The year 2014 saw two milestones in the history of NYU Abu Dhabi: the graduation of its inaugural class in the spring and the move to the permanent campus on Saadiyat Island in the fall.
It seems a fitting time to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that institutions like NYU Abu Dhabi face as they seek to remake the traditional liberal arts education to meet the needs of a global student population in the century ahead.
Electra Street therefore invites its readers to participate in an ongoing online “roundtable” about global liberal arts education in the twenty-first century. We seek to extend the discussion of this issue sparked by the “Room for Debate” forum that ran in the New York Times last January— and to develop our own conversation about the various issues, complications, pleasures, and possibilities inherent in global liberal arts education. Click here to read what Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, has to say about his liberal arts education. And here to read why Hoda I. Al Khamis-Kanoo , the founder of the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation and the Abu Dhabi Festival, believes that we should transform “STEM” into “STEAM” by adding “Arts” to “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”
We therefore invite brief commentaries of between 400 and 1000 words about any aspect of the project of global liberal arts education. Suggested topics include (but are not limited to) rethinking programs of study; the most advantageous structures for classes; the incorporation of “practical” or “experiential” learning; study-away programs; digital humanities; language instruction; core curricula and/or college-wide requirements; student research; and the pros and cons of interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity. Do you think “global liberal arts” is important in the twenty-first century or do you think that this century needs some other type of educational structure(s) in place to facilitate the needs of the new century?
These commentaries will be run on a regular basis in Electra Street, with an eye towards perhaps dedicating a future print edition of the journal to this discussion. Submissions will be accepted throughout the year, and potential contributors are welcome to contact us with queries at electra.nyuad [at] gmail.com. We are also willing to consider longer pieces of up to 3,000 words for the print edition of the journal. Please send us a query if you are interested in that format. Whether you are a member of the NYUAD community or just an interested reader, please consider joining our conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.
In 2013, four NYUAD students began interviewing their classmates about their experiences in Abu Dhabi. As the starting point for the interviews, they used seven questions: Why are you scared? Why do you feel repressed? Why do you feel liberated? Why do you regret coming here? Why do you love it here? What are you hiding? Why are you proud?
These interviews developed into a documentary theater piece called Headspace, which invited the NYUAD community to think about what it means to be a student — particularly a female student — in Abu Dhabi. Headspace was performed for two nights, to a packed audience of staff, students, faculty, and administrators; the show sparked tears of laughter and recognition among everyone in the audience.
After the show, the four creators, Valentina Vela, Sachi Leith, Laura Evans, and Veronica Houk, talked with Cyrus Patell and Deborah Williams about the project’s origins and their creative methodology. We are presenting excerpts from that interview to commemorate that first Headspace and to set the stage for the second Headspace, which will be performed on Saturday, December 13 at 2 p.m. in the Amphitheater.
Valentina Vela: I was working on political theater in a theater class, and my professor, Deb Levine, asked what I would talk about in a political theater piece. I told her, “I want talk about our experience and about all the hard conversations we’re not having in a way that is not the Real AD Show, not open mic, not cafeteria conversation — to open a forum for more conversations.
So I took a little bit of the model of “Occupy Wall Street”: as soon as it started, people began saying that they should document it. So they started interviewing people and performing it to the same people who were occupying Wall Street. People were performing their own realities, and you could take a break from occupying Wall Street to come and see somebody talk about occupying Wall Street, and then come back. A community steps out, thinks about what it’s doing, and then regenerates and continues growing — that, I think, is what we wanted to do.
Sachi Leith: I was excited about writing it, more from the standpoint of writing about “the university” than writing about women. And then over the course of the project I think it was the gender piece that became more important for me.
Vela: We created a list of things we want to talk about. And that informed our questions, but then after we did the interviews there were so many other things to talk about that we kept adding questions and adding questions. The list became huge, so we created this post-it wall that had all these issues that we wanted to talk about. Then we sub-divided it for writing. And then as we started writing we were, like, “I think it is about so much more. And I want to talk about this now.”
Laura Evans: One of the things that was difficult was that you do the interview, and in the moment, you’re like, “Yeah, I totally get what you’re saying.” And then three weeks later you’re looking at a transcript, and when you look at it, you think, “What?” I mean, people don’t speak in coherent or well-formed sentences at all!
Vela: And they contradict themselves.
Evans: And then when you show the material to the actors, they go through the lines and say things like “This makes no sense: my character is not being coherent, has no intention.” But all I am thinking is, “Man, this is just somebody sitting on my couch, like, crying about their lives.”
Leith: Like Valentina was saying, sometimes things don’t make sense. But, as writers, we want things to make sense, but it’s not the point that they make sense. It’s the point that there are all these contradictions. And how do you bring that out without making it just seem like you’ve made a mistake.
Vela: It would happen that we’d write a part that looks like a story, and it makes complete sense. And then one of us would say, “But you’re not voicing all the contradictions.” And then someone else would say, “Look at this interview,” which would just mess up everything. We had to accept those changes and stop the piece from being this perfect sphere and make it more into this weird rock with so many angles.
