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"Why Should You Care?" Podcast

“Why Should You Care?” is a new podcast by the Institute for the Humanities' Public Humanities Interns that seeks to answer the question, “Why should you care about the humanities?”

"Why Should You Care?" utilizes a humanities lens to look at pressing issues of our time including racism, politics, and public health. The podcast’s hosts Abdul Kizito (anthropology, 2023) and Cole Simon (Residential College, political science, 2022) interview University of Michigan faculty who use their humanities expertise to address current societal concerns. Each podcast will also explore the interviewee’s academic journey that brought them to the humanities, and hopefully teach us a little about our own humanity, showing how a multidisciplinary approach can guide us to a better future. 

The podcast creators are the 8 members of the Institute for the Humanities’ Public Humanities Internship program for undergraduate juniors and seniors. Interns develop public programs, plan events, and share information about humanities topics with the wider community. An important part of the program's mission is to help increase undergrad engagement with and appreciation for the humanities here on campus. Interns routinely engage with the humanities and acquire practical, real-life experience with event planning and marketing, communication and publicity through social media, and leadership and teamwork skills development. 

"Why Should You Care" is available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and Anchor. New podcast episodes will be released every two weeks.

Transcript Episode 6: Viewing Academia Through Different Lenses with Anne Curzan

As dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan is committed to advancing the college as the leading model for the power of a liberal arts education within a top-ranked research university. She is deeply invested in people and fostering a diverse and inclusive college where all can thrive. The academic excellence of the college is, in the end, all about people. Curzan aims to promote a culture based in purpose and contributing to the common good, the power of learning, the value of play, and the importance of well-being. She encourages students to explore the remarkable breadth of LSA to find the subjects and questions that genuinely excite them, with the confidence that the college will support students in connecting their liberal arts education to their aspirations and goals for life post-college.

Dean Curzan, a trained linguist, studies the history of the English language. She describes herself as a fount of random linguistic information about how English got to be the way it is—information she shares every Sunday on the show “That’s What They Say” on Michigan Public Radio. She has dedicated one major strand of her career to helping students and the broader public understand linguistic diversity as part of cultural diversity, and language change as a natural part of living languages. Curzan can also be found talking about language on the blog Lingua Franca for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in short videos on the LSA Wire, and in the column “Talking About Words” in Michigan Today. Her TEDx talk at UM called “What makes a word ‘real’?” has over 1.2 million views on the national TED site. Curzan has received university awards for outstanding research and undergraduate teaching, including the Henry Russel Award and the John Dewey Award. She is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, Linguistics, and Education.

Prior to becoming dean in 2019, Curzan held multiple administrative roles, including Associate Dean for the Humanities for LSA, Faculty Athletics Representative for the University of Michigan, and Director of the English Department Writing Program. She teaches courses on the history of English, English grammar, language and gender, and the dynamics of conversations. She earned her B.A. in linguistics from Yale University and her Ph.D. in English language and literature from the University of Michigan.

Dean Curzan 00:00

Part of the argument that people or explanation for that is that we actually don't all want to sound the same. We want to sound like the communities that we come from.

Abdul Kizito 00:14

I am Abdul Kizito an intern at the Institute for Humanities at the University of Michigan. And that was Dr. Ann Curzan a professor of English and the Dean for the College of Literature, Science and Arts at the University of Michigan in her work both as a professor and Dean Dr. Curzan works to promote equitable learning and sociolinguistics as a core part of what makes us human for this week's episode, Cole Simon was able to interview Dr. Curzan about the role that language plays in our daily lives and how her perspective on academia and the humanities has changed different points in her academic career. Now we ask why should you care?

Cole Simon 00:57

Dean, it's nice to sit down and talk with you today on this dreary Friday here in Ann Arbor. If you wouldn't mind for the few people out there who don't know who you are, would you mind giving just a little introduction?

Dean Curzan 01:09

I'd be happy to, and I'm delighted to be here. I'm Ann Curzan and I'm a professor of English with courtesy appointments in linguistics, and in the school of education, I study the history of the English language from old English time of Beowolf through the present day. And I have been at the University of Michigan for 20 years on the faculty. I actually did my Ph.D. Here in the 1990s and left for my first faculty job and came back in 2002. And I've been doing administration for the last 18 years, both in the English department and then for the university, and then in, the Dean's office of the College of Literature Science and the Arts LSA, and I'm finishing my third year as the Dean.

Cole Simon 01:57

Yeah. And it's, it's so nice that you gave us that little background on how long you've been at the university, as well as how long you've been in administrative roles, and I was kind of wondering, as you said, you came here as a Ph.D. student, but obviously, you didn't, you didn't start your academic career as a Ph.D. student. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit as, as you've kind of gone up the ladder from undergraduate student all the way up to now Dean in a liberal arts college if you could tell us kind of how your perspective on humanities as a general topic has changed, how your involvement in the humanities has changed and, and how you see it today in, an increasingly stem focused world.

Dean Curzan 02:31

It's a, it's a great question, and it's interesting to think, I think you're the first person to ask me about that in the kind of long arc of a career. I started college as a math major who really liked learning languages, and honestly, when I started college, I wasn't sure what linguistics was, except that it clearly had something to do with language and then started taking linguistics courses in college and fell in love with the field. Linguistics is an interesting discipline because some people will categorize it in the social sciences. Some of it is clearly humanistic. It, it sits, it's a very interdisciplinary field. I'm a linguist who lives in the English department, which is a squarely humanistic discipline. So I feel like I identify both as a humanist and as a social scientist in terms of my training and my work.

Dean Curzan 03:34

It was an interesting question. When you said, what does it feel like to, the humanities in a stem-focused world? One of, for the past seven years? I think I have certainly seen one of my roles to be advocating for the humanities to a broad audience. And this is for four years, I was the Associate Dean for the humanities. And so that was clearly part of my job. And then as the Dean know the college where we have three divisions, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, it's my job to advocate for all three divisions. And I take that really seriously. So I think one of the things that's changed for me is how I think about making that case. And, and I am willing to make the case that for the, for the humanities, in other words, I know that sometimes humanists can feel like we shouldn't have to make this case people our value.

Dean Curzan 04:32

We shouldn't have to feel defensive about this, and I don't feel defensive about it, but I do wanna be persuasive about it. And, and I start with, and I, this quote from another Dean who said that empathy is not just a value, it's a skill. And I think that when you think about empathy, that way as a skill that we are honing and we are honing in part through our education, you see why the humanities are so crucial. Cause it is through the humanities among the many things we do in the humanities that we strive to understand the world from perspectives that are different from our own, whether that's historical perspectives, it's studying other cultures, it's studying literature and art and music. This is how we come to understand the world in new ways. And that is you build empathy. And so I think that's a really important part of the humanities.

Dean Curzan 05:31

I also think about the last couple of years of the pandemic. And you think about what many people turn to when we were in quarantine to make sense of the world as well as is for joy and for comfort people turn to literature and music and film people read history to try to understand what we were going through. People turn to cultural studies. This was a critical resource for us to both make sense of and to get through this incredibly challenging period. And I think that in and of itself speaks to the value of both the arts and of humanities.

Cole Simon 06:18

One thing that I've kind of noticed in the last couple of years as, as the world has started to go back towards pre-pandemic times is it seems like some stem people that I've talked to. It seems like there's a bit more of a desire to bring the humanities into the conversation and, and talk about like, Hey, this engineering, we're doing this, you know, programming stuff we're doing, it's all great, but what does it mean if not for the humanities? And it kind of sounds like that's, that's what you're getting at about how you don't think you need to make a case for it, but you also, or, go-to defense for it as if it's this dying thing. But like you see it as something where it has a place in an, like an increasingly modern and technologically driven world. Is that, is that right?

Dean Curzan 07:03

Absolutely. yeah. And, and I think what I was trying to get at was I want us to make the case in a very positive forward-looking light, as opposed to feeling embattled about it and defensive about it. And I think you do, you saw this before the pandemic, and I agree with you that I think it has been strengthened in the pandemic, this interest in these intersections of stem and the arts and stem and thinking about all of the intersections with the humanities and what makes us human. And that was, it's been exciting to see again, I wanna make sure that people get credit for the efforts that were going on before the pandemic. And it is certainly something that the university is trying to do through the arts initiative of trying to distribute the the arts and foster, the arts across all the schools and colleges in ways that might strike people as surprising, but we are quite sure we'll be enriching and productive because all those intersections are there.

Cole Simon 08:10

Yeah. And I know in my own experience, I have a friend who's a computer science major who decided he wanted to take a photography class at the residential because he thought I need that, that balance. Like I can't spend all day on a computer doing programming, or coding. I need to express myself in other ways and see the world through that other lens.

Dean Curzan 08:30

Well, and one of my story that I love is alum of LSA, who is now a doctor here at the university. And he will say that the most important class he took as an undergraduate was on Icelandic sagas. Because in that course, it was the study of stories of narratives and how we tell them and how to interpret them. And what he says is that as a doctor, he spends all day hearing people's stories and trying to interpret people's stories. And that, that course, which was about the very human art of storytelling and stories are how we transmit knowledge. A lot of the time. And that's through throughout human history is this importance of narrative. And again, that's one of the things that we study and create and specialize in, in the humanities. So you, you definitely see all the ways that people might not anticipate that the study of the humanities is going to change even their professional in perhaps surprising, but not surprising. In retrospect ways

Cole Simon 09:41

You, you have, as you said, a strong background in the English department, you have another podcast where you talk about language and words. And I, I wanted to ask you about the process of language shifting with generations, how different terms come in and out of Vogue, how new words pop into existence, and kind of a broader kind of top or question should more value, be placed on a word that's in a dictionary than some new slang that's on the streets. And wouldn't make sense to anyone who isn't actively engaged in those circles, where these words are being brought up and created.

Dean Curzan 10:18

It's so many great things to talk about in that question. So let me start big and then we can get to dictionaries. Sure. your question about language change, and I'm gonna add language diversity because they're both really important parts of any living language. And I think the first thing I would say is to, recognize the importance of language to our identities and language is fundamental to who we are to our communities and, and how other people understand us. And, and so sometimes people will say, oh, well, you know, you can just change your language. And, and certainly, you can, but it's important to recognize how fundamental it is to our understanding of ourselves and our presentation of ourselves and our links to our home communities or communities that we're joining. And so one of the things that I'm really passionate about is helping people understand that linguistic diversity is part of diversity.

Dean Curzan 11:26

And we don't always talk about linguistic diversity as part of diversity, but human diversity and the diversity of human communities means you also have vast diversity in languages, and that's people speaking different languages. And it's also people speaking different varieties of the same language. So what we would often call dialects. And one of the things that we see in the U.S. And elsewhere is that speakers will discriminate against other speakers based on how they speak, and so one of the things where I'm and many of my colleagues here are really trying to make a difference is to help people again, see that linguistic diversity is part of diversity that inclusive of language variety is part of inclusion and part of understanding diversity. And that we need to think about the gate-keeping and discrimination that happens around language. And there's a lot of it, and there's a lot of it that happens in schools.

