More than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare’s writing continues to inspire (and sometimes antagonize) readers, audiences, writers, actors, and directors around the world. Join us for two events designed to help us meditate on the ways in which Shakespeare has become a part of global cultural heritage.
On Friday, April 7, we will be showing all 37 of the Globe Theatre’s short films, one for each play in the canon, created for last year’s Quatercentenary celebrations (11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Building A6). Click here for more information about the original film project as it was staged last April on London’s South Bank; the Globe page includes trailers that will give you a sense of what the films are like.
On Saturday, April 8, the program “The 401st and Beyond: Global Shakespeare after the Quatercentenary” presents two roundtable discussions featuring scholars and directors from Ashoka University (Delhi), Cairo University, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), NYU, and NYUAD, as well as a reading of MisCast, a one-act comedy written by NYUAD students and inspired by Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio and Stephen Greenblatt’s “Cardenio Project.”
Lunch will follow the “401st” program, accompanied by a selection of Globe films chosen via an online poll. (Click here to answer the poll. You’ll be taken to a separate window; neither your email address nor IP address will be recorded,)
You can download a PDF from the Globe Theatre describing the films and listing cast members and directors here.
UPDATE: Download the schedule of films that will be shown on April 7 here.
[EDITORS’ NOTE: If you missed our screenings of Ellis on the NYUAD campus or would like to see it again, you can download a copy for free from iTunes.]
The short film Ellis directed by the artist JR and starring Robert De Niro pays homage to all of the immigrants who entered the United States by passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island outside New York City.
Ellis Island is the stuff of American history and mythology. From 1892 to 1954, it was the threshold through which millions of would-be immigrants were required to pass in order to realize their American. Located in Upper New York Bay near the Statue of Liberty, it was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States, and in its peak years — between 1905 and 1914 — an average of 5,000 immigrants per day were processed by immigration officials on the island.
If you were lucky, you spent just a few hours at the island, before receiving permission to proceed to the mainland. You would have had to answer twenty-nine questions, including your name, your occupation, and how much money you were carrying. (You generally needed around $20 to gain approval — about $430 in today’s money — because the US government wanted new immigrants to have funds to support themselves as they tried to start their new lives.)
Some never made it past that threshold, turned away because they had contagious disease, or criminal records, or seemed to be insane. Some of those who seemed to be sick were sent to the island’s hospital facilities. Many stayed there for quite a while. Some died there.
Today Ellis Island is a museum, but the hospital facilities are still abandoned and in disrepair. The visual artist JR recently mounted an exhibition of contemporary photographies pasted onto the walls of the abandoned building. “Walking around the abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, I could feel the presence of the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through, and of the countless ones who didn’t make it and got turned back.” The exhibition and the short film that it inspired are the artist’s attempt to “to ﬁnd the story behind each person who left his or her country. I want to know what made them leave everything and everyone behind, even when they knew they’d never be able to come back. It takes so much courage.”
This moving short film looks back to the American past but prompts us to think about todays refugee and migrant crises around the world. As JR puts it, “There were immigrants in Ellis a hundred years ago, there are migrants now, and there will be some in a hundred years, so we have to do what we can to try to relate to each individual story.”
[If you’ve seen the film and have thoughts about it, please share them in the comments section below.]
Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I came to love classical music, particularly music written for the piano. Though I never considered myself to be a “music student,” I started playing the piano in the third grade with a teacher who inspired me, and I used to spend my Saturday mornings browsing through records at Sam Goody or looking through sheet music at Patelson’s behind Carnegie Hall. I once played hooky from school with my best friend, Alik, to line up in front Carnegie Hall in the middle night with in order to buy tickets to see the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, whom I would be privileged to hear live a number of times in the ensuing years. Alik could really play; his signature piece was Chopin’s G-minor Ballade. And it was he who introduced me to Beethoven’s Late Quartets.
In retrospect, though, we both had a very conventional notion of what “classical music” was. If we’d been asked, we probably would have said that “classical music” was Western high-art music created roughly between 1700 and 1900 — or perhaps 1943 (we both loved Rachmaninov). I also understood “Classical” to mean the period after the “Baroque” (e.g. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi) and before the “Romantic” (e.g. Beethoven, Chopin, and “Rach”!), exemplified by Mozart and the early Beethoven. I accepted the conventional opposition between “classical music” and “popular music” (which I also loved: it was the heyday of the Stones and Led Zeppelin).
