come down from the official level at the college, encouraging faculty to take post-election dips in performance into account when calculating grades. Someone else was supposed to have lectured the morning after the  election, but had let me know late the week before that she wouldn’t be able to make it in the end; with one extra lecture to write, I looked at my schedule for the week, figured I’d watch election results with friends until 9 o’clock when Hillary would have it all wrapped up, and then go home and write. Of course that’s not what happened, and I ended up screening the medieval Islam section of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews in class on November 9. It was not my most stellar pedagogical move ever, but it was the best I could do that morning.

At that point in the semester, we were just up to a brief excursus into Christian Spain and France, looking at 1391 as a political and cultural turning point; and because of the nature of the material in the syllabus ringing with such obvious echoes of the hatred being directed first at Muslims, but also at Jews, in those last days of the campaign as throughout it, I thought that I had to address the election and its aftermath in some form.

I struggled over that weekend with how to do that. In a class of 72 mostly-anonymous students in a deeply divided country, I had to assume that some were Trump voters or supporters; and in fact, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic vandalism on campus in the following weeks would prove the audacity of the Trump supporters in our midst. I voted against George W. Bush in the first election I could, but I always hated it when my own college professors would make their political views, as aligned as they were with my own, a part of their teaching. Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I still believe in keeping political views out of the classroom; but at the same time, I think that opposing Trump is a moral choice and not wholly a political one. And for me and for my friends and colleagues who will be targets of a Trump administration and the neo-Nazi affiliates he is choosing to employ, opposing Trump is also an act of self-defense. Opposing those who would treat me as less American because I am Jewish is not a political act. Supporting unequivocally my students who will be treated as less American and perhaps even less human because they are of Mexican descent or African-American or Muslim is not a political act.

Ultimately, I decided to give a historiographic lecture about the materials through which we come to know about the events of 1391 and about how different forms of writing function in charged political circumstances. In particular, I built on the interview given by David Nirenberg in the runup to the election about how his understanding of the function of Twitter in political discourse was informed by his archival practice. This was all very easy to work into the class not only because of the content but also because of the students’ ongoing research essay project, in which I was very much emphasizing attention to genre — both of their sources and their own essays.

Archival practice was implicated in how I delivered the lecture, too. Normally I teach from notes, but since I was straying much further into contemporary issues than I normally do, and even though I did not consider my lecture that day to be a political one, I knew that a possibility existed of a student going to the dean to complain. So instead of lecturing from notes on that Monday after the morning after, I wrote out almost my entire lecture so that I could show the dean verbatim what I had said, were it to come to that. Since I had the whole thing written out, I had thought about posting it ablog, but couldn’t decide, in the end. But at this intersection of Twitter, history, hate, and the archives, with new questions being raised about the implication of Twitter in the destruction of presidential archives, I thought back to this lecture and thought it was time to share it. You’ll find it after the jump:

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At the beginning of the semester, we read Kenneth Baxter Wolf’s article on the many definitions of convivencia. One that departs the most directly from the others is David Nirenberg’s. He argues that convivencia can be peaceful or productive coexistence, but that literal living togetherness is also what necessarily underpins people killing each other and engaging in extraordinary acts of violence. In other words, you can’t have the kind of horrific violence between groups that we begin to see in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries unless they are in the kind of regular and familiar contact with each other that living-together-ness implies. Convivencia facilitates culture, but it also facilitates horrific violence.

I have said to you time and time again this semester that in this class we are not going to draw direct parallels between the medieval and the modern, but rather that we are going to ask a few big questions that come out of the medieval material we are studying but that also have resonances for the modern world. Today is probably the closest that we’re going to come to breaking that rule — without actually crossing that line. But I think that in the wake of the election and especially in the wake of the vandalism of the Muslim prayer room at Tandon on our own campus — I think it’s important that we talk about these things. So today we’re going to focus on some of the modes of discourse that can help to foment hatred against religious minorities and how we see those modes of discourse coming into play as we make the transition from one overall type of convivencia to the other overall type that Nirenberg introduced.

Last week, on the eve of the election, David Nirenberg himself gave an interview on the anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that came to be staples of the most recent presidential election campaign. His most recent book, is a massive tome called Anti-Judaism, which deals with a phenomenon that we’ll talk about in a bit. But in this interview, he drew some connections not only between the content of the discourse in this election and the discourses in the fourteenth century in particular, but also in the forms of the discourse. Unfortunately it’s a print interview so I can’t play audio of him talking about this, but I would like to read a few sections of that interview to you. It’s a little bit lengthy, so just bear with me:

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Nirenberg is talking about writing his first book, Communities of Violence, the one from which Kenneth Baxter Wolf drew that wonderfully contrarian definition of convivencia. In that book, he writes about several outbreaks of inter-faith violence in the fourteenth century.

Both 1348 and 1391 represent major turning points in daily life in the Iberian Peninsula. As we have been seeing in the last few weeks, more and more territory is under the control of Christian princes whose attitudes towards Jews are considerably different than those of the Muslim emirs with whom we have become acquainted over the course of the semester. In 1348, we see a completely new factor come into play: The Plague. People were dying in throngs all over Europe, and it was a real struggle for both physicians and theologians to try to explain what was happening and why.

Jacme d’Agromont, who was a medical professor in Barcelona at the time, wrote a treatise explaining both biological and astrological causes for the spread of the disease, but also speculated that it might be being spread by poisoners — with some insinuation that those poisoners might be Muslims, or even more likely, Jews. And while that position was never adopted by the elites or the royalty, it did become one that was seized upon by the people and led to massacres in Barcelona and other cities in the north.

