Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

OP-ED

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Yasmeen Tajiddin

November 2019

Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent. 

Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?

The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?

Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.

            Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.

Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.

On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience. 

We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.

Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities

 

Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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Videogames; or, Literary Merit

Videogames; or, Literary Merit

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Video Games; or, Literary Merit

Julián Carrera 

February 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged that video games are a form of media. Entertainment media, but media nonetheless. They share the stage with books, films, and plays. And yet, why are video games not being talked about in-depth? Different forms of media are analysed and given attention in academia. Why not video games?

Is it a problem with the games themselves? Or is it a problem with the fact that they’re games?

Video games are the black sheep of literary analysis. Techniques that used to limit themselves to different kinds of texts have been extended to other media such as cinema or theater. It was a natural progression: films and plays rely on written scripts, so they could be analysed through the lens of literature. But so do video games, so why aren’t they analysed to the same degree as films, plays, or books? Video games are another medium to express ideas. Look, for example, at Undertale or Doki Doki Literature Club, games that look beyond the scope and expectations of the genres they adopt.

Undertale, developed by Toby Fox—and thus called an “independent” or “indie” game—is a Role-Playing Game (RPG) that puts the player in control of Frisk, a human kid who fell from the surface to the underground, where Monsters live, and must find a way to get back home.

Most RPGs with a premise like Undertale would have the player use a weapon to kill all the Monsters that stand between the player and a way back home. Undertale took this aspect of the genre and flipped it. It is the RPG where “you don’t have to kill anyone,” according to the game’s website. Undertale gives the player the choice to be violent or non-violent, and judges the player based on how much violence he or she used.

Screenshot from Undertale.

Courtesy of undertale.com.

Undertale’s premise alone makes it an achievement of the medium in that it takes inspiration—and quotes through game mechanics—from games that came before it and flips the expectations of the genre by being an RPG where nobody has to die. Books and films and plays that do the same thing are analysed ad nauseam in academia, so why not video games?

Is it because Undertale stands as an exception?

It doesn’t.

Look at Doki Doki Literature Club, another indie game by Team Salvato, which is not an RPG, but rather a dating simulator. Like Undertale, it flips a fundamental part of the genre to deliver a message.

Dating simulators are text-based games that give the player two main choices: which character to date and what line of dialogue to say. They are not built to be deep, nor to pose a challenge to the player. After the player chooses someone to date, he (in very rare instances, she) will be given a choice of dialogue options, one of which will scream “This is the right thing to say,” while the others will be written to be the wrong choice.

Doki Doki Literature Club takes this idea and, given its literature club setting—in good dating simulator fashion, it is a club comprised of four girls and the player—turns the dialogue into a “poem.” The player is given a collection of words to “write a poem,” and next to the list of words, there are the three girls available to the player for dating. Whenever a word is picked, one of the girls will jump, signifying “progress” with said girl. It is a system that is easy to cheat, as one of the girls likes dark and long words, another likes cute and animal words, and another likes short and simple words.

It is also a system based on a choice that doesn’t matter. Regardless of the player’s choice, the game always progresses to the same end: a transformation into a horror game where all the player’s agency to choose is taken away. The player is forced to see and experience the horror, with no choice to avoid it other than by abandoning the game. The dissonance of a horrifying game with the aesthetics of an anime dating simulator creates a narrative style that unsettles the player.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.”

Apart from these flips to the genre and to the games from which it draws inspiration, Doki Doki Literature Club flips the expectation of the medium itself. Before the game transforms into a horror game, it uses every design aspect to make the player feel that there is something wrong with the game. The background music is off-key at times, the characters break the fourth wall by calling out a joke that doesn’t work in translation (even though the game is in English and isn’t translated from any other language), and characters reference everything that happens in the horror part of the game through obscure dialogue. After it transforms into a horror game, it uses everything it established in the non-horror part of the game and flips it. Characters sometimes stand in front of the dialogue box instead of behind it, images that took up the entire screen turn into covers for jump scares once the player clicks away, and the game starts using “glitches,” or coding mistakes, to unsettle the player. The music plays off-beat and distorts, backgrounds start twisting, character designs start garbling up, dialogues appear in different fonts or are a random string of characters.

At one point, the game requires the player to dig through the game’s files and delete one of the character files to progress through the game. It gamifies the logic of computers beyond the game.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.” So why is it not treated in academia like all the novels, films, or plays that did the exact same thing?