Dean Curzan 12:28

So that's something that I teach about in my courses and, and try to, as a public intellectual as well. So the radio show that you mentioned, where on Sunday mornings, I talk about language for four to five minutes. And I, I met someone a few years ago who said, you know, I listen to you every Sunday morning. And I realize that what you're saying to me is that I should just chill out about language a little bit. And I, and I loved it. And I said that is actually at some level what I'm saying to you. And I would phrase it a little differently, which is to be kinder and to be more generous and more inclusive about language. And that's about linguistic diversity and it's about language change. So one of the things you see is that people will notice a change in the language and often their first reaction can be, I don't like that.

Dean Curzan 13:21

I don't that's new and I don't like it. And that would be the tame version. The strong version would be that is incorrect, bad usage, broken language. And often this is older speak who have more power criticizing the language of younger speakers who at that moment have less social power often. It can also be more socially powerful groups criticizing less socially powerful groups. More generally language change is part of a living language. And I would say it shows the, of the human brain and spirit. We play with language. It's one of the fun things about my job is that I study something that people are really interested in. You think about Wordle right now or the spelling games on people's phones, or the fact that we play hangman and boggle and Scrabble and all, all these we like to, we like to pun, we like to play with language.

Dean Curzan 14:20

We're interested in language. And one of the things we do through that play is change it. And this starts to get you to your question about dictionaries, which is that young people are forever gonna change the language. It's part of being a young person. It's also part of the little kids learning language and dictionary. Editors will say their job is to keep up with us. That is what they're trying to do. So they will say, no, we gotta watch that new word because some new words have their moment. And then they just die that they, they, they don't have staying power, but if words have staying power dictionary, editors will try to get them in. But a word is a word. If people know what it means, even if it's not yet in standard dictionaries, it's still a word

Cole Simon 15:08

I love that description in, in, and you, as someone with this, you know, strong background in language, being such an advocate for if people know what the word means, and you can use it in conversation and people understand it's a word it's valid. It's so refreshing. Cuz I know talking like my dad or my grandpa probably much more traditional and it's like, oh, that's not the dictionary. That's not a word you kids with your slang. So it's really great hearing that other side of it.

Dean Curzan 15:33

And even that phrase, which is a very common one of it's not in the dictionary, which is fascinating when you step back from it because it suggests that there is such a thing as the, a dictionary, which there is not, there are many different dictionaries published by different publishers. It's historically been a very competitive market where people have been trying to out advertise each other because, before the internet dictionaries, this was a lucrative business. Everybody needed a dictionary in their home. Every high school graduate was given a dictionary as their graduation gift. This was it is so dictionaries are different from each other. And this phrase of the dictionary suggests there's kind of one authoritative source. And when I will, sometimes in my classes ask students, okay, so who edits the dictionary? And they just look at me like, huh? I mean, clearly someone must, but who, who would that? And they're like, I don't know, Webster's descendants. So and of course, they're very human hands behind dictionaries.

Cole Simon 16:43

Yeah. And I, I wanna step back a little bit. When I first was asking you about language, you were talking about how language is diverse and there's all this change. Even within America, even Michigan, you can go from the very Southern Michigan to, as you go into the Northern latitudes. The dialect will change the way we construct sentences will change. I know I'm from not the way north, but I'm from the north. And I know when I go home, there is a difference in how, how we speak up there. And I wanted to ask you what that says about humans. Cause I don't think people would necessarily think about language being indicative and reflective of our humanity and what it means to be human.

Dean Curzan 17:23

Yeah. so one, I, I think you're right that we don't necessarily think about language, especially right now in conversations about diversity and equity and inclusion. So one thing where, where I sometimes start is if we think about definitions of culture and culture is very hard to define, but most definitions of culture will include language as part of culture. So that's sort of a starting point. And then to think about that, that language is one of the things that binds us within communities. And that can be again, language writ large or dialects of a language. And there was a sense that when there one televis came and people start that became a national resource that people were watching, that it would homogenize American English, that everybody would start talking the same because we all were watching the same television shows and this has not happened. And if anything, there are linguists who argue that dialects in the us are getting stronger.

Dean Curzan 18:34

Part of the argument that people or explanation for that is that we actually don't all want to sound the same. We want to sound like the communities that we come from, and this can be a geographic community. This can be a social community. And this is part of, part of our identification as people in the communities that we identify with and you can go, there are bigger dialect areas and then there are sub-dialect areas. So you were saying in Michigan, right? We have both, lots of languages other than English that are spoken in Michigan and then different varieties of English that are spoken. And so north versus south, and then African American English is spoken in Michigan. And, and one of the things with African American English is that linguists have said, we need to recognize all of the variations within African American English. That that it is not, it's not one homogenous variety. There's actually a lot of variation both social and regional. So there, this is, it's a fascinating area of study. And one of the things that we notice and creates language variation is contact with other languages. So you have Chicano English in a lot of the United States. You've got others that are the impact of language contact.

Cole Simon 20:04

I wanted to broaden up a little bit again, you know, we've been talking about language and that's fantastic, but going back to you with your different perspectives on humanities, at different levels from undergrad to Ph.D. to, well now the Dean of, of the LSA. Do you have advice for people who are majoring in the humanities just the other day at the Institute for the humanities, we had a career panel with former graduates graduating from the humanities, talking to seniors and underclassmen about, Hey, I graduated in the humanities, this is how it's gone for me. It's okay. You know, don't listen to people who may say your degree, it's important. And also don't limit yourself to one identity. You can do what you wanna do. You can find a path. There were, there was a great swab of different career trajectories there. It was, it was fantastic. And so cycling back to the question just cause I rambled for a moment. What do you think is some advice or some wisdom you could give to anyone who's pursuing or hoping to pursue a degree in the humanities?

Dean Curzan 21:08

I have a couple of thoughts. One is I think that you get the best education when you are studying things that you're passionate about. And this is why we encourage people to explore as part of their degree is to find the questions that light you up where you think I really wanna know the answer to that question because then you're gonna writing that paper and doing the research for it is actually gonna feel like a more fun chance to explore as opposed to an assignment. And that relates to another piece of advice that I would have, which is when you're in a class and you get an assignment, take ownership of it and think about what can I use this to explore that I'm interested in, that I want to discover because again, you will do your best work when you are exploring the questions, trying to unknot the knots that you're interested in.

Dean Curzan 22:06

So those are a couple of, of thoughts on that. I think I would also say go to the LSA opportunity hub. We designed the opportunity hub to as a resource so that students could major in what they love and have a range of experiences that would help prepare them for whatever career path they wanna take after college, recognizing, as you said, the, the range of careers that people go to from any major, all across the college. And so we have coaches there who can connect our LSA students with alums, who've gone into a range of professions, think about career trajectories, and also with students about how they wanna talk about their degrees and how they wanna talk about all the skills that they have acquired as a humanities major, because you have acquired a lot of skills and a lot of skills that employers are very interested in. And some of that is writing. And some of that is critical thinking, but it is also a creative approach to problem solving a willingness to sit within uncertainty and work through it. An ability to work in diverse teams and ability to understand the world from perspectives different from your own, and to be able to articulate those when you are in an interview setting in the professional sphere that's something we really want all our humanities majors and our majors all across the college to be able to do.



Transcript Episode 5: Rethinking Pedagogy Through Game Design with Tony Bushner

Tony Bushner's research and pedagogy lives at the cross-section of digital humanities, technical writing, and game studies. They recently completed their doctoral thesis on how board game designers create compelling rules documentation and carry out playtesting data collection as part of the iterative design process. Outside of academia, Tony performs live glitch art for chiptune and other experimental electronic music acts under the stage name D'oh!nut.

Dr. Bushner 00:00
I'm hoping that the university classroom space acts as the tutorial level in a game where you have the freedom to fail a little bit, and then you can enter into those more high stakes environments having already practiced learning something that you didn't know.

Abdul Kizito 00:21
I am Abdul Kizito, an intern at the Institute for Humanities at the University of Michigan, and that was Dr. Tony Bushner a researcher and lecturer in Digital Studies and pedagogy at the University of Michigan, as well as an artist in digital spaces. Dr. Bushner’s work is a cross section of Digital Humanities, technical writing and game studies. This week, Cole Simon was able to interview Dr. Burner about their innovative approach to teaching and how non-traditional classroom experiences can encourage greater exploration. Now we ask: why should you care?

Cole Simon 00:53
Tony, how about you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got started teaching these courses on board games and fan fiction and all these kind of non-typical studies.

Dr. Bushner 01:03
Yeah, so I've always been a strong believer that the more mundane things that we sometimes have to teach students can be made a little bit more interesting, so I try to design projects that get students to tackle things that may not be super exciting like manual design or user experience testing, accessibility reports, I try to make it fun by injecting play into it as much as possible, and so I was first teaching in grad school, I experimented with implementing games in the classroom, I did this really fun project where we took this game called keep talking and nobody explodes. And it's basically like a bomb-diffusing game, one person looks at the screen, they have a randomly generated bomb in front of them, and then the other player or players have a manual that describes how to disarm the different modules on this bomb, and the manual, of course, is written in a way that's difficult to use because that's where part of the challenge comes in the game, and so their assignment was to take that manual and redesign it so it breaks the game so that like a first time player can read that manual and very easily guide someone through the process.

Dr. Bushner 02:20

And students reacted really well to it, they had a way to easily test their manual by playing the game in their groups, it was something that was fun 'cause it was a game, and I got a lot of really cool innovative projects out of that, students Experimenting with the format of what does the manual look like, it doesn't just need to be a bunch of A4 paper stapled together or binded together, students, we're doing things with different sized pages that you have this kind of nice layout of tabs that you could quickly turn to the whatever section you needed, students were making worksheets where they took a plastic insert and you could use a dry erase marker on the manual, so you weren't wasting paper, but you were able to work through eliminating possibilities. It was really, really fascinating, and so I thought, Okay, well, students are responding well to this, I'm gonna try doing... And students are really interested in game design, so I'm gonna try to do a technical writing course that's built around game design, and that's where the idea for the board game class came through, and as I've been teaching different versions of this class and my other classes, I started to kind of experiment with the structure of the course, thinking about it as like a game design problem, like we have players who we want to reach a goal that we're setting 'cause we're in control of the game, and we want to incentivize certain behaviors and reward them through the design of the system, so that the reward at the end of class isn't like, Oh, I got an A, it's like I made my own path to get an A in this class, and so a lot of the tenants of good game design do tend to rub up against traditional pedagogical design, which is no surprise, the field of writing pedagogy, I can tell from my own research and education, it's a slow moving field.

Dr. Bushner 04:25
There's not a lot of innovation happening. And so I decided, Okay, I know games, I know pedagogy, let's try to marry the two and create a system to actually incentivize students to get passionate about what they're doing.

Cole Simon 04:43
Yeah, and all of that's fantastic. And kind of abnormal, and I'm sure you had a lot of fun pitching that to administration like, Hey, I wanna teach you game a class on game design, but in reality, I'm getting students to get more excited and thoughtful about the pedagogy which they engage in, so how do you pitch this to students, how do you get a student interested first in the class and then you convince them after they’re there like, No, you should really stay 'cause it's a great class.

