Asma Sayeed, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

Q: Why did you choose to apply for an information literacy grant for REL 304: Islam in the West?

A: There were two reasons. The first is that I’ve often struggled with the idea of how to get students to think in more critical and analytical ways about the information they have to gather for their papers. I always think about these issues before planning my courses, but when it comes to actually sitting down and working on them, I don’t necessarily make it a priority. I thought the grant would give me space in which to think through these issues in a more structured way and in collaboration with somebody who actually works in the library and thinks about these things on a daily basis. The second reason is that I was really excited about the Groves Papers, which I had read about in Bytes & Books and wanted to find a structured way to incorporate them. I thought that these two goals fit really nicely with the purposes of the information literacy grant.

Q: Students in REL 304: Islam in the West worked extensively in Special Collections with the newly-acquired “Lafayette-in-Persia” (Groves) Papers. How did incorporating them change your course?

A: It’s rare for students to have an opportunity to work with any kind of archival material, and here was a ready-made opportunity to do it fairly easily. When we think about Islam in the West, we think of very contemporary issues—generally post 9/11 for this generation. And if you’re going to go really far back, then maybe you go back to the Iranian Revolution. The letters, which were from the early twentieth century, gave the students a sense of history and a different way of thinking about what it means to think about Islam in the West. Clearly the Groves had to think about Islam and Muslims before going over, and these were exactly the kinds of dynamics I wanted students to think about. How do people who go over formulate their impressions? How might those impressions change (or not) once you interact with Muslims in other places, and how do you bring those impressions back and disseminate them? It was a very nice project that brought together all of those components. It was pre-packaged for my class.

Q: With the added benefit that it related to Lafayette.>

A: Exactly. I think that made the students a little more intrigued about the history of the College.

Q: In one assignment, students had to critically analyze perspectives of Islam in major Western news media outlets. Post 9/11 America seems like a ripe environment for this kind of analysis, but I can imagine it’s also too easy to divide opinion up into a dichotomy of anti-Muslim versus civil liberties proponents. How do you help students to both read and develop nuances?

A: That’s a good question because no matter how much I struggle against the dichotomies, they keep cropping up. They’re deeply ingrained in the way we all think about Islam. One of the first things I do is introduce students to a reading by Edward Said that specifically talks about perceptions of Islam in the media, and using his analysis I have them search out opinion pieces from leading newspapers and magazines. It’s easy enough to find articles that are, as you say, clearly pro or clearly con. I tell them to look for articles that inhabit that grey zone. I have the students write about how they’ve analyzed the article, and we do this again throughout the course in less formal ways. I really think this is a matter of practice. Students often come in with black-and-white images, and it’s just a matter of adding more colorful pixels to their world so they see it in more nuanced terms.

Q: And the students who take Islam in the West, have they necessarily taken any other courses with you?

A: No, they haven’t. Ideally it was designed as an upper-level course for students who had some background, but I have not limited it to students with background.

Q: You assigned a section from Wayne Booth’s The Craft of Research and had students use the framework from that book to help them move early on in the semester from a research topic to a question for their final papers. How do you think student work was affected by this process?

A: I thought this was a great exercise, and thank you for suggesting it. For some time, I’ve been looking for something that outlines step-by-step how you go from broad questions to focused questions. This was the first time I found something that was actually useful and applicable and could be made into a worksheet format. It was excellent in terms of getting the students to come up with questions that would work, as well as showing them how to weed out questions that might not work. That’s important because a lot of times students will come in during the final weeks of a course and want to research questions that won’t work. It saved me that whole process of talking through why things won’t work at the end of the semester. In the future, I hope to continue the exercise to help students get from a question to a thesis. Students in this class were advanced and they were able to come up with good, focused research questions, but they weren’t necessarily able to articulate good theses from those questions. So that’s a component that needs to be developed independently.

Q: Do you think the final outcome, the final papers, were better for this process?

A: Absolutely. All of the students gave presentations in the end and also wrote about it in their blog entries. I definitely saw the difference between this and other classes that haven’t been through this process. The questions are so much better, and a huge part of writing an effective research paper and conducting research is just asking good questions. It’s amazing that there aren’t more effective guides on that.

Q: Students in REL 304: Islam in the West blogged about their research at Did you learn anything about the way students do research from these diary entries, and from the multiple drafts of annotated bibliographies you had them do?

A: There were two things that were surprising to me. I’m a little taken aback at the fact that students in upper level courses are still learning about the research process in elementary ways. This is something I gathered from the blogs. There’s still a lot of learning that goes on about just using a library catalog in the junior and senior years, which should have been taken care of earlier. The other thing I realized is that students won’t engage the readings unless you structure an exercise in which they’re required to respond critically to them. They’ll just read and have a summary notion of them. So the annotated bibliographies gave them an opportunity to move beyond just the main point to question how the readings fit into their research. Obviously you’re going to have broad articles or books that don’t necessarily relate directly to your research topic, so you have to think through, why am I looking at this? How does this make sense in terms of the research I’m doing? And unless you force students to think about each source in that way, they won’t necessarily do it. And they don’t necessarily put themselves into the readings, either. Like saying, alright, this person was a journalist writing in the 1920s about his or her experiences road-tripping through Iran. Or this person was an academic writing post-Iranian Revolution, when we have a very different relationship with Iran. What does that do to the nature of the source? They’re not thinking about authorship in those ways unless you ask them to. So I think the annotated bibliographies were good.

Q: Do you think you’ll re-use readings and assignments you developed for the information literacy component of this course into future versions of this course or into your other courses?

A: Absolutely. I’m hoping this summer to work that Craft of Research assignment into something of a form that students can use to narrow down their topics into focused questions. And I’m hoping to do far more extensive work on the Groves Papers, as well. That was a big part of this class, just discovering the papers.

Q: What else do you think you could do with the Groves Papers?

A: There is a lot that can be done with them in terms of understanding women’s roles in foreign missionary communities. Part of this will involve reading from the silences and incorporating more secondary source material. I get the feeling that Teddy [Groves] had a formative influence in how the whole Lafayette-in-Persia program came together. I don’t know if she undercuts herself consciously, but she portrays herself as very much a second or third person there. It would be great to look at that. Another question I have is how these correspondences fit into the genre of travel literature on the Middle East from the early twentieth century because it was a completely different world – technologically, religiously, and in terms of how they thought about the United States. I haven’t looked at all of the letters by any means, but from what I can tell, there are lots of nuggets of information on these kinds of questions. I’m also aware that there were other missionary schools and programs like this in Iran around the same time. So how did the Lafayette-in-Persia program fit in? What else was going on in terms of missionary activity in Iran through educational institutions? I think the Groves Papers could potentially reveal a lot in terms of College administrative history. Certainly the secondary materials surrounding the letters might tell us a lot about how Lafayette as a liberal arts college was involved in something that we never would have conceived of it being a part of. There are lots and lots of questions.

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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 25, no. 2).