We need to look beyond what has been established and start seeing video games for what they are: another medium to develop ideas.

Screenshot from Doki Doki Literature Club.

Courtesy ddlc.moe.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

OP-ED

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

Xiaoxiao Du

February 2019

Five girls surrounded me while I was getting my henna tattoo done in a chaotic square of a Moroccan town. Their eyes followed the curvy lines drawn on my hand with a special herb product that dyed the skin. After she finished the last petal, the old henna artist admired her work for a second, decided that any addition to it would be redundant, and let go of my hand. I paid and stepped aside to make room for the next customer, but the other girls exchanged looks amongst themselves, and none of them sat down.

I was confused by their paradoxical admiration for the henna and their reluctance to get one, until later that night, my roommate, one of the five girls, revealed the magic words that kept them from getting a henna tattoo: cultural appropriation. Offending the locals was a lesser concern, because the henna artist was sitting in the middle of a square filled with tourists, and the locals passing by did not pay any attention to the henna stall, not to mention appear offended. It seemed that it was the mutual censorship, the fear that other students might accuse them of cultural appropriation, that kept them from getting a henna tattoo. In the end, you can never be too careful when dealing with potential cultural appropriation. 

Later in the Morocco trip, we had a chance to talk to local university students. We asked them whether they thought that it constituted cultural appropriation if someone outside their culture got a henna tattoo and then posted pictures of their henna on Instagram. The Moroccan students first asked what cultural appropriation was. They were amused by our concern about the appropriateness of getting a henna tattoo and replied that, no, they do not feel offended at all. They added that they felt flattered when people appreciated and spread their culture, so long as they were not poking fun at it. 

Moroccan Coast

Photo: Xiaoxiao Du

The Moroccan trip made me realize that cultural appropriation is a complex concept. I thought I was acquainted with the term “cultural appropriation” and its implications, but I failed to make the connection between getting a beautiful henna tattoo in Morocco and being guilty of cultural appropriation like other girls. I thought the criteria were simple: first, I have no intention of claiming henna tattooing to be part of my culture; second, my action did not offend anyone; and, third, it is just what tourists do. I would even go as far as calling my action “cultural appreciation.”

Yet talking about cultural appropriation is about calling into attention what people, tourists included, just do without questioning. The discussion about cultural appropriation is inseparable from other social and cultural discourses such as colonialism, orientalism, and the history of slavery. Talking about cultural appropriation sensitizes people so that they are more aware of the harm they could cause for the less privileged cultures and peoples.

The Oxford English Dictionary incorporated the term “cultural appropriation” in 2017 in response to the heated discussion about it in the western world, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Despite the appearance of clarity, the definition is problematic. The key terms are vague: what kind of adoption is inappropriate? How much acknowledgement is needed? For instance, a headdress which appeared in Victoria’s Secret’s 2017 show resembled a traditional war bonnet of the Native American culture. It is considered blasphemous for an outsider to wear it, and the headdress enraged the Native Americans. The leading opinions of the fashion world all agreed that the war bonnet constituted “cultural appropriation. It is unproductive to ban all assimilation of other cultures, but if we replace the war bonnet with less scared or mundane items, when does it cease to be cultural appropriation and become acceptable?

The conceptual confusion is not only a concern for scholars studying postcolonialism. When the line is hard to draw, and when people throw the term everywhere, an objective judgment is sometimes nowhere to be found. Worse, the resultant dispute can cause miscommunication and hatred. 

For instance, Jeremy Lin, a Chinese American basketball player, is known for his frequent change of hairstyle. When he posted on Instagram a picture of himself wearing his new choice of hairstyle, dreadlocks, he explained that he saw his hair as a tribute to the black culture. None of Lin’s teammates protested against his new hair, yet Kenyon Martin, a black basketball player from another team, bashed Lin’s African hairstyle, interpreting his action as a sign of wanting to become black, and labeling his hair “cultural appropriation.” People got so excited and ready to attack the person labeled as if they were a gam of sharks that smelled blood. Although some from the black community expressed their support or remained neutral, others followed Martin and left vicious comments under Lin’s Instagram. The dispute came to an ironic end when Lin responded to Martin, “At the end of the day I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos. I think it’s a sign of respect.” The term, coined to call for respect, has turned cultural exchange into name-calling. Its abuse pits people against people, minorities against minorities.