Dr. Bushner 05:07
So the courses are designed in a way that the theme or the topic ends up being the big draw for students like... Oh wow, one of the things I heard most often in my fan fiction theory, crafting and online communities course was like, I couldn't believe that an academic course is taking seriously this thing that gets brushed off by a lot of people, fan fiction being the primary one, it doesn't always have the best reputation. People tend to write it off, but it's a brilliant way for people to hone their craft, you have a community of people who are willing to give feedback on your work, you can find a niche group who's gonna understand the content that you wanna produce and become a better writer through their responses, especially if you're working on a multi-chapter project, there's a lot of revision and improvement over the course of those chapters because of all of the people reacting to it, it’s a brilliant community for honing your writing skills. And so, of course, it's worthy of academic attention, but it gets them in the door because like no one else is treating this seriously, when... Of course, they should.

Dr. Bushner 06:27
I think it's important work being done online, and so the whole course is around the idea of like, Here are some weird Internet things, some communities of people who are making really cool stuff that's super rough around the edges, but way more innovative than you would see in any kind of a big budget production, and all of these people are learning how to do this stuff by reading the documentation and watching the tutorials, and talking with people in the community, learning to do these things kind of ad hoc within those communities. And that's something that I think one of - for all bad things that have come from the internet, one of the really great things is the ability for people to find their niche, passion and learn how to improve their craft, and so I wanted to celebrate that in this class, and give students an opportunity to learn that, Hey, learning doesn't stop when you leave class, like learning doesn't stop when you graduate from the university, it's a lifelong process, and it's something that you are empowered to do even when you're not within the confines of these halls.

Cole Simon 07:36

Yeah, and I'm curious now hearing you speak and say all that, you get these students into the door by telling them like, Hey, that fan fiction that you were really engaged in and passionate with through middle school and high school, I'm willing to take that just as seriously as you are come here... We'll talk about that. We Will engage with it in an academic setting. At what point in the semester does the light kind of switch on for them that, Oh, not only are my interests being indulged and am I able to pursue this thing that I really already enjoyed, but I'm learning something and I'm kind of growing as a scholar and as a life-long learner, when does that switch happen? And then what is the reception that you get from students you know that they've... In a way, been tricked, but in a way, been brought to this new conclusion.

Dr. Bushner 08:22
I think it's when they so... A lot of them came into the class with fan fiction writing experience, and so they were comfortable jumping right into that, but many of them, some of them obviously hadn't written fan-fiction before, and it was a little bit nerve-racking for them to have their peers read their work, but we try to create a community where all of the feedback that we give is constructive and everyone's looking for what's being done well, so they can do more of that, and where things maybe need a little bit of work and the students can leverage their specific expertise in order to give that advice, and so we have the more experienced fan fiction writers being able to give really solid feed back to the newbies, which is... It's great, it's around the time when they start their first project that is totally outside their wheelhouse, something they've never done before, maybe they've consumed that media but never produced it, and I give them the basic tools, we'll do a workshop on using a specific tool, so for the video essay unit, we did a premier workshop where I'm just like, Here's the very basics of how you cut together a scene in Adobe Premiere, and so these are the basic building blocks of what you would need.

Dr. Bushner 09:38

Anything else? Here's how we search or the search terms we would use are the ways you would find this out on your own, go out, and if you're a thinking, the program should be able to do something, go and try to learn it. If you then reach a road block, you get stuck... That's where I come in and I can say, Okay, either I know how to do this and here's the process. Or, yeah, I don't know how to do that either. Let's search together until we can find the resources you need to learn this, and so I do take a big step back and give them a lot of leeway to learn things on their own, the class times are times for us to meet up and discuss what we've been learning and what we've been reading for the class, but there's a lot of self-directed teaching in this model in a way that I think students appreciate the freedom to do that and feeling enabled to do that because they're massively talented students, they're fully capable of doing everything that I ask them to do, and sometimes it's just getting them to the point of feeling confident enough to do that stuff, that becomes the struggle.

Cole Simon 10:48
Speaking on confidence, how do you, I guess, support and nurture this confidence because I know as a student, I am 21 now, so I've been a student for what, 15 years or something, you get stuck in these habits and these ruts in the road where you know how to do something well, and you know how to get good grades a certain way, but it sounds like you're trying to get them into new fields, you're trying to get them to walk down a new path, try something new, like, Hey, you've really enjoyed that genre of music, how about you try making something like that, and I'm sure I'm not alone in saying, you've had all these... You sit alone at night and think God, maybe I could make music or maybe I could do this new form of digital art, but it's always so scary to try, let alone when you're paying thousands of dollars to be there in the class and then you... Depending on how well you do, it might negatively impact your GPA and future scholarships and things, so getting back to the original question, how do you nurture this confidence and get students willing to try doing something totally outside of their wheelhouse...

Dr. Bushner 11:48
Right, and so that's I think where the design of the class really shines, so basically all of the students at the beginning of the semester, they get an assignment menu and each project or assignment is worth a certain number of points and it's pass fail, either you did it. Or you didn’t. And if ever there's something they turned in that gets to fail, it's not an all or nothing, high stakes like, Oh shoot, now I have to go to do something else and make up those points, I give them back notes for revision, they maybe come in and have an office hours meeting with me to talk through those notes if they feel like they need it, and then they go off and they revise and they bring back and say like, Okay, does this work? And I might say almost, or it might be good enough, and we just kinda go back and forth a little bit, and eventually they turn something in that passes muster, and so it's not this high stakes, I need to min max as much as possible to make sure that I'm not losing points. A lot of class structure is based on, there's X amount of points in the class, every assignment, you get marked down when you get something wrong, and so it means you need to basically be perfect if you want to be achieving a high grade in the course, and that I think there's a lot of loss aversion that comes to that, it's a really, really common mental trap to get caught, that loss aversion mindset and it...

Dr. Bushner 13:25

That doesn't breed creativity, that doesn't enable students to take a risk, and so the design of this class is so that students can take risks, but without there being like a massive punishment for failure, so again, taking a page from game design, the first level of Mario, the first few pits, you can fall through, there's a floor at the bottom, so if you don't make the jump, you can jump out of that pit and then keep going, it's not until later in the level that they take out the floor of those pits and you have to then practice the skills that you use in a safe environment, in a more dangerous environment, and so if we are to take that idea into the classroom, students should be given opportunities to try something and fail at it and learn from that failure, and so a more permissive system that allows for revision, that nothing is ever super high stakes, it means that they can try something a little bit new different, uncomfortable for them, and likewise, they are also able to choose the format that these projects, what format they’re contained in. So all of my classes right now I'm running in the system.

Dr. Bushner 14:45
And so a lot of the projects are all getting at the same idea, did you do the reading, did you understand it, can you apply it to a novel situation that wasn't covered in the reading? All of the assignments are aimed at assessing that competency, but they can do that as an in-class presentation, as a recorded PowerPoint lecture as a video essay, as an infographic, as a white paper, they have all of these different ways that they can show their mastery, practice skills that maybe they don't get a chance to practice in other classes, or maybe it's something... We have an FTVM major who's like, Oh yeah, I need some practice making videos anyway, I might as well have that be the format for my deliverables. Well, hell yeah, I want you to practice the things that are useful to you... My assessment is gonna be the same either way, are you understanding this material and presenting it in a way that's accurate, and so students really love that choice of feeling like they can progress through this kind of open design and blaze their own trail, approach these concepts in a way that's comfortable. Interesting, engaging for them. And I think anecdotally that I get better assignments from them because of that freedom.

Cole Simon 16:06
We've been touching on a few different things through our chat that I wanted to maybe bring together and ask you... So earlier when we were talking, we talked about how these game manuals work and how you have in a game, in the manual, there is a set of rules and instructions and guidelines that shape the game, 'cause otherwise, if you didn't have that, you'd just... As you put it, You have a cardboard box with a bunch of pieces of plastic and no real meaning to it, but once you give it, the setting to interact in suddenly you have a game and you can operate within those rules to create a fulfilling experience, and then later... you were talking about the min-maxing students to where in academia, we have these grades that we need to hit to keep our scholarships, to keep our academic standing, whatever it might be, and we're always juggling 20 different things between classes, extracurriculars and a life. So you do want to get into this habit of... Well, maybe you don't wanna get into it, but you do get into this habit of, I'm gonna do the least amount of work I have to to get the best grade I can, so I can focus attention elsewhere, so bringing that together with your talks on pedagogy, do you think your newer approach, trying to give students the freedom where you say, I want you to try something, I want you to explore it, you still need to learn something, but I want you to express it in a way that's beneficial to you and there's no getting it wrong. There’s only putting in the effort and improving, do you think This is something students are gonna take with them past your class into their life as a life-long learner, even outside of the classroom?

Dr. Bushner 17:44
Many of the structures that we live under are very high stakes, and so in work, that kind of permissive structure isn't always there, however, I'm hoping that the university classroom space acts as the tutorial level in a game where you have the freedom to fail a little bit, and then you can enter into those more high stakes environments, having already practiced, learning something that you didn't know before, self-teaching, working within a genre that is perhaps unfamiliar, these are all things that students are gonna have to do when they enter into the workforce, and by showing them that they are capable of doing so by giving them the freedom to fail and try something without it being super high stakes, that that hopefully that practice then transfers over into these other contexts that are a little bit more high stakes, but at the very least, what I'm hoping that they leave with is that in their personal life, because of course their lives aren't just what they do for a living, I'm hoping that as they're trying to learn new hobby or get into a new experience, that they take this classroom experience and say, Yeah, I'm capable of doing that. I have the tools at my disposal to learn the things that I don't know and to identify what those things are, and that's my hope for when they exit the class is that they've had a space to practice those skills and gain some confidence with them.

Cole Simon 19:22
Speaking of when the student exits the class, have you ever had one come back to you and say, Hey Tony, by the way, you remember that project I did where I made a video essay about the reading you had us do... Well, I actually really fell in love with that and I started a YouTube channel, I make video essays, and I've gotten 10000 subscribers in the last six months. Have you ever had anyone to say they've continued that work and continue that expression?

Dr. Bushner 19:44
Have only been teaching here for a couple of years, so not yet. I am excited for that to happen, I will say that a couple of my students from the board game class, the board game design class last semester, have expressed interest in continuing their work with it and for further refining the game and eventually maybe kick-starting it or releasing it on Itch.IO As a print and play, I know that some of my students this semester, have said they've already uploaded the fan fictions they've written to AO3 or Wattpad or one of the other fan-fiction websites out there. I'm hoping that after this semester, we have some students who are like, You know what, I loved making that video essay, I think... I think I'm gonna keep at it, or you know what, I never tried making chiptune music before, I actually really dig it. I think I'm gonna keep working on this. That's my hope, is that they do continue with some of these hobbies after they leave the classroom, but I'm more than happy if they just... Take those lessons and implement them in their own lives.

Cole Simon 20:53
Yeah, and speaking about your life now for a moment, what else are you working on, you said you've been here for a couple of years, but it seems like you can't come to academia with this wildly new perspective and way to approach things without also being wildly engaged in the world around you in other aspects, so what else are you up to, What do you... Is there anything that you wanna tell people about?

Dr. Bushner 21:16
April 13th, we're gonna be... The Digital Studies Institute is gonna be sending out some emails about this, we have a showcase of student work from Digital studies courses, and students can apply to present their work in poster format or if they've made a game to demo their game or view a video essay or what have you... And then Friday night, we're gonna be doing a free show at the replay Cafe in Detroit, doors open at 9, I'll be doing glitch art visuals for two of the performances. And we're really excited about it. The chiptune scene has.. It’s a small scene relies on local venues that have been closed for the last two years, so this is my first foray into the Michigan electronic scene. I'm very excited for it.