Veronica Houk: The question of authorship got really complicated. Because the four of us were working together. One of us would sort of put the wheels in motion, or maybe two of us, and then all of us had our fingers in everyone’s work. So all of our work is essentially everyone’s. Plus, when we wrote it, we sometimes combined lots of different interviews. And then it was performed, and someone else helped design interactive media and mise en scene. So, this represents creative collaboration between the four of us — and the community too. It felt complicated.
Cyrus Patell: Was the work of Anna Deveare Smith important to you? Her work is similar, although she tends to start with a trauma of some kind. There’s a riot. People are killed. She goes and interviews participants or she gets a transcript and then she crafts a monologue out of it. But it is always a monologue when she does it. … And then she tries to get across the specificity of all of these people: for example, she plays a Korean shop owner in the L.A. riots after Rodney King. And she’ll make you want to believe that she’s inhabiting that persona. There’s a kind of very local specificity that she’s getting at. But you tried to work more with composite characters. What difference does that make?
Leith: We live in such a small community. And, unlike Anna Deavere Smith, we’re presenting this directly to the people that we interviewed and directly to people who know the people that we interviewed. So we didn’t wanna say, “Oh, like, I am half Taiwanese and from Vermont,” because– you know, everyone will know who the “I” is. Or, “Oh, I’m Colombian but I live in Peru.” Here, where everybody knows everybody’s business, we didn’t want people to be sitting in the audience wondering, “Do you think that’s…so and so?”
Vela: On the day before opening night, we realized that we might be exposing somebody, and so we had to change words. The four of us had a horrible fight [laughs] at the end about that, but we had to change it.
Leith: But that was part of my dark time, I guess [laughs], because everything started to sound the same and started to sound like really, like, nicely put together and over-edited — we had taken away some of those distinctive qualities of people’s lives or people’s speeches. Like the ironing the grilled cheese scene. The first time we wrote that, it was really strong. And very opinionated. The first time we wrote it, there was a lot of, I guess, my anger in it. And then we edited that out, but we fought about that a lot. It ended up being funny, the way the actors did it, but I will never be satisfied just because it — it always feels like we’re going too easy on them.
Patell: So, if Headspace were going to become a tradition at NYUAD, what aspects of it would you propose should become the tradition?
Leith: I think the interviews. I would do all of the interviews again.
Evans: Yes, exactly. When the community talking to itself about itself, it’s so powerful.
Patell: Can you imagine performing this particular piece in four years when everyone who’s here now has graduated and it’s another community?
Houk: I think it could be performed in another space. But the feeling would be completely different. At this show, it was fantastic seeing professors curled up in front, even professors I had in particular thought were very intimidating. But then they were curled up on a beanbag, like, next to, like—
Evans: A student. [Laughs.]
Houk: And they were laughing at all of our kind of crude jokes. And I thought, “Oh, hey. I could maybe talk to you at some point in my life.”
Evans: I think that it’s representative of now. But I think that maybe in six years there might be the need for another Headspace.
Vela: When you think of pieces like Laramie Project, it’s so grounded in its political and social context. But then when you see Laramie Project Ten Years Later, it’s revisiting the same project with a different perspective. And I think that’s more along the lines of what it would be to revisit Headspace in a few years.
Leith: This project, all the interviews and all of our processes are more of like—some weird form of history.
Going meta in Headspace: authors Vela, Evans, Houk, and Leith onstage.
Members of the NYUAD community are invited to come see the next version of “weird history” created by the Headspace team: hear your voices and the voices of your community, and think about what the Headspace project should be for next year.
[Please note that this interview has been condensed and edited. All photos are courtesy of Nikolai Kozak.]
I teach Frankenstein in a course that’s called Our Monsters, Ourselves and one of the perspectives that informs my teaching is feminism, which for some students is surprising – a student once said to me, “You’re a feminist? But you’re so calm,” as if somehow, those two things are mutually exclusive.
Over the years I’ve noticed that when talk about feminist politics or gender roles in literature classes, students often assume that discussions of gender are always only about women. It’s as if by default “gender” must refer only to women because it’s only for women that “gender” is a problem.
When I want to talk about a text from a feminist perspectives, however, frequently students will say that this or that text can’t be feminist, because they’re looking at the text for role models. For example, they’re looking for the female characters in a novel to be strong and noble and good and successful and so forth. But “role models” don’t necessarily make a text feminist, and that’s one of the ways that I use Frankenstein in class: to show that the absence of something can nonetheless be something.
Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
by Richard Rothwell
oil on canvas, exhibited 1840
29 in. x 24 in. (737 mm x 610 mm)
Bequeathed by the sitter’s daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899
NPG 1235. Used by permission.
My teaching of Frankenstein is indebted to the work of the literary scholar Anne Mellor, who argues that Frankenstein is, in fact, a feminist novel. Students, however, often seem to be perplexed by this idea. They say: “But there are no major women characters. Elizabeth, the fiancée of Victor Frankenstein is a marginal character. She’s not very important. So how can it be feminist? Because there are no women in the novel, really.” The students are correct: women are, in some ways, peripheral to the novel’s main plot lines. And yet at the same time, of course, women are central to the text precisely because they’re not there.