The dialogue about cultural appropriation does not happen in every country and every culture, but the need for respect is universal. It is for the purpose of fighting discrimination and trivialization of the less privileged cultures that we initiate the conversation about cultural appropriation. But maybe “cultural appropriation” has gone too far that its practice defeats the purpose of promoting genuine respect and appreciation. Those who lack respect weaponize the term, whereas those with great respect for other cultures, due to the fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation,” lose the chance to take advantage of their cultural exchange experiences.

Talking about “cultural appropriation” cannot guarantee mutual respect. As someone who got a henna tattoo in Morocco and who might have been guilty several times of “cultural appropriation” according to stricter versions of its definition, I am not sure to what end the discourse is leading.

Xiaoxiao Du is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her name means “small small.” She is a philosophy major with special interests in metaethics. She can re-read novels by Cao Xueqin and Gabriel García Márquez any number of times without getting bored.

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Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?

Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?

OP-ED

Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?

Laura Deryng

January 2019

One of the very first things that I saw once I arrived in Washington, DC for J-Term during my freshman year was not, unfortunately, the White House, the Capitol, or the Lincoln Memorial. Instead, it was a raw chicken that a friend brought to my dorm room, asking if I could cook it for him. My surprised answer to this question was “No,” followed by an explanation that my culinary abilities peak at making tea.

His reply: “Are you a woman? What type of woman?”

I resisted the temptation to check in the mirror to see if I had somehow changed physically during the past few hours. The truth was that my femininity was questioned because I did not know how to cook: my femininity was apparently defined through something as basic as the ability to make a chicken steak. And here I was, a Polish girl in the capital of the most powerful country in the world, following the American Dream – but confronted and somehow defeated by a raw chicken.

I do need to admit one thing: it was a big mistake, my not having learned how to cook before. After traveling to various places all over the world, I now understand one thing: food is not always the most pleasurable representation of local cultures. I cannot count the number of situations in which I would have benefited from knowing how to cook a raw chicken—and not only because eating noodles every day in Shanghai bored me. Or because Ghanaian fufu and I were not a match made in heaven. Knowing how to cook gives us more independence: we are not put in the position of having to hope that the chicken steak we ordered in a restaurant will be edible. We can have an actual influence on it.

But in the end, it is not my obligation to learn how to cook: it is my choice. As it should be for anyone else, whether woman or man.

The fact is that, throughout history, women’s roles in the society have not been too diversified. Our time of glory apparently passed a while ago, together with the tribe of mythological Amazons and their most famous representative, Wonder Woman. She did not make it to my history book, unfortunately, which puts her in the same position as so many other women, who actually existed outside of comic books and movie screens and who have contributed to building the world for centuries and centuries. If my history book ever spoke of a woman, her biography always started with “She was a mother of a king…” or “She was a wife of a soldier…”. Inspiring. I can almost imagine a biography starting with “She was a cook for life …”

Unfortunately, women all over the world have been trapped in stereotypical “feminine” roles for centuries. In Aboriginal Australia, for example, men used boomerangs for hunting, whereas women were equipped only with a special tool that enabled them to carry babies. I learned about these differences from an actual representative of Aboriginal Australians in Sydney. While listening to his story, I started to contemplate how much the world had changed since the times when there was a clear division of gender roles.

Images of influential women started to appear in my mind. Women like Angela Merkel, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, and Margaret Thatcher have shown me that the world has evolved since Aboriginal women had their special tools for babies.

Filled with pride and optimism, I saw my friend raising her hand to ask our Aboriginal guide a question. “Could you pass me the boomerang? I want to see how heavy it is.” He looked at her impatiently. “No. It is a weapon for men and it cannot be touched by women. That brings bad luck.” And somehow the face of Angela Merkel in my mind was quickly replaced by the memory of raw chicken, defeating me yet again. “It is a tradition, though, you need to respect it,” I told myself.

At least that’s what I thought until I met another Aboriginal guide, who happily let me hold the boomerang. I was shocked. I wish I could have introduced the first Aboriginal guy to my chicken friend. They might have enjoyed watching Battle of the Sexes together. They might have laughed together at Bobby Riggs’s comment during a press conference with Billie Jean King: “Don’t get me wrong. I love women—in the bedroom and in the kitchen.”