Cole Simon 22:09
Yeah, and just to recover that... So Friday, April 1st at 9, where will you be?

Dr. Bushner 22:15
The replay Cafe in Detroit.

Transcript Episode 4: Going Beyond Binaries with Dr. Sascha Crasnow

Sascha Crasnow is a lecturer of Islamic Arts in the Residential College and affiliate faculty at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Arab and Muslim American Studies program and the Global Islamic Studies Center. She received her BS Honors in Psychology from the University of Washington, her MA in Art History from CUNY-Hunter College, and her PhD in Art History from the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on contemporary art from the SWANA region, with a particular focus on issues related to contemporary socio-politics, critical race studies, and gender & sexuality.

Dr. Crasnow 0:08

If you let go of the idea that identity categories are fixed, then you let go of the idea of, first of all, other people being able to tell you who you are, and you let go of the idea of having to be static.

Abdul Kizito 0:16 

I am Abdul Kizito, an intern at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities, and that was Dr. Sasha Crasnow, a researcher and lecturer of Islamic Arts at the University of Michigan. Dr. Crasnow’s research examines art and art history in the Southwest Asian and North African region. For this week's episode, Cole Simon was able to interview Dr. Crasnow about her article, “Beyond Binaries” and how trans studies’ methodologies can be used elsewhere. We now ask, why should you care?

Cole Simon 0:51 

So, Dr. Crasnow, if you wouldn't mind, would you please tell us a little bit about your work, “Beyond Binaries”?

Dr. Crasnow 0:54 

Sure, so “Beyond Binaries” is an article that was published in Art Journal at the end of December of last year, and I was invited to write this piece by a colleague and friend of mine, Ace Lehner, who was editing a special issue of the journal looking at trans visual culture, and so they had invited me to really think about the question of what trans studies as a methodology could provide to art history and visual culture. And, since I'm someone who works on contemporary global art kind of generally, and specifically contemporary SWANA art from Southwest Asia, North Africa, I really took the opportunity to think about what trans studies and especially these ideas of thinking beyond binary identification or even just beyond ideas of binary — which is kind of like identity categories and those being things that are fixed and then have boundaries — and what would it mean to start thinking about understanding artist practices, their intersectional identities as well as their changing identities, both from a scholarly as well as a curatorial perspective through this field that really, in large part, is thinking about exploding categories and looking at categories as porous or avoiding categories to the best of your abilities.

Cole 2:45

Your work focuses on the SWANA region of Southwest Asia, North Africa, as well as your work directly looking into art history. Could you explain why that region is significant to your research, why art history is kind of where you're focusing your work right now?

Dr. Crasnow 3:00

Yeah, so I did my undergraduate work actually in psychology, and I graduated from my undergrad knowing that I don't wanna do psychology. And I had always loved art, and after working in fashion for a couple of years, I decided I wanted to go back to school for art, because it was something that I had always really enjoyed and just didn't think I would make a career out of it, and here we are. So when I went to do my masters — I was looking at German artists actually, I still wasn't looking at the region, the SWANA region — when I was looking at how their work, three German artists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, were creating artwork that was asserting a new German national identity that acknowledged its history of the Holocaust and World War II, which was very counter to the national tone at the time, which was just kind of, “Let's move on from that, not dwell on the past.” Each of the artists was half a generation apart, so I was really interested in generational shifts, and artists responding to their contemporary moments, their socio-political contexts, and while I was finishing up writing that, I traveled to, just coincidentally, the Middle East for the first time. And I was in historic Palestine, I was in Israel, and I saw— as a part of the world that I was vaguely familiar with but wasn't really thinking that much about — and I saw the wall for the first time there, and I sort of came back and felt I really needed to know everything about what was going on, that this was something really stark and different than things that I had seen and that I felt kind of an obligation to educate myself. And I was finishing my masters at the same time, and I sort of ended up merging these ideas as I got really interested in the politics of the region. I realized, “Gosh, I'm really interested in artists responding to their socio-political contexts. What if I merged these two ideas?” And so when I applied to go do my doctorate, I said I wanted to work on Palestinian artists, and that's what my dissertation work was on and what my primary focus is on, and then that sort of expanded out to other artists throughout the SWANA region as I've continued to do research and write… and teach.

Cole 5:33

Yeah! Yeah… So it sounds like your trip to the Middle East and Palestine and Israel was very formative for your later research and your more, I guess, well, current research; and the first piece that I became familiar with of yours was “Beyond Binaries” and so I guess I'm wondering... It sounds like that your interest in the Middle East came before “Beyond Binaries” and your research or interest in these trans studies. So how did you end up— what path led you from psychology to art history, to then interest in the Middle East, then to trans studies, and then merging those last two in this new kind of era of your research, if you wanna say it like that.

Dr. Crasnow 6:17

Yeah, absolutely. So, my current book project, which is coming out of my dissertation which looked at Palestinian artists, has a section that looks at how contemporary Palestinian artists are addressing some of the contemporary social issues within their own communities in their work. And as a part of that, I have a section that looks at artists who are thinking about gender and sexuality, and one of those two artists is an artist named Raafat Hattab whose mentioned in the “Beyond Binaries'' article and who I've written about in another article, the name of which I'm gonna blank on in this moment. And he is an artist who identifies as non-binary, and he has this work where he embodies the role of the mermaid and is really talking both about his in-betweenness between gender binaries, his in-betweenness as a Palestinian who lives within the State of Israel, his in-betweenness as being raised in a more traditional Muslim family, and how that conflicts sometimes with his gender identity and his sexual identity (he lives with a man) and then also how he might feel more at home in some parts of queer community, and he lives in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area, but then as a Palestinian, he's excluded from that as well. And so I was really interested in what I call in that article, intersectional liminality— so, the various ways in which people like Hattab are in between in multiple ways of and through varying aspects of their identities. And so I was interested in that, I got into reading more about trans studies in part because of that, and in part through— I presented that work on a panel with Ace, who edited this journal, and then also my sibling is a scholar of religious studies who works on queer and trans Jews, and so we end up talking a lot about each other's scholarship, and so I've been reading— I read their work and they've kind of turned me on to some scholars as well that I've ended up reading. And when I first, when Ace first approached me about doing this, I kind of reached out to them and said, “Okay, what are some things I need to read if I'm gonna get a grounding in trans studies?” And they were very helpful (short laugh) in providing me some things and in that article I mentioned, I think I thank them for reading an earlier draft, but also for a sensitivity read, 'cause as a cis woman, I wanna make sure that I have—  It's not like I can get one stamp of approval from one trans indidivual, but at least to have a sensitivity read to make sure that the language I'm using is not kind of—  is the right language, at least as understood by the community, by and large.

Cole 9:24

You were saying that in your work “Beyond Binaries”, as well as your experience, there are more binaries that we live in, even if we're not aware of, and that society kind of throws us in... Could you speak a little bit more on that?

Dr. Crasnow 9:38

Yeah, so this is what I was interested in exploring in the “Beyond Binaries” article, right? So we think about— and it's sort of expanding on this idea of intersectional liminality, right? So for example, race and gender function differently, but they are both identity categories that can be useful for someone to self-proclaim themselves a part of, and also are frequently— or are by and large, ones that are imposed from outside. And so thinking even of exhibitions of art from the SWANA region, for example, in 2014, there was an exhibition “Here and Elsewhere” at the New Museum in New York of contemporary art from the SWANA region.  And as part of the catalog, they published email responses from some artists who they had solicited to be in the show who had refused in part because they had said, “You know look, I was born in London. I've lived my whole life here. Why are you putting me in a show that's labeling me as an Arab artist, I want to just be a contemporary artist or a conceptual artist”, or whatever, they didn't wanna be labeled as such. And there are other artists who have said that about their queer identity, like, “My work doesn't have anything to do with this aspect of my identity, why are you putting me in this box?” And so what I think is useful about a trans methodology and what thinking about how gender more expensively can be used for other identity categories is, first of all, that the primacy of self-identification, of listening to and adhering to and putting primacy on how individuals are identifying themselves, and then also the fact that these things are not fixed, right? So, an artist may make a work of art that is about one aspect of their identity, but that doesn't mean all of their works are about that aspect of their identity. And I think if we think about all of us in our general lives, you go to work and you go to hang out with your family or your friends; you’re all different versions of yourself, none of them are kind of inauthentic, they're just kind of different versions of you, and that's sort of a mild way to think about the fact that you might wake up one day and feel, “Gosh, I'm feeling more this aspect of my identity, maybe I'm feeling more scholarly today, and maybe I'm feeling more dog owner today and I'm gonna dress differently.” And these are not necessarily identity categories, these are—  maybe, I mean they are in some ways, but they're not as... they don't have the same potential for and histories of harm, right, as things like gender and race. But I think that there's a relatability there of understanding that these things, that the way that we all identify are not fixed, that if we really think about the way that we express ourselves and the way that we see ourselves, that these aren’t things that are fixed. And so it's important when, especially being in a situation as scholars or as curators, where you are creating situations where you are categorizing people for the sake of argument or display of ideas, to think about, “Am I projecting an identity category onto something that isn't there? Just because I've done this for one work or artist, is it going to be the same for everyone?” And so having that kind of openness is an expansiveness and primacy of self-identification.

Cole 13:24

Yeah, you started touching on when you talk to your friends and then your family, or even like your classmates, you start to present in different ways, and how you wake up one day and maybe you're feeling more masculine that day than you did the day before, and so that comes into how you present yourself that day. Do you think your work and “Beyond Binaries” follows what has been thrown around in the last few years, like code-switching where people from backgrounds will have different vernaculars or speak in different ways depending on the environment they're in?

Dr. Crasnow 13:55

Yeah, so I think it's potentially related to, but distinct from code-switching. 'Cause code-switching can sometimes be out of a necessity as well, so someone might code-switch because, for example, someone might write an essay or speak in class in academic English as opposed to say, African American Vernacular English, because of the stigmas associated with that dialect. And there's an argument to be made for making space for that in academic writing, which would take us off on a whole other tangent, but there also might be— if you're in a particular neighborhood or something like that, if you're an individual of a marginalized group then you may code-switch as a protective measure as well. And I think there are elements of that through identity expression as well, of course, but I think the way I think of “Beyond Binaries” is that it's opening up possibility, and that if we think of it as a framework, if we understand that this is true not just for people who don't identify as cisgender, but that the opening up of binaries is productive to cis individuals, to white individuals, to people regardless of your marginalized categories. Now this doesn't mean that, and I think I said this in the article, this doesn't mean go full Rachel Dolezal, and you can just wake up one day, and as a white person, say, “I feel not white.” Gender is... I think all people have some masculinity and feminine in them, the same is not the case with race, right? It just doesn't function the same way, and so while I think there's a lot of productivity in thinking about these categories in similar un-fixed ways, there are limits to that. And so understanding the differences between race and gender, for example, and it's not the only one, I know ethnic identity, I can't claim ethnic identity that I don't actually have, understanding the differences in those things is always important. But the idea is that I can wake up and I can say, “I am not limited by how other people define me, I can define myself”, and we always have to be aware of power dynamics and all of that, but I can wake up and I am not— just because I identify as a cis woman, that doesn't mean I have to dress in a certain way.