That conventional notion of “classical music” went out the window years later when I began listening to Kronos Quartet‘s Pieces of Africa (1992), which would eventually top Billboard’s chart for “World Music,” a category that became popular in the 1980s as a marketing label for non-Western “traditional” music. Founded in Seattle in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet sought to overturn the conception of “classical music” that I shared with so many other people. Harrington had apparently been inspired to form the group after hearing a radio broadcast of the avant-garde composer George Crumb’s Black Angels (1971), a work written for “electronic string quartet” that in which the players were required to use (in addition to their stringed instruments) maracas, water glasses, and paper clips (as picks) and to speak and make other vocal sounds. In 1978, the group had formed a tight collaboration featuring Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Joan Jeanrenaud (cello). They became known not only for performing an unusual repertoire but also for eschewing the traditional dress code for string quartets, wearing clothes that recalled the styles of New Wave rock’n’rollers. They tried to create a special ambiance in their venues and often played in front of projections. The quartet gained international recognition with their 1987 album White Man Sleeps, which took its title from two pieces by the minimalist composer Kevin Volans that made use of harpsichords, a viola da gamba in African tuning, and Western percussion instruments. In 1989, the group’s recording of Steve Reich’s Different Trainswon a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.
Since that time, the trio of Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt has been joined by several different cellists after Jeanrenaud left in 1999 to pursue different projects: Jennifer Culp (1999–2005), Jeffrey Zeigler (2005–2013), and most recently Sunny Yang (2013 to present). By one count, the quartet has recorded 43 studio albums, two compilations, five soundtracks, and 29 contributions to other artists’ records. Along the way they would challenge not only the meaning of “classical music” but also the construction of the emerging construction of “world music” as something that was “traditional” but not “classical.” And they would seek to break down the boundaries between the classical and the popular, including arrangements of songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in their repertoire.
Citing the group’s early “near-total commitment to living composers, and also explored jazz, rock, and folk music,” the New Yorker‘s music critic Alex Ross described Kronos in 2006 as “a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture.” The group’s music, he wrote, demonstrated “the constructive power of a pluralist, rather than a fundamentalist, view of the world.”
Harrington once said, “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass, and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth.”
That’s a good description of the music that Kronos has been making during its residency at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center this week. Kronos is presenting five shows during the residency, each featuring a different program, for a total of some 40 different pieces by composers from 27 different countries. All-terrain indeed!
The first piece at the group’s early show on Wednesday, September 16 in NYUAD’s Black Box Theater was “Mugam Sayagi” by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (which can be heard on the quartet’s 2005 album of the same). Yang carries her cello in the dark up a set of steps at the side of the platform stage and began to play the haunting cello refrain with which the piece opens. As the lights slowly rose to reveal her stunning red dress, one could also hear the strains of a violin floating from somewhere, seemingly outside the hall. The mystery is soon solved as the Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt join Yang onstage just before the piece explodes into its brilliant pizzicato section. Yes, Kronos knows how to make an entrance.
The rest of the program featured “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me,” arranged from song by an unknown Iraqi composer”; “Escalay (Water Wheel)” by the Egyptian Nubia composer Hamza El Din; and “Good Medicine” the concluding piece from the cycle Salome Dances for Peace by the American composer, with whom the group has a long relationship. Indeed, the group has commemorated the composer’s 80th birthday by releasing a five-disc box set of its recordings of his work.
Perhaps the highlight of the program came in the middle, the world premiere of “Sunjata’s Time: 3. Nana Triban” by the Malian composer Fodé Lassana Diabaté, who joined the group onstage, playing his signature instrument, the 22-key balafon. The piece was commissioned as part of the group’s “Fifty for the Future” initiative, which is designed both to commission new work for string quartets and also to train students and emerging professionals to follow and extend the path that Kronos has blazed. NYUAD is a sponsoring partner of the initiative, and the Kronos concerts at NYUAD feature world premieres of pieces by Diabaté and by the Chinese composer Wu Man. The NYUAD programs include the work of two other composers who have received commissions as part of the initiative, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Aleksandra Vrebalov.
After the performance of “Nana Triban,” Harrington told the audience that it was a privilege to play with and learn from Diabaté, particularly because the final arrangement of the piece will be for string quartet only, with the balafon receding into the history of the piece’s musical evolution. On its website, the group indicates that “digital versions of the scores and parts, recordings, and other pedagogical materials for each work will be made available worldwide at no charge via the internet.” I’m hoping that archive will include versions of “Nana Triban” with balafon as well as without.
You can get a sense of what kind of music Kronos is making at NYUAD by watching and listening to the following two videos, recorded at the Greene Space in New York. Both pieces — Nicole Lizée’s “Death to Komische” and Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Bombs of Beirut” — are on the program for the final concert at NYUAD.