I’m intrigued by the fact that people seem to think that men are actually better cooks than women. When I looked online for a list of the best chefs of the world, I saw that not a single woman made it to the top ten. Not even the top twenty. But then I found her: Nadia Santini. From Italy. Position number 38.

So why do we insist that a woman has to know how to cook if it seems that men are capable of bringing more culinary joy to our lives? Maybe we should make men’s ability to cook more central to their identity. If men cook so much better than women, why not encourage more of them to find fulfilment in that place where they can exercise their natural talents? The kitchen.

Jokes aside, I just still keep asking myself why we require women to cook in the domestic space, while most of the shining stars in the public culinary world are men.

But I am afraid I know the answer.

Women are not worse at cooking than men, but on television, cooking is no longer just cooking: it is professional cooking. Cooking on television is no longer a waste of time and effort for no financial rewards. It is a job in the cooking industry, which like most industries today, is dominated by men, the breadwinners of families. Domestic cooking? Please, it has no value, let a woman do that. I have better things to do. But professional cooking …?

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with a woman who wants to cook in the private sphere. I personally advocate that everyone learn how to do it, simply because it is a highly useful skill. I am just bothered by the fact that certain identities and gender stereotypes are imposed on us women so brutally, thereby defining our femininity for us.

Maybe a woman’s inability to cook does undermines her femininity—if we associate femininity with the cozy and welcoming atmosphere of home created by the smells of the kitchen, with that certain warmth that women know how to evoke to bring their families together. But there are so many other ways that a woman (and a man too, if he wants) can fulfill this task, other than cooking. Femininity can have many faces, strong and independent in addition to fragile and delicate. Or maybe we should combine them all.

I suppose my friend in Washington could not understand that my inability to cook the raw chicken does not undermine my femininity because he was a typical male conqueror. And in this guise, he broke to our room few nights later to get what he wanted: our last piece of pizza. So masculine.

Laura Deryng is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Economics with a specialization in Finance and Computer Science. She is originally from Gdańsk, Poland. Laura’s interests are diversified, ranging from international affairs and journalism to blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

She loves traveling: her favorite travel destination is Japan. Laura is also very passionate about sports. She has been playing basketball since she was 10 years old. Besides that, she enjoys running, boxing and playing tennis

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A Justification for the Study of Literature

A Justification for the Study of Literature

OR, YES, I’M SURE I WANT TO DO THIS

Not everyone can be a Literature major. I don’t say that easily. I say that with the utmost resignation, as the bags under my eyes get pulled down by another 50-odd pages of Moby-Dick, my designated pleasure read for the semester.

When I tell people that I study literature, I’m faced with one of two responses: a) “Oh, that’s so cool, I wish I could pursue a major that I am passionate about,” which makes me feel like a neoliberal hippie, or b) “Wow, that’s super tough. Literature is tough.” I also get the occasional Starbucks-homeless jibe as one of those quasi-insults that get passed off as gestures of close friendship. I lump these kinds of Starbucks comments into the same category as response b), for the sole reason that being a barista is difficult. I myself couldn’t do it: there’s only so many custom orders I can take before wanting to throw a cup of custom, vegan, non-GMO, family-grown, baby-proof caffeine with a shot of water that is actually composed of baby’s tears and the saliva of a newborn puppy on someone’s expensive tie.

IMG_4888

Being a Literature major is hard. And it’s not because of the reading. One of the first things that people assume about literature majors is that we like to read and we must read a lot and reading must be the only thing we like to do — all of which is true. But it’s not the reading that makes it difficult. Anyone can read Ulysses in a day, probably, if you shut yourself in your room for 24 hours and gain sustenance from some kind of IV drip. The act of reading isn’t difficult; you read something everyday. You’re reading this right now. If reading were the only prerequisite to getting a literature degree, then we’d all be Literature majors, and I’ve been wasting my time for the past year and a half.

Literature is hard because of how vulnerable you become. When you’re a barista and it’s rush hour and you’re getting yelled at for putting in two pumps of syrup instead of the standard one and three-point-five pumps that Terry from the Starbucks down the street uses, you’re vulnerable. You’re vulnerable to your coworkers, the person yelling at you, and everyone else in the store. And despite all that yelling and that one guy in the corner secretly videotaping this in the hopes of putting up another Facebook rant on dismantling the throes of capitalism, you don’t bat an eyelash. I mean sure you feel bad, but look, Barista Man – you chose to do this. You signed up for it.