[[ 1391, Girona. 1399, Valencia.* ]]

There was already an artifice in place that allowed this kind of thing to happen — we watched the Simon Schama documentary last week, and you’ll recall that he attributes parts of this anti-Judaism to Catholic theology that, up until the second Vatican council in the 1960s held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus. Another historian, called Sara Lipton, writes about the impact of the portrayal of Jews in art. Because of a biblical mistranslation, many medieval representations of the biblical figure Moses showed him with horns; this led people to conflate Jews with horned devils. And when they realized that the Jews in their midst — their neighbors and business contacts — didn’t actually seem to have horns, they assumed that they were hiding their true demonic forms. Because of these representations in art of Jewish difference, people were surprised by Jews not actually looking different and attributed a sinister motive to it rather than questioning the images they knew. Representation matters.

Nirenberg and other historians distinguish within this kind of violence between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, with anti-Semitism being a kind of racialized hatred of individual Jewish people, and anti-Judaism being the cultural framework that imagines Jews as the cause of all kinds of social ills, and that gets back to the question of rhetoric and imagination in the texts that we read. How much of the hatred in the texts is, on the one hand, a construct, but on the other hand, a construct with incredibly real and dire consequences for people’s lives. Just to emphasize that point: Just because something is rhetoric or just because something is literary doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact.

Coming back to the interview, Nirenberg says a couple of really interesting things about his historiographic process: He talked about how easy it was for him to sublimate the real horror of big events. And we’ve been talking all semester about reading with a skeptical eye and understanding historical writing as every bit as literary as literary writing itself; and here, Nirenberg very generously gives a window onto a time when that kind of reading almost got the better of him. The kind of reading we have been doing all semester is exactly what Nirenberg was doing with the grander narratives: exploring the rhetoric, asking himself what purpose it served, and drawing conclusions from the balance of what the text said, how it said it, and the context in which it was written. And in this case, that led him astray. It was a scrap of paper, a tiny little example of the kind of every-day writing we’ve been talking about in the last few weeks.

Some of the talk since the election is about how a lot of polling organizations and media projections got their projections wrong. And that’s really what this Nirenberg interview is getting at: There was one grand narrative that had many people expecting that the election would go one way, but it was the snippets of all kinds of rage — from the economic to the race-driven — that held the interpretive key to what was really going on. In other words, Twitter is the every-day writing of the digital age; and this raises questions about access. When we did our manuscript culture exercise, one of the things we talked about was the limitations of the books that were being copied — it was a slow technology, and literacy rates were much lower than what they are today. So one of the things to think about are what are some of the barriers to access and what was missed.

We’ve talked about the Cairo Genizah being an archive by accident – being a medieval recycling bin. We’re starting to see the very same thing happening with Twitter archiving, getting dumped into the digital equivalent of a box, like the Genizah, or just being torn and miscatalogued, and lost and forgotten in the proper archives like the ones that Nirenberg worked in to write Communities of Violence.

A recent article from The Atlantic revisited the announcement in 2010 that the Library of Congress had a plan to archive all of Twitter in a way that it could be useful both to academic researchers and to amateurs with an interest in their family histories and other topics:

“Six years after the announcement, the Library of Congress still hasn’t launched the heralded tweet archive, and it doesn’t know when it will. No engineers are permanently assigned to the project. So, for now, staff regularly dump unprocessed tweets into a server—the digital equivalent of throwing a bunch of paperclipped manuscripts into a chest and giving it a good shake. There’s certainly no way to search through all that they’ve collected. And, in the meantime, the value of a vast tweet cache has soared.”

So, where does this leave us? And what kinds of conclusions can we draw from all of this? For starters, it gives us a very tangible, modern insight into the creation of the bodies of text that we have been reading all semester. It should make much clearer why it is that we are lacking evidence when we are lacking evidence; if the Library of Congress can’t manage to sort through 140-character increments that are born digital and should be fully searchable, imagine what kind of chaos it is to have records spread across different church and municipal archives, sometimes catalogued badly or not at all. At points in the semester when some of you have asked questions an I have had to tell you that we simply don’t have the answer, sometimes that’s because stuff has disappeared or not been catalogued properly or not been rediscovered.

And it also cautions us to read all different kinds of sources in conjunction with one another. The big narratives give us a piece of the picture, but they are built up by the small everyday details. And it brings us back to the idea that convivencia is messy — not even a question of it being sometimes positive and sometimes negative, but just plain messy. The sources for convivencia are themselves messy and the concept in practice is messy. Convivencia in and of itself doesn’t explain anything.

I mention this in part because I’ve just read and commented on an awful lot of essay first drafts that start and end at conviencia, as though that were an explanation, and I’m looking forward to reading the revised versions that try to drill down a bit deeper to get at the specifics and the dynamics and the outcomes. But I also mention it because it gets at the heart of our enterprise here: This is the value of humanistic inquiry, of the humanities. What we are doing here is working together to cut through the noise and through the generic and formal constraints of our sources to get at some kind of real understanding both of what was going on in medieval Spain and of how people understood what was was happening to them and reacted to it. And as I’ve said all along, those are the questions and the methodologies that I hope you can take with you beyond this class and out into the world.

* As I said, I wrote out almost the whole lecture. As for the very straight accounting of political events that I can do in my sleep, I just made a note for myself to do that.

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