Both Kronos and NYUAD share what I would call a cosmopolitan vision of the world, in which cultural difference is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be embraced. It’s NYUAD’s goal to ask in all of its practices, “What does it mean to be doing this here (in Abu Dhabi and in the MENA region) and now (at the start of the twenty first century)?” If the NYUAD project is, in part, about rethinking past educational practices in order to revitalize them for the future, then it would be hard to find a better model for that kind of visionary thinking than the Kronos Quartet. Kudos to NYUAD Arts Center Director Bill Bragin for bringing them to Abu Dhabi as part of the Center’s inaugural season.
KITABuDhabi is a community reading forum that continues the “Abu Dhabi Reads” program that Electra Street first sponsored at NYUAD in 2012. Based on the popular “One Book” programs that are sponsored by libraries across the United States, KITABuDhabi is designed to bring people together around a shared reading experience for no other than reason to promote discussion and to exchange ideas. KITABuDhabi is for everyone—not only NYUAD faculty, staff, and students, but also the larger Abu Dhabi community.
Our book for the fall is Octavia Butler’s novel, The Parable of the Sower, a dystopian novel about a near-future in the United States that looks very much like the world of today in many parts of the globe.
When I first began to work on the NYU Abu Dhabi curriculum in 2008 as a member of the college’s Humanities Coordinating Group, I was excited by the prospect of rethinking the traditional liberal arts curriculum as a global liberal arts curriculum appropriate for the twenty-first century.
Almost all liberal arts curricula have some sort of core or general education requirement designed to assure the breadth of a student’s program. It struck me that the Core Curriculum had the potential to be the most exciting and innovative of NYUAD’s offerings, because it would present students with cross-cultural perspectives on profound and enduring questions, at a time when many other schools were shying away from making such big-picture questions matters of academic study.
The Core Curriculum has achieved much as it enters its fifth year, but the road has not been entirely smooth. Some problems have arisen that threaten to undermine the strengths of the Core, particularly as the student population grows.
What follows is a proposal for an adjustment to the present Core Curriculum that would enable it to address these problems and better realize its goals.
The Goals of the Core
The Preview of Academic Programs, published in 2009 during NYUAD’s first admissions cycle, describes the Core as an evolution of “the idea of a core curriculum, which was developed in the early 20th century with a focus on Western civilization.” The hallmark of the NYUAD Core would be its “cross-cultural perspective”: “Rethought for the 21st century, the NYUAD Core focuses on great books and fundamental ideas from several different cultural traditions.” Students would take eight courses drawn from four areas: Pathways of World Literature; Art, Technology, and Invention; Structures of Thought and Society; and Ideas and Methods of Science. The Preview listed the following in large type as guiding principles of the Core Curriculum:
Small classes: 10-15 students
Sustained contact with faculty
Seminars based on discussion
Great books, big issues and ideas
Significant writing requirements
The introductory paragraph of the Preview’s section on the Core introduced two terms — “questions” and “skills” — that I believe are the key to revitalizing the present curriculum. According to the Preview, “The NYUAD Core Curriculum asks students to grapple with profound and enduring questions about the human and social condition while developing essential intellectual skills.” One of the central problems has turned out to be the difficulty of combining these two aims effectively, for reasons that I’ll outline below.
Rebooting the Core
What follows is a simple framework for a reboot that might enable NYUAD to take its Core to the next level. It involves two key proposals:
Separate Questions from Skills: Divide the eight-course requirement in two, with four courses devoted primarily to “profound and enduring questions” and four courses devoted primarily to developing the skills that the NYUAD faculty believes to be “essential” to an undergraduate education.The four “questions” courses would be the heart of an NYUAD student’s liberal arts education and would be unique to NYUAD. No substitutions from elsewhere in the GNU.The four “skills” courses requirements could be satisfied in a number of ways: through courses created specially under the auspices of the Core Curriculum committee, through course offerings by the four divisions, and through courses offered elsewhere in the GNU.
No More Divisions: Get rid of the Core divisions, which have become confusing to both students and faculty.
Instead of viewing the Core as a set of courses, each of which seeks to achieve the various goals described above, it would be better to think of the Core as an overall curriculum that uses a variety of different kinds of courses to achieve its aims. Under the present system, too many courses have become catchall containers that pay lip service to all of the aims of the Core but are, in practice, disciplinary courses with a few minor Core-like additions.
So let’s not force square pegs into round holes. Let’s give divisions and instructors different ways of contributing to the Core program, either by teaching “question” courses along of the present curriculum’s strongest offerings, or “skills” courses that can take a variety of forms. These two categories — skills and questions — aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but problems have arisen as the curriculum has tried to give equal emphasis to each of them in every Core course.