One of the founding ideals of the liberal arts curriculum is that each student, after having sampled every starter in the buffet of Intro 101s, will hopefully decide what they like the best. So, yes, I chose literature (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article). But the problem with that is when I read books, I become vulnerable. I would go so far as to argue that even the author isn’t as vulnerable as I am, because at least the author has made peace with what is on the page. When I hold a book, however, am suddenly holding the author, like they’re right there with me. I recently read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal for a class, and I quickly realized that I was reading “Jean Genet.” Whether autobiographical or not, a novel becomes part of its author’s life force. A lot of people say that they like to read because reading lets them lead different lives; I myself don’t get to live a different life when I read per se, but do I get another life handed to me. Every book I’ve read so far has given me a piece of its writer along with it, and God forbid I keep that soul anywhere else but inside the deepest, safest recesses of my mind. You’d think that it’s hard enough to make sense of your own thoughts, but all of a sudden you have someone else’s jumbled up with yours and you have to begin to sort through the mess.

I haven’t even talked about what happens when a book makes me uncomfortable. If a book makes me uneasy, then the issue for me becomes more complicated. Not only do I need to be able to digest what I’ve just read, to chew it slowly and wait for my intestines to absorb its nutrients, but I also have to deal with how it makes me feel afterwards. Sometimes it leaves me with a dull ache in the bottom of my stomach, my lower right side to be precise. It is in those moments of unease that I take a scalpel and examine the root cause, attempt to find out which proteins in my body are refusing to digest the food. It’s not an easy task; sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes when sleep becomes too elusive I get tempted to forego the operation completely.

It is important to see the operation through, however. Only when I get to interact with all the insides of me do I learn what makes me tick. Again I am vulnerable; but this time, I am vulnerable with myself. Being vulnerable in front of other people is easy, because at the end of the day no one remembers that you put in low-fat milk instead of skim. Being vulnerable with yourself, though, is hard: I’ve tried it, and I’ve quickly realized that I don’t accept any bullshit. You see, the author is better off because she has already undergone that process of vulnerability, otherwise there would be no book to begin with. I, however, go through it again and again and again every time I read a book. Because, at the end of the day, every author writes the world differently to how I see it. I can’t do anything about that, since its their words on the page. I have to be able to sit in this position of conflict between these two opinions and choose to resolve it on my own, because the words do as they please.

English classes in high school are well-known for the idea that you can write anything you want, as long as you justify it. That may be true, but there’s always another level to it. Justifying something well is difficult. Any sort of university student with enough desperation and 3 cans of Red Bull can write a quick essay about the subjectification of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but to sit down with a text and really be able to see what it’s saying is difficult. The text doesn’t help me at all. It doesn’t say anything, because it’s an inanimate object. Of course the texts say something, but books aren’t very good conversationalists. They’re kind of selfish, actually. Some of them think that what they’re saying is so blatant, so obvious, that to slave overnight to figure out what the elusive “it” is seems trivial. And sometimes even the best of us can’t get that message right away. Of course a text matters, but to figure out the whys and the hows and the whatevers entails a lot of reading, yes, but also a lot of thinking about how and why you’re reading the text the way that you are.

So no, you can’t just “say anything you want”. Life (and literature) isn’t that easy, and No Fear Shakespeare can only get you so far. I’d like to think that if someone has exposed her soul to you and has let you into the inner workings of her mind, it’s only decent to sit with those thoughts and really flesh them out rather than type any random mumbly-jumbly-hoo-ha on the page and think that you’ve fully understood the book under discussion. Maybe literature is about courtesy. You wouldn’t just walk away from a conversation, so why would you do that to a book?

The classic way to end this sort of article is to give a grand, sweeping soliloquy on why I choose to study literature despite these difficulties. A cop-out answer is to say, “I don’t know.”

I think I do know why I study literature, though, and in an odd way it’s because I don’t know: I don’t know who I am yet. I thought I knew who I was two years ago, but thinking back, I realize that I’m now a completely different person. I choose to study literature because I know that if I don’t get a handle on who I am versus who everyone else is, I’ll just keep swimming like a tiny little guppy. And the only way to really get a good handle on who I am is to allow myself to exist in this state of vulnerability, day in and day out for as long as I’ve got time. Maybe that makes me selfish, but it’s the only way that’s made any sense to me so far. Maybe the farthest I can get with my education is a manager at my local Starbucks, but while I’m serving you your regular IV drip of caffeine at least I’ll know that every add-on you ask for means something. It’ll be obvious to you, of course – only barbarians drink their coffee without a splash of rose water and the faint hint of a baby’s first laugh – but I won’t get it at first. But maybe after your fourth, fifth, sixth drink, I will.

