Gen Ed Promotes Creative Classwork

When Nur N. Ibrahim ’13 visited her Culture and Belief class’s art exhibit last week, she found herself surrounded by God—the letters of Allah’s name, that is, depicted using everything from DNA helices to Solo cups.

The projects on display in the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program Office were created by the 55 students in Culture and Belief 12, “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Culture.”

The class’s professor, Associate Director of the Islamic Studies Program Ali S. Asani ’77, said that creating this course would have been impossible without the freedom granted by the Program in General Education, which encourages creative assignments and interdisciplinary learning.

Islamic culture is most commonly studied through a social or political lens, Asani said, both of which are premised on the idea of Islam as “the other.”

“I think this approach, through the arts, is a very effective way of humanizing Muslim experiences,” Asani said.

Asani has been designing the course for nearly a decade, but he said when he presented it under the Core seven or eight years ago it was rejected twice.

When Gen Ed was adopted, the situation reversed, he said. After enthusiastically approving the course, the Gen Ed Office began to actively support it by funding art supplies and events, such as a visit from a Sufi rock musician.

Under the Core, every course was required to have a final exam, but General Education encourages professors to consider creative alternatives.

“The literature on learning shows that hands-on activities can help some students learn and integrate the material better,” said Associate Dean of the Program in General Education Stephanie H. Kenen.

For the first project, which is now on display, students learned from Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and culture, to write “Allah” in Arabic script and were told to represent a concept associated with God in the Islamic tradition through any media.

One student transcribed “Allah” onto a light bulb to demonstrate the idea that light is filtered through the word of Allah. Other projects included decoupage, masks, and a collage of images ranging from Homer Simpson to spiritual symbols.

Over 60 people, including University President Drew G. Faust and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith, attended the opening, said Islamic Studies Program Administrator Clifford Gardner.

For the second project, students designed modern-day mosques showcased through models or videos, while the final project will involve writing a love lyric or narrative epic based on Persian and Arabic examples.

Ibrahim said that while the open-ended nature of the assignments can be stressful, it allows students to form their own opinions about what they are learning.

The exhibit will be up for at least another week, Gardner said.

“Usually people don’t want to share a term paper with their family,” Asani said. “But when you create art, it has to be shared.”

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at jbarzilay13@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: April 12, 2010

An earlier version of the Apr. 12 news article "Gen Ed Promotes Creative Classwork" incorrectly stated that Professor of German Art and Culture Jeffrey F. Hamburger taught students to write "Allah" in Arabic script. In fact, Associate Director of the Islamic Studies Program Ali S. Asani ’77 showed the students how to write in calligraphy.

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