As Phyllis Keller put it in Getting at the Core: Curricular Reform at Harvard(1982), Core curricula and general education requirements have generally “shuttled between extremes of prescription and permissiveness,” between a designated common curriculum that all students must take and a system based wholly on electives and distribution requirements. The NYUAD system would be well served by combining these two approaches, by reconceiving the Core as both a set of courses and a set of distribution requirements.
The “questions” courses — I will refer to them as “Core courses” from now on — should be sacrosanct: carefully curated by the Core Director and the Core Curriculum committee each year, these courses would only be offered during regular terms (not J-terms) at NYUAD (no course substitutions from the GNU allowed). Some students might take more than one of these courses in the first year, while others (for example, Engineering students) might take one a year.
In recent years, the ideal Core course has been described as “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” or “pre-disciplinary” — in any case, as an alternative to the kind of specialized thinking that students do in their majors. On occasion, however, courses have been cross-listed between sections of the Core, which suggests that these sectional divisions have already become moot. The “Core” courses that I imagine going forward capitalize on the fact that they offer “varied forms of thinking” that aren’t based on disciplinary structures: they bring together different kinds of objects of study and methods of analysis that come from disparate disciplines and seek to emphasize cross-cultural perspectives of one kind or another in order to offer prismatic views of their subjects.
In contrast to the carefully curated, non-substitutable “Core” courses, the skills requirement could be satisfied in a variety of ways. Students might satisfy some of the requirements simply by virtue of completing their majors. The faculty will need to identify the four “essential” skills to be promoted — no easy task — which might include such things as experimentation and lab work, language, oral expression, practical arts, quantitative reasoning, or writing. My suggestion, in the context of the NYUAD curriculum would be these four: experimentation, practical arts, quantitative reasoning, and writing.
Taken together, these suggestions promote the overarching goal of taking the innovative aspect of the NYUAD Core Curriculum — its emphasis on “profound and enduring questions” considered in the “cross-cultural” perspectives necessary in the twenty-first century — and pushing it further. Meanwhile, the more traditional aspect of the curriculum — its need to teach “skills” — can draw on existing strengths in the curricula of NYUAD’s divisional offerings.
Here are some of the problems that have arisen for the Core Curriculum in the past five years that my proposal is designed to address.
1. Too Many Courses Required
In theory, devoting approximately one-fourth of a student’s program to core courses seems like a reasonable idea. For example, Harvard University, which recently replaced its “Core Curriculum” with a new “Program in General Education,” requires students to take one course in each of eight prescribed areas.
But NYUAD students have found the eight-course requirement to be onerous, given that most of them spend two terms away at other GNU sites and that some majors programs now strongly suggest that students declare and begin their major programs of study in the first year. As a result, students have sought to use the J-Terms in January and June to “take care of” areas of the Core that they believe to be less hospitable to them.
When I was Associate Dean of the Humanities, one of my ongoing tasks was to work with the registrar’s office to match up GNU courses with NYUAD Core requirements. The fact that it was and (I’m told) continues to be a frustrating exercise shows that the Core is in fact doing something innovative: given the perspectives it brings to bear on diverse objects of study, an NYUAD Core course should be unlike courses regularly offered elsewhere in the university. But the integrity of the NYUAD Core program is eroded by the fact that students regularly require substitutions for Core courses in order to have time to fulfill their major requirements and also take advantage of study away. Course substitution has thus essentially become an unofficial principle of the Core Curriculum.
Reducing the number of required “Core” courses to four means that all students will have time to take these courses while in residence in Abu Dhabi during a regular term. The Core courses can thus become a distinctive and inviolable part of the NYUAD curriculum, freed from the compromises that are presently necessary.
2. The Divisions are Confusing
Students and faculty both report that the rationale for assigning a course to one area of the Core as opposed to another is not particularly clear. For example, the popular Reinventions of Love started out as a Pathways of World Literature Course in 2010, was cross-listed with Arts, Technology, and Invention in 2011, and then became an ATI course in 2012, cross-listed now with PWL. Several other courses are cross-listed, in part to make sure there are sufficient courses available in each of the areas.