Cole 16:50

I’m now— I wanted to ask, I was thinking of  a good way to phrase this, but I wanted to ask, what do you think if you had to elevator pitch to someone the importance of this research you're doing, if you weren't able to go into the history and the intricacies of life for people that do face these binaries, but you had to just maybe explain to someone, like, why this research is important and to call back to the title of the show, why should we care about these different binaries, whether that be your gender expression this— you're a Palestinian living in Israel and dealing with that kind of dual identity, whatever it might be, why do you think your research is important and why do you think it's applicable to people ranging from non-binary Palestinians living in Israel to, as you identify, cis, white people living in America who live in, in some places, a more secular environment.

Dr. Crasnow 17:41

Yeah, I mean, so, putting aside the fact that it'd be really nice if people just cared about other people in real life, whether they had any identifications or not. But, I think why this matters is ultimately what this is about is— one of the main things about my research in “Beyond Binaries” is... If you let go of the idea that identity categories are fixed, then you let go of the idea of, first of all, other people being able to tell you who you are, and you let go of the idea of having to be static, right? It opens up possibility, it opens up the possibility for exploration, for anything, you know? It opens up possibilities, I think that in and of itself, just kind of the potential for exploring who you could be, and that that can change on a daily basis, that that's not something that finishes. I think it can take some, especially for college students, it can take some pressure off of being like, I have to figure out which box I fall into by the end of my four years. As someone who has changed their career multiple times, you don't! But I think even something like that, thinking that this is not something that ever finishes per se, unless you decide “This is it, I wake up every morning and this is still who I am!”, and that's also okay, but that you're kind of the agent of that as well.

Cole 19:17

Is there anything that you wanted to say on this topic that maybe we haven't touched on? Are there any major holes and, kind of what we've been talking about that you think need to be filled in if someone's really gonna get a good understanding of what you've been researching, what we're talking about?

Dr. Crasnow 19:34

Yeah, I think what's interesting about the “Beyond Binaries” text is that unlike a lot of the other stuff that I've written that's really an analysis of works of art, this was an opportunity for me to take a methodology, so like a way of approaching thinking about something, from one field (trans studies) and say, “What happens if I try and use it over here in art history and visual culture?” And I think there are some productive things, which we've talked about, about doing that. But it's something that's still being worked through, and I think that's very exciting. And I think at the end of the article, I say, “Look, I'm open to other people's ideas: how this might be useful, the limitations of this…” — which we've discussed as well — and so I think that's what's useful about—  or maybe what's really exciting about scholarship more recently.

Cole 20:33

Thank you so much! Is there anything you'd like to kind of flag for listeners to maybe check out on their own time, is there anything you're working on right now that you're excited about and you wanna share with the world? Or even if it's something you're not involved in, just something you think like, “Hey, if I could ask you to take away one thing or look into one thing after listening to this episode, like, this is what I think you should direct your attention towards next.”

Dr. Crasnow 20:53

Gosh, so much pressure! (short laugh) I think if you're interested in how regionally people are having these conversations, I would say check out “Al Qaws”. If you're interested in some artists who are exploring these intersectional identities, my article in the Journal of Visual Culture I can recommend. I'm currently working on co-editing a volume on queer SWANA art with Anne Marie Butler at Kalamazoo, and one day my book will come out, which is on contemporary Palestinian art and also includes some on Raafat Hattab.

Cole 21:36

We’ll all be looking forward to that release date.


Transcript Episode 3: Activism and Identity Through Music with Dr. Charles Lwanga

Dr. Lwanga is an ethnomusicologist, composer/theorist, and percussionist. His research in ethnomusicology examines the role of popular music in transforming Uganda’s public sphere into a participatory arena. As a composer, Lwanga’s creative output is grounded through the lenses of interculturalism, creative musicology and African pianism. Lwanga has read a variety of research papers at annual conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and at the African Studies Association.

Dr. Lwanga 00:05
Actually, musicians played a very important role in critiquing the king in the policies. So whenever a king was wrong, they brought a musician who played, for instance, a one stringed fiddle or an eight stringed lyre and sang metaphorically to communicate to the king that they needed to visit and... XYZ, which negatively impacted the people.

Cole Simon 00:14
I'm Cole Simon, an intern at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, and that was Dr. Charles Lwanga, the composer, ethnomusicologist and professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan. His research examines how popular music in Uganda is used to foster public participation in politics. This week, Abdul Kizito was able to interview Dr. Lwanga and learn how music is an integral part of discourse in Uganda. Now we ask, Why should you care?

Abdul Kizito 01:04
Tell us or those who are not very familiar with ethnomusicology, what it is about. So this is basically the study of music, in simple terms, from a culture perspective, the examination of what music tells us about the real lives of people, how people conduct their lives through a musical lens. So you may listen to, for instance, a song that is contextualized within a working environment and that song is played during work for instance, so that's ethnomusicology. So tell us firstly about Ikumabo.


Dr. Lwanga 02:17
Ikumabo is a song by Jackie Chandiru she is one of the music stars in Kampala, and I am lucky to have interviewed her at her hotel in 2015, Ikumabo is a song that features in one of the chapters of my ethnomusicology dissertation as that, which constructs a sense of collectivity for the LGBT, for the emerging LGBT community in Uganda. Why so? Because in the analysis that I actually do in the chapter, and also even analysis that I've presented at some conferences at the Society for Ethnomusicology, the African Studies Association, and also papers I have read in Pittsburg, I have noted that the song abstracts gender, and even sexuality, so Ikumabo means somebody's going, but she is not using an objective.

Abdul Kizito 03:35
So that's what it means? That someone is going?

Dr. Lwanga 03:36
So it's basically two people in a relationship, but it's breaking away. So the other partner in the relationship is called going. In the meantime, she doesn't use any quotes in the music video to give us an idea, to give a view that she is gendered. We don't see in the music video anywhere that she's actually crying for a male partner...or a female partner. So gender and even sexuality in the video is abstract and the LGBT people thought that that song was very inclusive in contrast to many other songs of love, about love, that predominantly and commonly used objectives. In the music videos you clearly see the women dancing in most of those music videos, so you know the relationship is between a man and woman and thereby reinforcing heteronormativity as the norm in Ugandan society, but in the Ikumabo video, those things are abstracted, thereby rendering the song very inclusive. And what are the LGBT people looking for? Acceptance and the sense of inclusivity in society.

Abdul Kizito 04:58
And it was a song where they could see themselves in it... you wrote about how they could write narratives of themselves within the songs.

Dr. Lwanga 05:18
Yes, exactly. So even though there are two male partners, they could fit within that narrative, even though they are same-sex living individuals, they envisioned themselves fitting very comfortably withnin that narrative just by abstracting the gender, avoiding nouns and then by avoiding any visual clues in the music video.

Abdul Kizito 05:46
So how would you describe the importance of your research to undergraduates, to musicians, to sociologists? To people who are trying to understand Uganda from that perspective.

Dr. Lwanga 06:04
Well, in the first place, Uganda offers important insight into talking about the notion of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. So any knowledge that emanates from Uganda is going to contribute towards that mission because Uganda is constituted by about 42, about 60... ethnicities, and each of each with their own culture values, and so if I pursue scholarship in Uganda it is going to contribute to an understanding of particular cultures in that country, but at the same time it will also expand the curriculum wherever I am teaching. Now I'm teaching at the University of Michigan, and by good luck, by nature of my speciality as an Africanist, I offer classes that are counted as DEI that offer diversity, equity, and inclusion, because they are dealing with phenomena from Africa, in particular Uganda. Which is also so diverse because of the multiple ethnicities, but they're the contribution also of my scholarship, especially current scholarship in ethnomusicology, which I'm engaged with, and right now thinking about writing my book proposal for a book in the next two, three probably, years. Is how music has participated in transforming Uganda's public sphere into a participatory arena. So in the past, Uganda has had successive military regimes, so at my age, we've never seen any peaceful transition of power from one president to another, but regimes have come and gone as a result of military coups, and so is the case with the current regime, which came into power in 1986 and formally you could not critique presidents, because majority of these presidents apart from ____ were explicitly dictators, and so if you criticize them, you would risk being assassinated. So musicians by then, this doesn't mean that musicians at that point in time, never criticized actually, musicians played a very important role, even in critiquing the king in the policies. So whenever a king was wrong, they brought a musician who played, for instance, one stringed fiddle or an eight stringed lyre and sang metaphorically to communicate to the king that they needed to visit and... XYZ, which negatively impacted the people. But this was an arid confrontation, in whatever way it was done metaphorically. So the message was usually hidden. This is in the royal court before the king... Now, when it comes to, the political leaders like Obote, who planned a military coup against the Kabaka, Mutesa the second, who was the king of Uganda and then the first president following independence in 1962. Obote was so ruthless and he was kind of a dictator, he was... He had served in the Kabaka’s government as a pre-minister, but he still went ahead in 1966, organized the coup against the king, and then he mounted himself as the president, only to be deposed shortly by Idi Amin. So he went into exile, but then came back the second time he came back through a military coup. So in the history of Uganda you would hear about Obote one and then Obote two because he served twice, and in the middle was Idi Amin and then after that... So all of these guys, Obote one, Idi Amin, Obote 2 they were dictators, you couldn't even criticize them and so the musicians were so metaphorical during those days in terms of approach...

Abdul Kizito 11:00
Yeah, example, do you have an example of a song?

Dr. Lwanga 11:02
Of course,


Dr. Lwanga 11:32
ARTIST 2 was one of these ones that wrote some of those musics that were very critical to dictatorship in Uganda. There was also ARTIST 3.

Abdul Kizito 12:20
And how would people react to the songs?

Dr. Lwanga 12:22
Those songs were not quite readily accessible because they were using — a term by scholar David Pier he's an enthomusicalogolosit, I think teaching at the University of North Carolina, coined basically to refer to a really advanced — and its intricacies and attending features of implying very difficult vocabularies, so that if you did know those vocabularies and then you wouldn't have any access... you wouldn't have any idea to what people are singing about, the likes of Paul was a master of —.


So they concealed the critique. He could sing about a relationship between a young woman and man, but yet the song in what you say means is talking about the President and their relationship with their wife or their relationship with the people they are leading. But interestingly, that has changed over time, and that's why, especially starting with early 90s when media was liberalized and privatized, so you had the rise of private radio stations, television stations, you also have now studios coming in, and those ones... Those ones became important avenues for people to participate in the democracy, to speak out what is on their mind, and to also be able to contribute to an understanding of who they are and what they want to be to their leaders.

So since then, we have seen a rise in those privatized media outlets and also internet along the way, and then the private studios that are housed in private houses gave an opportunity for young men and women to create music that is speaking to the powers that be, and so that's where my interest emanated from, I said, Aha. Now, music is providing this interesting platform that is transforming the Ugandan public here into a participatory arena, you may think that for instance, Bobi Wine he's singing freedom, freedom, freedom, but he's participating in critiquing the lack of freedom, the lack of the freedom of assemblage, association.

Abdul Kizito 15:23
And to the listeners who are not familiar with Bobi Wine.

