Meeting the Masters
Islamic Studies Prof. To Lead Quad House
Powell Graham has led a pretty varied life, for a toddler. At age three, he has already been hiking and rock climbing. And next fall, Powell will begin another experience few three-year-olds can claim. He'll be sharing his home with the 400 residents of Currier House.
"We asked him if he would like to live in a house with 'tall young people' in it, because that's how he thinks of undergraduates," says his mother, Barbara S. Graham, who will become co-master of Currier in July.
"He said, 'Yes, want to do this," says Barbara Graham, an assistant director of the University Library and native New Yorker, who earned a doctorate in library science from Harvard.
Powell Graham is not unaccustomed to contact with students, his parents say. He has met a number of the undergraduates and graduate students taught by his father, Professor of the History of Religion and Islamic Studies William A. Graham Jr. the incoming master of Currier.
"He's had a great deal of contact with students," Barbara Graham says. "He's our little goodwill ambassador."
William Graham, 47, still speaks with a slight Southern twang, a remnant of his years in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he grew up and attended college. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1965 with a degree in history and literature.
At Harvard, where he studied from 1966 to 1973, Graham earned graduate degrees in History of Religion and Islamic Studies, as well as in Sanskrit and Indian. He also spent a year in Germany, where he studied German literature, and a year in the Middle East studying language.
The religion scholar teaches Foreign Cultures 28, "The Civilization of Islam," and served as director of the Foreign Cultures area of the Core in the early 1980s.
In addition, Graham teaches the introductory course in comparative religion every other year. He says he usually teaches a mix of graduate seminars in religion or Islamic studies, as well as an Arabic text course and an Arabic reading course.
Warren Professor of History of Religion in America William R. Hutchinson says his colleague's teaching style is "forceful, but unusually responsive to the needs and views of students he's teaching." Graham is "somewhat Socratic--he draws out responses from students with different types of questions," Hutchinson says.
William Graham, called "Bill" by his friends and associates, says he always wanted to pursue a career in academia. "I knew I wanted to work in higher education," he says. "I knew I wanted to continue living in an intellectual environment and working on projects involving problems of the mind."
Bill Graham is currently writing a book about Islam. "It's an interpretive essay on the Islamic tradition, focusing on issues of scripture, ritual, and tradition," Graham says.
'Protestant Work Ethic'
Bill Graham, who currently serves on the Faculty Council, is director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He says he plans maintain these other commitments and juggle his schedule to accomodate his new position as master of Currier.
"He is the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic par excellence," says fifth-year graduate student Linda Kern, who was a teaching fellow in Graham's Scriptures and Classics course. "He loves to work and gives an incredible amount of time to his work."
Barbara Graham is currently working on a project to help bring the Harvard College Library up to date with the latest information technology. She is also looking at how computers within universities have changed the way scholars approach to research and publishing.
One of Bill Graham's advisees, second-year Ph.D. candidate Patrice Brodeur, says he is amazed that his professor is able to keep up with such a hectic schedule.
But Bill Graham explains that his constant activity is part of his nature. "We're not either one of us people to sit still for very long," he says.
In addition to his academic work, Bill Graham, an avid mountain climber, sponsors the Harvard Mountaineering Club.
The Grahams have climbed together in the Alps, but they also participate in more down-to-earth athletics, like running. Bill Graham has run the Boston Marathon--though not recently, he says. And the couple frequently goes for early morning workouts at the Harvard stadium, as early as 6 a.m.
"We like the outdoors a great deal," Bill Graham says. "Our consuming hobby has become a small child. But he's already climbed his first mountain, so we're rapidly combining the old and the new."
The Grahams have found other ways to involve their son in their physically active lives. Program Administrator of the Committee for the Study of Religion Clifford A. Brown, who works with Bill Graham, says he remembers his colleague running up stadium steps with his baby on his back.
Powell, too, has a seemingly boundless supply of energy, his parents say.
"He's sprite-like," Barbara Graham says, calling her son "quite gregarious and at the moment quite talkative."
"He makes us look a little slow," Bill Graham adds.
No stranger to the house system, Bill Graham served as senior tutor of Winthrop House in the mid-1970s. He says he's very fond of Harvard's residential system.
"For three years, people live and work together out of the same environment," he says. "With this system, you get more of the advantage of a small liberal arts college."
Since Currier has a more centralized layout than other Harvard houses, the Grahams say its population is particularly cohesive. "The house has always seemed to us a happy house," Barbara Graham says. "It's a house that seems to have a sense of real community."
The Grahams say they were first approached about becoming house masters about three years ago, but the Currier mastership became available at a very opportune moment.
"Currier was tremendously appealing to us and it happened also to be a busy but appropriate time," Barbara Graham says.
"We're pleased to have learned that Currier House has some good music," Barbara Graham says.
The Grahams say they are music fans, and enjoy everything from classical to jazz. "Music and theater are very strong there," Bill Graham says. "Those are things that we hope will continue."
In addition, Bill Graham says he wants to bring more student-faculty interaction and academic debate into Currier.
"I'm particularly interested overall in terms of the house system in trying to find ways to integrate more effectively the intellectual life of the College with the life of the house," he says.
The Grahams say they are looking forward to the fall and the influx of new students. "Students have always been a very big part of our lives," Barbara Graham says. "This in some ways really extends that commitment and interest."
Robert C. Kwong contributed to the reporting of this article.