Some courses officially count both as Core courses and as major courses, which runs counter to the idea that courses are meant to be something other than “disciplinary,” “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” or “pre-disciplinary.” Indeed, that guiding principle seems to be violated by the very existence of a Core division called “Pathways of World Literature,” which “introduces students to significant works of literature in different cultural traditions and involves close reading and discussion of primary texts.” The Literature faculty has struggled to figure out what the difference should be between a PWL course and a course offered in the Literature and Creative Writing major. And having a full section of the Core devoted to the discipline of literary study has made it difficult to offer enough of these courses each year given the size of the LITCW faculty relative to the faculty as a whole, leading to an over-reliance on visitors to fill out this section of the Core or offering courses that only technically meet the PWL description.
Removing the distinctions would enable the Core to become more consistently non-disciplinary and focus on profound and enduring questions, while still exposing students to “varied modes of thinking.”
3. The Big Picture Problem
One of the goals of the Core has been to draw equally from each division of the University, but it has proven to be the case that not all faculty members — most of whom have been trained in rigorous disciplinary thinking — are comfortable teaching the kind of “big-picture” courses that the Core seeks to create. It is true that members of the arts and humanities division are more likely on average to be comfortable with the “big-picture” approach and that doing away with the divisions may well lead to an underrepresentation of natural science and social science faculty members.
There are, of course, scientists who like to embrace the “big picture” — names like Michael Gazzaniga, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, and E. O. Wilson come to mind — but the ability to recast disciplinary scholarship in the terms that the Core requires may be a skill that some natural and social scientists develop over time, while others choose never to leave the confines of their disciplinary homes. Junior faculty in these fields are likely to find teaching “big-picture” courses particularly onerous, given the need to produce high-level disciplinary work in the years before tenure.
Rather than expect each division to contribute in the same way to the Core curriculum, why not invite each division to contribute to the big-picture “questions” courses and allow divisions to tilt their contributions to the skills requirements by offering both divisional introductory and elective courses that meet a “skills” or distribution requirement and/or by designing skills courses for non-majors? For example, it would be wonderful if there were a physics course that non-scientists would line up to take. Indeed, such a course might well pose some big questions in addition to teaching quantitative and experimental skills, but might be freed from the other stipulations such as cross-cultural perspective or the emphasis on writing that comes with a current “Core” course.
4. The Writing Problem
Just as not all faculty members are comfortable with the cross-cultural, big-picture perspective required by the Core, so too are many faculty members uncomfortable with the teaching of writing. Most artists, social scientists, and natural scientists simply aren’t trained to do it, so the idea that the writing intensive Core courses should be available in each area of the Core has led to courses in which writing faculty members are asked to support the primary instructors. Writing is thus off-loaded onto these instructors and to the writing workshop sessions of these courses, often leading to a instructional experience that seems fragmented to students.
While true team-teaching should be encouraged in the Core, the deployment of writing faculty as support staff is a practice that has proven to be largely unsuccessful. We need to ensure that the emphasis on writing is truly integrated into the pedagogy of course and taught by the course instructor or, in the case of a team-taught course, instructors. Reducing the number of “Core” courses and shifting the primary responsibility for the development of “skills” to other courses within the curriculum would have the added benefit of freeing up time for each NYUAD student to enroll in a dedicated writing course in the first year.
The framework I am suggesting would solve most of the logistical problems that currently hamper the Core and would allow the Core Director and Curriculum Committee to concentrate on developing a truly visionary set of “questions” courses that would be the signature offerings within NYU Abu Dhabi’s curriculum.
The framework, however, is open and leaves many important questions to be settled by NYUAD’s faculty and the Director of the Core. For example, should a “permissive” approach be taken to the “Core” courses, with faculty members free to suggest courses based on problems and questions that appeal to them? Or should the curated slate of courses be more “prescriptive,” focusing on a finite set of questions that the Core Committee identifies as the questions for a twenty-first century undergraduate to consider? Which skills should be chosen for the skills requirement? Should the number of skills courses be limited to four, once the requirement can be met through major courses and general elective courses? Which courses would satisfy the “skills” requirements and to what extent should the divisions make available courses intended primarily for non-majors in support of this requirement?
Above all, a Core Curriculum conceived as a combination of courses and requirements, that abolishes increasingly artificial distinctions between its courses, and that makes the optimum use of its faculty’s interests, expertise, and skills would be a worthy 2.0 upgrade to the present system.
Author’s Note: When Harvard University decided to revise its thirty-year old Core Curriculum, it started an open, university-wide dialogue on the subject and asked prominent professors to present position-papers about the challenges and opportunities of general education. Although the program they ultimately devised looks very different from NYUAD’s Core, the reports and papers that were produced during the process make fascinating reading for anyone interested in twenty-first-century global liberal arts education. Click here for the committee report Curricular Renewal in Harvard College and here for the essays on general education by Harvard faculty members.