Dr. Lwanga 15:30

His real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine. He started his musical career in 2011... No, no, sorry, 2001. I was so privileged to have taught him at Makerere University when he pursued his associates in music and drama. He majored in drama, but he was still interested in music, and he was taking music classes as a Music minor, and I taught his music minor for two years. So Bobi Wine has always written songs that are very conscious and creating senses of consciousness and awareness among the common people, because he emerged from the ghetto. Kampala ghettos, these are impoverished neighborhoods, around the city as well as many other city areas. So he grew up from Kamwokya, dad was wealthier in terms of property, owned some land and then Bobi Wine loved music. Started his career in 2001, started singing about issues that affect the common people, poverty, disease, lack of employment among the youth and many other social issues that are greatly impacting Ugandan society today. So it was in 2017, then he rose to prominence as a politician because that's when a vacancy showed up, a vacancy for member Parliament for the North, and he decided to contest as a result of his discontent about the members of parliament not actually playing their role.

Abdul Kizito 17:38

And as a part of his appeal to being able to rise into politics, part of that was in that part of the fact that his music broadly reached out to a very... a very salient group of people who are not part of politics in Uganda.

Dr Lwanga 17:39
That's right. That's right. Yes. And he had started from the very first song. Akagoma It sounded, but he's saying using, he's using Akagoma small drum as an analogy, as an analogy to say that, even though it's sound, even though it's small, but it sound is loud enough that it can be hard. So he's now foregrounding music as a, of active participation in talking in deliberations. And then later on in 2011, for instance, he comes up with Tugambire Ku Jennifer,


Which followed the unlawful expulsion of about 7,000 vendors from the streets of Kampala without providing any alternative space. Now 7,000 people, vendors were, you know, geting their livelihood from Kampala street and his songs were reaching out to these people. So it was, oh, yes. So he basically wrote to Tugambire Ku Jennifer, at that point in time meaning we tell Jennifer for us to reduce her anger on us, because we also want to survive. We are here in the Kampala city to survive, to make a living because we have families to take care of. So the music is like the voice of the people. Absolutely. Yeah. So the music spoke to these guys, they even but, but interestingly, in that phrase, it's directed the specifically to that phrase is directed to the president. Why? So, because Jennifer who is, you know, acting in the capacity of director of the Kampala capital city authority is working under, is working for the government, but the government is led by the president Of the nation. So he's saying to Jennifer. Bobi Wine claiming that that's what the vendors asked him to tell Jennifer that she should reduce on her anger against the, the vendors and actually lets them continue working because many of those had had actually thrived for a very long time on vending in Kampala, but it was so interesting that they hadn't provided alternative spaces. They just told them go, but going where. That song actually played an important role in the protests that, you know, ensued thereafter and the action Jennifer later on took because later on, they tried to provide spaces where they had built a market, a new market, but unfortunately those spaces were not affordable for these vendors. They were charging very high rent and they were trying to ask them to, you know, to take up those spaces. But at the same time though, you know, the merchants who have shops in Kampala were happy about Jennifer's move because those merchants claim that vendors were selling the same product in the shops at a cheaper price. So the vendors were impeding them from, you knowfrom getting profits in their businesses, you know, merchants who own shops. So they sided with Jennifer Musisi but shortly before that, you know, these vendors collected, you knowrecollected into a collectivity and Tugambire Ku Jennifer became like their Anthem of the vendors Tugambire Ku Jennifer. They identified with that song. But after that song, Bobi Wine didn't stop. Now, he started writing these political songs that are criticizing government in the 2016 elections you had for instance,


Dr Lwanga 22:18
You had freedom


Many other political songs there, there was even another political song by Mowan. Adam Mowan for.


Dr Lwanga 23:00
Dr. —- was standing against, Museveni for the for the fifth time standing to become president. So, you know, by the time Bobi Wine stood for the position of member of parliament, people knew him, people already connected his, you know, his, his beat to become a member of parliament to the music and the work the political advocacy had already done through his music.

Abdul Kizito 23:12
What's the most interesting thing you find in your research?

Speaker 1 06:24
For me, one of the most interesting things in my research is the intricately intertwining nature of music and politics. Because now as we spoke, as, as we speak pardon me, you cannot separate music from politics. So oftentimes people, people used to think that, well, music is just, you know, something symbolic material for consuming in your free time as a form of entertainment, but music actually solves many other purposes beyond entertainment. In precolonial Uganda, for instance the mothers were the teachers to their children and they sat at the fireplace where the mom was cooking to teach, for instance, mathematics, counting, using music.


So these were songs that were me basically put into place to engage because music is also a magnet. It is interesting to many people find it interesting and so it's also engaging. But at the same time, these women were using music to to achieve a different goal for instance, to pass on important skills in society. When we went to village to work in the guidance, for instance, we dug, while singing, because the rhythm of the music we are singing is going to help you, you know, provide a sense of motivation during the work. So that way, and in many other instances, music is inseparable from the way of the African.

MUSIC 08:22
Now ladies is, and gentlemen, your heart in this song and not the view of the artist, the studio, or the producer, this abuse of the common people, the poor people, the suffering people, the guest to people, the angry people. So please act the body love song of the same kind from another artist of the same mind.

Abdul Kizito 08:54
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today.

Dr. Lwanga 08:57
You're welcome, Mr. Kizito. This was a very fantastic opportunity for me to talk about music and politics and how the two are actually inextricably intertwined, especially in many emerging democracies like Uganda. Thank you so much. God bless you.

Transcript Episode 2: Recentering Islam in the Americas with Dr. Aliyah Khan

Aliyah Khan is associate professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies, and director of the U-M Global Islamic Studies Center at the University of Michigan. Her research fields are 19th-21st Caribbean literature and Muslim and Islamic literatures, with emphases on race, gender, and sexuality. Dr. Khan is the author of Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean (Rutgers University Press 2020 and University of the West Indies Press 2021), the first academic monograph on the history, literature, and music of enslaved African and indentured South Asian Indian Muslims in the Caribbean. Far from Mecca received honorable mention in the 2021 Modern Language Association Prize for a first book. Dr. Khan’s writing and interviews appear in venues including Caribbean Quarterly, GLQ, and Pree: Caribbean Writing, and in media including National Public Radio, the Washington Post, Sapelo Square, The Polis Project, the Black Agenda Report, and Chicago’s Radio Islam.

*Upbeat music Intro starts*
Dr. Khan 0:00
I am really invested in decentering the place of the United States in the narrative of Islam in the Americas. It is not about the U.S. Like studying Islam in the Americas

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is not just about the U.S. and contemporary United States: it is bigger

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and it’s older.

*Host introduction*
Cole Simon 0:19
I am Cole Simon, an Intern at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan and that was Dr. Aliyah Khan. Dr. Khan is an Associate Professor of English and African American and African Studies as well as the Director for the Global Islamic Studies Center at the University of Michigan. Her research explores the History, Literature, and Music of enslaved African and indentured South Asian Indian Muslims in the Caribbean, this week Abdul Kizito was able to interview Dr. Khan and talk about why her research matters today.

*Upbeat music fades out*
Now we ask: ‘Why Should you Care?’

Abdul 0:54
Ok, so I am sitting down with Dr. Aliyah Khan whom I had the privilege of taking a class with last semester. She is a Professor here at the University of Michigan. She teaches a diversity of courses and I was lucky to take the African Afro American African Diaspora Studies Course and I learned a lot about the Caribbean, Muslim identity, and Haiti— stuff that I didn’t know about, stuff that we don’t get to talk about in the real world— and today I am going to be talking to her about her experience as a researcher and about her research and why we should all be paying attention to it.

So Dr. Khan, how are you doing?

Dr. Khan 1:39
I am doing pretty well, given our current circumstances. It is really nice to talk to you again. I miss having you in my classes (short laugh).

Abdul 1:44
I appreciate that. I appreciate that.

So my first question is how did you end up a researcher slash a professor?

Dr. Khan 1:56
So I have been at the University of Michigan for about eight years, sometimes I lose track, umm, this is my first job out of grad school. I attended grad school at the University of California Santa Cruz. Umm, but as you know my first book Far From Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean, it is work that exists at the intersection of Muslim and Islamic Studies as well as Caribbean Studies—which is not two fields that people usually think about as in conversation with each other—like when you think Caribbean you usually think like tourism (short laugh) you definitely don’t think like Muslims. But my family, I was born in Guayana myself, and my family is mostly Muslim, not all, but like mostly Muslim, so that’s my own background. And in a sense a wrote a book that is about my own background and my own heritage because in some ways I just wanted to understand it myself. There is not very much written on the Muslim and Islamic Caribbean. Usually when anybody who knows anything about that subject they tend to think of mostly the descendants of Indian indentured laborers from the 19th Century in the Carrabiean who, some of whom, were Muslim majority was Hindu. So they usually think about that group when they think about Caribbean Muslims but—and that is my family’s story–what I want to think about too was the people, the Muslims who preceded them, enslaved African Muslims, right, and establish a genealogy and lineage of Islam and Muslims in the English speaking Caribbean. So the work is personal, it is also political, right, because it has–in thinking about the descendants of enslaved African Muslims and the descendants of Indian Muslim indentured laborers together, I am making like a really significant political move for the countries in which those demographic populations are relevant which are primarily Trinidad and Guayana. Because after independence from England, those countries have had a lot of political strife with people from those ethnic groups being in conflict with each other that sometimes turns very violent. So in part, I think of my work as reparative. You know, in a way getting those two populations to think about their shared labor histories as well as their religious histories in pursuit of the vision of united people for the present.

Abdul 4:26
Interesting. So you started out by majoring in English how, what were you hoping to do with that at the time?

Dr. Khan 4:39
Umm…I mean as an undergraduate.

Abdul 4:42
As an undergraduate

Dr. Khan 4:44
So I attended a commuter school. Like I was a fairly recent immigrant in New York City and I attended a commuter school, Hunter College, City University of New York. I majored in English and Political Science actually both of them. And I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do something related to being a writer because that was something I always really liked or like if I wanted to be a lawyer (Short chuckle). And eventually, I just decided to pursue a Ph.D. in English because I started teaching, actually, at Hunter College and I understood that I really enjoyed teaching and I wanted to try and figure out like how to make it a career and also pursue the things I was interested in studying. It felt like, like I did a political internship, and going down the path of a professor, felt like it was more wholesome for my soul than the things I experienced like when I was thinking about what it would mean for me to be a lawyer(Short chuckle).

Abdul 5:47
(Short chuckle) Why not be a lawyer and how is it that the stuff you were interested in doing. How is it that writing, or telling stories was a part of that process, and how did like being a professor help you amplify that work or slash researcher?

Dr. Khan 6:06
I’ve always been interested in telling the stories of people who I feel their stories have not been told or whose stories have been elighted or buried, particularly in the colonial era. And you know of course, my context, because I was born into it, is the Caribbean. I also take my inspiration from the Afro African Afro Caribean Feminist Audrey Lord. You know, she coined the term bio-mythography, which in her writing means the idea of telling the story of people, whose story has not been told or whose story has been made invisible, through telling your own personal individual story. She thought you could tell your communities story by telling your own personal story. My academic work tends to be, maybe a little different from some of the more traditional literary analyses in my field of English, it jumps around methodologically from discipline to discipline. I do for example, yes of course serious literary analysis, that is my primary field, but I also incorporate a fair amount of personal narrative because I feel like it is really important to say exactly the point of view…calls it the locus of enunciation that you are speaking from, and what your personal investment is in the work because I always think that there is no such thing as objective academic scholarship. When you say that it is objective you are usually defaulting to whatever the norms are of the dominant group. So yeah, I think that that describes why my field is, like the kind of work that I do, is what I want to do, and yes I do think it did end up being more fulfilling than being a lawyer.