As an example of this absence/presence idea, we look at the passage when Frankenstein, in response to the creature’s request, has begun to make the creature a female companion. The creature, you’ll remember, has come to Victor and said, “You need to make me a companion in my image– like me. And then we’ll go off to South America and live in the wilderness and eat nuts and berries. And we’ll be happy forever,” which is an interesting picture of a marriage. (But that’s not my point here today.)
As Frankenstein begins the process of creating the female monster, he imagines what will happen when this female comes into being:
She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might h he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.
What Victor fears is that the female monster, were she to be created, would have autonomy, that she would decide, “I don’t want to be part of this bargain. I don’t like this other creature I’m supposed to be a companion with. I hate him.” In other words, he’s afraid that she might have her own way of thinking. Female autonomy, in Victor’s eyes, becomes a terrible threat.
The second thing he’s afraid of, of course, is that “one of the first results of those sympathies for which the dæmon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” So the second problem with the female monster is that the female monster and the male monster might breed and create more monsters.
And, of course, Frankenstein has been interested in creating things all by himself, with no women involved whatsoever. So it’s either that the woman monster will reject the creature’s plan for her and think on her own or that she will decide to breed. Both of those prospects are terrifying. And so he destroys this almost-finished female creature, much to the dismay of the original creature, who vows vengeance on Victor because Victor has doomed him to a life of loneliness and despair.
The absence of the female monster, and the chain of events triggered by her absence, helps me to talk with my students about how that absence matters. And then we talk about the function of this absence –and the absence of the other women in the novel (for instance, the mothers in this novel are all dead; Elizabeth, Victor’s long-suffering fiancée has very little influence on Victor, or on the plot). What happens as a result of trying to sidestep the female part of creation or propagation? What happens when you marginalize women, when you attempt to keep women on the sidelines?
When we think about it that way, the novel helps students to start to think about the fact that to be “feminist,” doesn’t necessarily have to be about the creation of . . . say, Wonder Woman. Feminist politics can exist in the absence of any kind of “role model.” The feminist politics of Shelley’s novel exists in the critique of Frankenstein’s decisions to create a masculine mode of reproduction: he creates the male creature, he creates and then uncreates the female creature. It’s that absence that creates the monstrosity that ultimately undoes Frankenstein.
Thinking about the absence of women in this fashion helps us to see that the novel is not necessarily about finding answers but is about asking different sorts of questions: about the nature of society, about the nature of creation, about the power of the environment to shape character, about the relationships between men and women, individuals and society.
[Quotations in the text refer to the 1818 version of the novel. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London.]
Deborah Williams is Clinical Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and a member of the Liberal Studies faculty at NYU in New York.
Electra Street is sponsoring a third “Abu Dhabi Reads” community program in conjunction with the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. We’ll be reading The American Granddaughter (Al-Hafeeda al-Amreekiya), the second novel by Iraqi journalist and author Inaam Kachachi. Our discussion will take place in the garden of NYUAD’s Downtown Campus from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 14. The formal discussion will last just over an hour, with time for informal discussion over refreshments afterward.
The American Granddaughter dramatizes the pain of transnationalism in times of war. In the aftermath of the second U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Sadaam Hussein, Zeina Behnam returns to Iraq, fifteen years after fleeing to the U.S. with her family. Working as an interpreter for the U.S. army, she finds herself torn between allegiance to her adopted country and loyalty to the country of her birth. Zeina’s cultural background is further complicated by the fact that she is linked to two of Iraq’s minority groups, the Chaldean Christians on her father’s side and the Kurds on her mothers. Her devoutly religious and fervently nationalistic maternal grandmother, Rahma, seeks to re-educate her American Granddaughter in the ways of Iraq, but things really become complicated when Zeina falls in love with one of her “milk-brothers,” who also happens to be a member of the ultra-conservative Mahdi Army.
“If sorrow were a man I would not kill him. I would pray for his long life,” Zeina tells us on the novel’s opening page. “For it has honed me and smoothed over the edges of my reckless nature.” Zeina is an engaging narrator, who loves to make up titles for imaginary movies about episodes from her life, but the novel also includes chapters told from the third-person perspectives of several of its other characters. Careening between vivid scenes of “present” action in Baghdad ca. 2003 and memories of the past, The American Granddaughter vividly captures the disorientation and havoc wrought by war.
Written in Arabic and translated into English by Nariman Youssef, the novel was nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize. The English version is available in Kindle format from amazon.com, and copies of the English-language hardcover are available at the Magrudy’s branch on the NYU campus.For the first time at an “Abu Dhabi Reads” event, we will be offering simultaneous translation into Arabic.
If you think you might attend, please RSVP at the NYUAD Institute’s website so that we know how many refreshments to order.
We look forward to seeing you at “Abu Dhabi Reads” for an evening of lively conversation.