A Few Reflections about Global Education at NYUAD

A Few Reflections about Global Education at NYUAD

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Life is such a mystery. Never in my wildest imagination did I envision that someday I might be teaching in the Middle East, after two decades of teaching in law schools and religious studies programs in the United States and Europe. Yet here I am in the UAE, as a member of the faculty of NYU Abu Dhabi. While the fields of law and religious studies may seem to be unlikely consorts, they coalesce in religious systems of law such as Talmudic law, Hindu law, sharia law, and canon law. Moreover, the roots of secular Western legal systems may be traced to the medieval canon law and its unity with theology. The comparative and cross-disciplinary focus of my scholarship describes religion and law as social institutions that play a major role in setting the conditions for either a static, punitive, and repressive social order or a merciful, enlightened, and transformative one in which individuals and communities may flourish. This focus seems to me to be a good fit with the aims of global education embraced by NYU Abu Dhabi.

One of the courses that I teach, Ideas of the Sacred, introduces the students to the world’s major religious traditions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. These religious traditions are great rivers of humanity, and I think that every broadly educated person ought to have knowledge of them. One’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are often intimate and located deep within the inner sanctum of one’s consciousness, and for some human beings, these beliefs contribute to the core of personal and communal identity. Students familiar with each of the world’s religious traditions that are discussed have participated in the course. Our classroom discussions have consistently been characterized by zeal for learning, respect for others, and openness to various ideas about what might be considered sacred. I said the course “introduces the students,” but all of us in the course learn from each other. I could not ask for a better place to teach a course in comparative religion. In a world where religion is sometimes depicted primarily as a cause of intolerance and violence, I think that this counter-example, created by the idea of global education, offers a glimpse of hope.

Another course that I teach is called What is Law? At the start of the course, I tell the students not to expect a catharsis: law is fundamentally a human activity, and the sundry essentialist, sociological, and ideological responses to the course’s central question are inevitably limited. Again, the diversity of our student body brings so many varied perspectives about the meaning and purpose of law, which serves as a poignant reminder that law is pluralistic and not just the hegemonic domain of a given predominant culture, nation, or linguistic experience. At the same, there often emerges in our discussion a desire for a common humanity that might serve as the moral justification for fundamental human rights. That desire reminds me of when I served as a member of the treaty conference which established the International Criminal Court. I was privilege to be one among hundreds of representatives of the various nations of the world gathered together at the United Nations to create an international legal institution whose basis is rooted in a common humanity. Some of my students will likely become lawyers, maybe even judges or other kinds of government officials. I hope that we are offering the academic and social context in which they mature as fair, just, compassionate, and socially responsible human persons. Forgive me if I sound overly idealistic, but I am a person who believes in the power of the aspirational.

From the very first time that I visited Abu Dhabi three years ago, NYU’s aspirations about global education were readily apparent to me. Located at the crossroads of the world, NYUAD brings together a talented student body drawn from the four corners of the earth.  The university’s financial aid policy is such that no student is excluded because of an inability to pay. NYUAD also attracts top quality faculty who are committed to teaching and engaged in fascinating research; from the start of my tenure here, I have been intellectually and personally enriched by the opportunity to interact with colleagues from all parts of the NYU Global University as well as from other institutions of higher education. In an academically rigorous environment, students and faculty transcend the parameters of discrete disciplines in order to develop new understandings of complex problems. At their core, the fields of law and religious studies are about human persons. The multidisciplinary approach seeks to deepen our understanding of the identities, values, cultures, languages, behaviors, histories, and social contexts of individuals and communities that comprise the human situation. The mystery of life continues to unfold for me, and two years into my service at NYUAD, I feel grateful and humbled to be a small part of this great venture in global education.

John Coughlin is Professor of Religious Studies and Law at NYU Abu Dhabi. He holds a Th.M. from Princeton Seminary, a J.D. from Harvard University Law School, and the  J.C.L. and J.C.D. from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

[Image: Detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-11), Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican), depicting Plato and Aristotle.]

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