Abdul 8:02
What is the most interesting thing/ important thing you found in the things you have been doing research?

Dr. Khan 8:14
I’ll say two things. One of them is about the content of the work and the other one is about the methodology of the work. So the first thing about the content of the work is that, I was awed and amazed at how many…like when I started thinking about enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, I knew that one thing that distinguished them was their literacy. And that is something that I focus on in the book because of course that is not something that we think about when we think about enslaved peoples in the Americas. There is this dominant narrative that is very old that is like ‘oh they were sorta plucked from the quote-on-quote dark continent of Africa with like no culture that could be viewed as civilized in any kind of way’ which is just completely untrue. There is also the perception too, that you know, that they were all polytheists or all animists and so on and that is not true. Like historians estimate as much as ten percent of enslaved Africans just because of where they were from, West Africa, these like huge west African Muslim counties had to have been Muslim. So that was one thing I found really interesting: that the sheer numbers of people who were enslaved who had to have been Muslim just because of where they were from and also how very literate they are because they were educated in like, from like the medieval era to the present there these Islamic schools that were famous in places like Mali and so on, right, they had highly educated people in both like secular as well as their Islamic traditions and that is not just something you think about when you think about enslaved peoples in the Americas. So that and then methodologically like what I told you before I was really able to incorporate my own personal narrative and like personal place in the history of the region whose story I am telling into the book. Like I really tried to do that, so that is a little different from your regular literary analysis.

Abdul 10:26
As a person who took one of your classes one of the things that I remember jumping out was the article from Edward C Curtius and you write about it in your book and as an American, I m not exactly an American but like I ve been exposed to American rhetoric about how they think about Islam and Islamaphobia, and I think it was interesting to see that he was talking about Islam not just as an Idiology but as a form of inspiration for people doing good things in the world and he talked about like the coup which, it was, the coup in Trinidad, which you can tell us probably more about it but like, it was so interesting to see a repositioning of Islam as a moral Ideology and a moral sense of Inspiration whereby for people who are in the United States and thinking about people who are Muslim part of it is that it combats, and you talk about it more explicity than he does, it sort of combats notions of how we think about Muslims and it reveals the irony and makes a clear argument about how this is like Islamaphobia, like it just prejudice towards people who are different. What do you have to say about that?

Dr. Khan 11:48
I mean that is a complex question that we could just keep talking about and you know Dr. Curtis’ work is really fundamental, rather foundational, in the field of thinking about Black Islam in the Americas and particularly in the United States but I think what I would say about that is I am really invested in decentering the place of the United States in the narrative of Islam in the Americas because it is much older than post 9/11. It begins with the story of enslaved Moriscos or quote-on-quote ‘Moors’ from North Africa who joined Spanish and Portuguese voyages of conquest in the new world. It starts from then and it starts from the transatlantic slave trade and enslaved people, so the origins of it are from the transatlantic slave trade and enslaved peoples in the Americas so that is something I definitely want to emphasize in my work. It is not about the U.S like studying Islam in the Americas is not just about the U.S and contemporary United States, it is bigger and it’s older

Abdul 13:09
As a humanities kinda person over here that is also jumping out to me is how, because in the Trinidad coup by the Jamee-at Muslameetn is that they played a playlist(short chuckle) of Trinidad songs.

Dr. Khan 13:29

Abdul 13:31
It was interesting to me why music was important for their ways of making sense of the coup and like on the other point of like positioning Trinidad and the Caribbean Muslims into the global context of what it means to be a Muslim and who the Muslims are there is an interesting thing about like literary practice of Islam of just writing and telling peoples stories which was interesting to me. How do you think that was important in your research and like what do you think it says about those particular people? Like what is it about music that makes it so important as a way of like talking about the Caribbean? You know?

Dr. Khan 14:12
I mean this is such an interesting question thinking about what exactly particularly characterizes Carribiean Islam, you know what makes it different from Islam elsewhere, or what is unique to it what is it’s focuses? And Music is one of them and that is such a Caribbean thing. Like in Jamaica for example music is so heavily embedded in Jamaican politics that sometimes things happen in the national sphere that are explicitly what the music is laying out, like the music is what influences, what I mean to say, it is often times it is the music that influences the politics in the Caribbean as opposed to the politics influencing the music which is what we tend to think about. It is like it is just so embedded as a cultural form in the Caribbean that it is impossible to ignore that even when you are Muslim. So a brief gloss for your listeners in terms of what that coup is. So in 1990, there was an Islamic coup in the Island, the Caribbean island of Trinidad, headed by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, headed by his black Muslim group that drew some of it’s inspiration from Malcolm X and from other black Muslim traditions in the United States, except their concerns are very local, in terms of like staging a coup against Trinidad government. But this group called Jamaat Muslameen that as I said were predominantly black Muslim and that was a very, in 1990, a very very crucial event like in the history of the Caribbean and the Americas because that is when I think Caribbean people and to some extent, people from the Americas first realized that Muslims were even a thing in the Caribbean even existed in a visible way in the Caribbean. Suddenly they are perpetrating government coups, suddenly there was something that could be called, that people were calling Islamic terrorism in the Caribbean, even before people in the U.S were thinking about it that way, and I want ot think about that event. But as you said, one interesting thing they did when they staged this coup, in addition to taking over parliament in Trinidad they also took over the national television and radio station and the leader of the coup, Imam Abu Bakr who actually recently passed away, but I had an opportunity to interview him before he passed away for this book, especially since for a long time he was thought about as the Caribbean's number one Muslim terrorist, the ‘definitive Muslim terrorist’–like it was interesting talking to him. Umm but he was a big guy for Calypso which is like these politicized Trinidadian songs that are really important in the celebration of carnival. So he considered himself like in Trinidad they call it a Calypso king or a Clypo monarch, and like when he started playing all these Calypso songs on the radio during the coup as you know the subject of music in Islam is very throt, and umm and depends on theologically who you talk to like what schools of theology you talk to, or talking about, or which scholars opinions, or whose fatwas you follow, or like whatever to determine what it is exactly they think about music and of course as you know of course Muslims often make a distinction between the permissibility of instrument only music, versus music that has vocals in it which is sometimes a no. Anyway, so what is interesting about Carribiean Islam is that while some Muslims in the Caribbean do pay attention to those more globalized debates of Music, and there is a lot of controversy about it. in this moment, of the coup. That didn’t bother them like it was so clear that like Music had to be a part of Trinidadian national identity and Caribbean Island identity, that of course they are going to take ownership of the politicized music too, and in order to define themselves as Caribbean even though they are Muslim it involves them also incorporating Music.

Abdul 18:27
That is very interesting. So my last question is how would you describe the importance of your research to people in Guayana the Caribbean and even people on Campus here or even to global Muslims who might be listening?

Dr Kahn 18:46
Yeah. I am actually going to answer that question by reiterating a previous answer to one thing you asked which is that I really wanna decenter the place of 9/11 in our national and international narratives of what it means to be Muslim in the Americas and what the history of Islam is in the Americas. It is true that in the United States you can definitely, and then you can because the united states has exported its narratives about Islam to the rest of the Americas and to the world. Yes, there is a before and after. There is a before and after but a lot of the trends that you can see in terms of how the American national discourse goes about terrorism and so on you can see those narratives building at the end of the first gulf war, or even as far back as at the end of, or following the 1979 Iranian revolution, or even as far back as 19th Century in the United States, 19th Century conceptions of orientalism and like the way that the American public in the 19th Century was like a God reading the Arabian Nights Tales. So I wanna just stop prioritizing 9/11 as the only thing we can talk about when we are talking about Islam and Muslims in the Americas. There is much more, and there is an older tradition. In fact what we should be using as our starting point to talk about Islam in the Americas is the story of enslaved West African Muslims in the Americas, like start there because that is where it starts, that’s where the story starts. So if we can just do that or start doing that. I would feel like my work has some success in researching people.

Abdul 20:37
Thank you. And for people who are listening her book is called fFar From Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean and there is a lot of stuff there that I personally enjoyed reading about so please make sure to listen. Thank you. Do you have any last things to say

Dr. Khan 20:58
No no

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I just wanted to thank you Abdul and your listeners for tuning in.

Abdul 21:04
Thank you

Transcript Episode 1: Why Stories Are Important with Dr. Scott Stonington

Scott Stonington is an MD/PhD anthropologist and internal medicine physician at the University of Michigan. His first book The Spirit Ambulance addresses the globalization of medical technology and expertise in Thailand, particularly the rush to get elders to the intensive care unit to pay back “debts of life,” and then home to orchestrate the final breath in a spiritually advantageous place. Dr. Stonington is also a practicing hospital and primary care doctor and has published extensively in social medicine, most recently as lead editor of the series “Case Studies in Social Medicine” in the New England Journal of Medicine, the first series in a major medical journal devoted to social theory.


*Upbeat music Intro starts*

Dr. Stonington 0:00

“Probably listeners are like, ‘oh my god this is why (short laugh).. this is why we have professors’ that just (half-suppressed laugh)...just are totally in these ivory tower abstractions but umm

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when you are in pain, when I am in pain, right. It is soooo wildly not abstract. It’s like the most real thing that has ever happened. 

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There’s something about pain that’s like that. That it feels abstract when its in somebody else or when it is just an idea, but as soon as you have it, it’s the realest thing that there is.”

*Host introduction*

Cole Simon 0:32

I’m Cole Simon, an intern at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan and that was Dr. Scott Stonington- a professor of medical anthropology and a practicing physician. His research takes him to Thailand where he studies pain and end of life care. This week Abdul Kizito was able to interview Dr. Stonington and ask how his research intersects with the humanities. Now we ask,

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 ‘Why Should you Care?’

Abdul 0:57

Okay, so my first question is, how did you get into medical anthropology? 

Dr. Stonington 1:06

Well, ummm Just for a quick overview, so you kind of know where this is all headed, I ended up doing a joint medical anthropology degree, a joint MD, PhD. And what's interesting is that I started into all of that actually, from the humanities. I majored in biological sciences, but I was actually a double major with English literature. And I was sort of most clearly obsessed with stories, reading stories, telling stories, writing and I've been a writer my whole life. And I got briefly pulled into biology by doing biology in a lab, because I was really interested in some of the actually kind of narrative aspects of that-  about telling the stories of organisms that were led these kinds of exotic other lives. But I discovered in undergrad, that this field of anthropology, which is really ultimately about lived stories, rather than just told stories. And I discovered anthropology before I figured out medicine. And some of it was kind of just playful, like, I figured out that the the form of research that you could do that you could, I didn't have any money for travels or anything like that as an undergrad. And I figured out that the research you can do that would take you on a travel adventure was called anthropology, or at least that so it was sort of built to be. And initially, I had gotten this grant as a freshman that was to encourage people to do more research. And I wanted to figure out how to use it to go travel to somewhere fun and different. And so I pitched it as this anthropology project, and I went and studied drumming in Ghana. And I totally fell in love with the actual Anthropology of it. In fact, the grant did exactly what it was supposed to do. It was this kind of carrot to induce me to do research stuff. And then I thought I was using the grant for my own purposes. And then it totally used me to do what it wanted, which was to convince me to become a researcher. But the reason I fell in love with the anthropology research is it's essentially a way of understanding stories as rather than a something we do about the world, or this kind of color we sprinkle on the world or a way of representing things where the things themselves matter, is at the heart of it is the idea that the stories themselves do things, the stories that people tell about who they are and about what they want, and about how the world works actually change the world itself around them. So ummm the trajectory there was from English literature and biology, both as being about stories that I wanted to sort of watch, to then figuring out that anthropology was a field where the stories themselves do things, and gathering them is a way to really get into people's actual worlds that you get to interface with. And then medicine was, after all of that, because medicine, you know, not too many people talk about medicine this way. But I think that most doctors actually live medicine this way, which is that our primary source of data and medicine is people's stories. So people come in to us with problems and their bodies really matter. And ultimately, what we're trying to do is model and then interface with and change their bodies. But our entry point into that. And actually, in many ways, the thing that matters most is what they tell us about what's going on. And so medical training, people think they're going in, and they're going to learn all this pathology and chemistry and all these basic sciences, which they do. But a lot of what they the thing that transforms you the most in medical school is about how you ask people about things, and how you receive information that is often more private than they tell their family members or that they've ever even really formulated themselves. And that is a source of data. It's a kind of data that we use to then make all the decisions that come next in medicine that are all very high stakes. So once I figured that out about medicine as this kind of applied travel bug, to go on a journey into other people's lives in a way that has an ethic behind it of helping and engaging. It felt sort of wildly more like anthropology and like the humanities than I had thought it might. 

*Upbeat music chimes in*

Abdul 5:45

The New England Journal of Medicine produced a new series, the first series, in a major journal devoted to Social Theory called Case Studies in Social Medicine. Dr. Stonington was one of the lead editors for that series. 

*Upbeat music fades out* 

I was able to sit down with him and talk to him about it and here’s what he had to say.

Dr. Stonington 6:06

Yeah, so that series in the New England Journal of Medicine is

Abdul 6:09


Dr. Stonington 6:06

….is interesting for a lot of reasons. It was the first series devoted to a social science perspective and particularly to Social Theory. It’s concepts that feel very humanities-ish, not just data from the social sciences world but frameworks for how to think about things. And the only  reason that I bring that up is because umm it’s interesting to think about our contemporary moment, both why medical journals have never had a series like that before and then why they were suddenly open to it because I think we even in medicine we’re in this critical moment where actually the way some of the journal editors framed it to us in not quite in these terms but pretty close was that, Medicine has for a long time been very cautious. I initially was going to use the word conservative but it’s definitely not about political conservatism at all, in fact, the medical world has often been sort of on the cutting edge of various forms of social change but has always been epistemologically cautious meaning worried about proof and truth and how you decide whether things are true and…but the medical world has been swept up into this whole moment politically where empirical knowledge, science itself, open debate, and conversation have themselves been politicized in a way that they haven't been before where it is sort of like okay now wanting to find the truth about things and use science is now considered to be part of the political spectrum. So the medical journals were like okay you all have suddenly decided that what we do is politics even though we’re been doing the same thing we’ve been doing for seventy years which is just being very rigorous about our data. So, maybe we need to take that head-on and start talking about some of the social forces that are involved in getting us where we are historically. So it just was just kind of it was an interesting moment to see how the medical world was not only open to but it kind of hungered for ideas from a social sciences and humanities and felt like they had been their hand had been forced into confessing their interest (short laugh) like the interest had always been there but it had always felt like medicine couldn’t get involved. It had to just remain impartial under a particular way.

Abdul 8:47

How would you describe the importance of your research to people practicing medicine in the U.S., in Thailand, medical students, and to undergraduates?

Dr. Stonington 8:57

So, my most recent project is about pain management in the United States and in Thailand. So those audiences you came up with are quite relevant. And I have various ways of packaging the research that I do. But if I as a humanities podcast, I feel like I can say what it’s actually about, which is ultimately about what the nature of pain is itself and what its relationship is to human experience. And when I say it like that it sounds so abstract but the thing I want to give for this podcast is a sense that there are questions from the humanities and in medicine in general too that feel very abstract but in certain contexts, that actually all of us will encounter it, they become wildly concrete. And pain is one of those things and that’s why I picked it to study because at least in Thailand they talk about pain as sort of one of the fundamental aspects of all life. It is something that is unavoidable and partly it is so broad. There are so many different kinds of pain. There’s forms of mental anguish, and bodily pain, etc, but the reason it is interesting to study between Thailand and the U.S. is because we have these extraordinarily different approaches to them, to it and just with that one kernel of that aspect of human existence you get this window into all sorts of other things, about how people approach the world and about how they approach life. So, if you start with an assumption that pain is inevitable then in Thailand people talk about having built systems actually over thousands of years but really just over you know their lifetimes that, that explicit not exactly embracing of pain but acknowledgement of it means that people have built tools for how to not suffer from it. And then if you start from a point place that at least Thai people talk about how they think the U.S. deals with pain is that we start from this place that life should be without pain. That the part of your job as a person is to figure out how to be pain-free. Mentally pain-free and physically pain-free and so it gives rise to all this stuff that we do in our lives that’s about trying to avoid uncomfortable things or trying to resolve the tensions or get back to some sense of the good life where the good life is. You know we’re sitting on the beach with a Mai Thai (short laugh) and everything is the perfect temperature and the perfect, it is it is all very pleasant and I know that’s so glim and lame to say but I…I describe in such an extreme way because it’s only when you think about it in that really fundamental, philosophical humanities kind of way with the big question of what is the relationship between human beings and suffering that you start to see all of these really concrete things that we do in our lives that are built around that. So, for example as a doctor, all the time I am.. I have patients who are coming to me with pain and with suffering. And I have to decide over and over again and they have to decide at what register are we going to deal with this problem. If we keep ourselves in the register of this is a purely bad thing, a purely bad thing, we gotta make it go away, we gotta make it go away right away. I..this isn’t a total emergency, and the truth is when that’s happening and there’s somebody suffering in front of me, I feel it too! It feels like this total emergency and we gotta get rid of it! We gotta get it away. And then we do stuff that causes more harm. I write a prescription to make the problem go away and maybe it’s opioids or maybe it’s something else or I kick them out of my office really quick because I don’t want to have that conversation because it’s really uncomfortable and they want a solution quickly. And we’re just often running down a hole- rabbit hole- that has generated the opioid epidemic in this country and has generated a lot of really complicated doctor-patient relationships. Or if we’re able to deal with it at a slightly different register and name explicitly or put on the table that some of the process of dealing with pain is going to be making friends with it in a certain way where at least learning to sit with it long enough to not have it drive us both totally crazy and make us do things that we will regret later. So, suddenly that…that question that might sound really abstract probably your listeners are like ‘oh my god this is why (short laugh).. this is why we have professors’ that just (half-suppressed laugh)...just are totally in these ivory tower abstractions but umm when you are in pain, when I am in pain, right. It is soooo wildly not abstract. It’s like the most real thing that has ever happened. There’s something about pain that’s like that. That it feels abstract when its in somebody else or when it is just an idea, but as soon as you have it, it’s the realest thing that there is. So, the importance of that work is ummm…there's not…..there aren’t a lot of tools for how to move between all those registers. Right, how do you deal with the really philosophical deep questions about what is the relationship between the mind and and the body and society right. It’s sort of one of those things where ehhhh we'll avoid that one for most of our existence. But life will thrust us into situations where that becomes unavoidable and we need to be able to move between those registers so we need that abstract kind of very conceptual grappling with the different ways that those can be put together- the body and the mind and society. So, you know my discipline of anthropology my…my.. More academic discipline is not often interested in comparative work because comparative work is so complicated. You know, if you were studying politics in the United States and Thailand, it would just be like, ‘oh my god, its so there's so wildly there’s such different starting points then why are you even doing a comparison.’ But pain is this site where looking at the differences in how people approach it ummm it’s in some ways it is so fundamentally human that any differences suddenly give us all these tools or open up all these possibilities so when I’m in Thailand seeing how people manage their pain, and I come back weirdly, I can start using some of the stuff that I’ve seen people…seen people do, ways that I’ve seen people liberate themselves from the suffering that has come from their physical bodies or their mind. So, I think it’s important for everybody not so much just because you’re an undergrad or you’re a medical student or you know some professional identity but because you will all have pain. It is the only thing about life that is guaranteed is that at some point it’s coming down the pipe or it may already have. So, when that comes along, I would hope that you’d be equipped with some tools that would let you move between the different registers of just thinking about medical solutions and then thinking about coping and then thinking about okay who am I, what is my body, what is the nature of suffering, what are all the ways that I might be able to creatively work my way through this.

Abdul 17:25 


And then for my last question, very briefly, wanna ask, what is your advice for people who are going into medicine, who are undergrads, and are still trying to figure out what to do?

Dr. Stonington 17:41

Yeah, so you may have gathered from some of how I talk about conceptual problems and  engaged with things in the world that I am very focused on what it's actually like to be present and do something. And I think that that especially for undergrads, who are thinking about careers. In our education system we’re very sort of unique in the world in that we do this general liberal arts education before people even pick careers. That’s especially true in medicine, you go and get an undergrad degree and then you go to medical school. And part of it is we’re not often exposed to practitioners of things, we’re exposed a lot  to people that know a lot about things. And it can make us persist in this idea that we should be using our brains only to decide what to do with our lives. Like ooh maybe I’ll go into medicine because I’m really interested in biology, and I like talking to people, and I’m interested in people’s lives and I want to help. And that is part of medicine but part of medicine is like rolling up your sleeves in an emergency room where there is blood, and puss, and poop, and people who are on you know various drugs and are kind of violent and acting out and it’s just like a total mayhem and part of medicine is also writing, clinic notes that are really boring, and filling out disability paperwork that takes a long time, and there’s this whole bureaucratic part of things. And part of medicine is that you see a patient every you know eight to twelve minutes, and you don’t really get time to listen to their problems and so you can see I’m drifting you in from the like ‘what am I interested in’ into the ‘what is it gonna be like to do a thing…like what will it be like to be there with your body, and your heart and your mind.’ And the hard part is it is really hard to expose yourself to that but if you reframe how you’re thinking about going into those fields, then you’ll notice you’ll sort of see different opportunities around that are a little bit less about how it’s gonna look on your CV and more about how do I really get myself into the thick of this thing to see what it will be like to that for day after day for a long time. So specifically, for going into various fields I would say you know it's a little bit less different than you might imagine to figure out what it would be like to go into medicine or the humanities. Because it helps you, this way of thinking about it helps you fracture those fields from being sort of areas of expertise to being areas of action. Right? So the humanities in that is..well I don’t even know what that means (amusingly laughs), Right as an academic discipline it looks like sort of being a professor of anything. Right, it’s the same as being a professor of… you teach, you write books, you… you know. So, it's…the advice is to take the thing and fragment it down to all the activities and see what those activities will be like. 

Abdul 21:06

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today, I really appreciate it. 

Dr. Stonington 21:10

You’re so welcome! This podcast is so cool. I hope that this keeps going forever. 

Abdul 21:15

Appreciate that.