Reading Group

Illustration by Jennifer Ziyuan Huang

Letter to the Editors: The Reading Group

Professors respond to The Reading Group regarding their letter expressing concerns about classroom dynamics.

NYU Abu Dhabi’s website cites the institution’s “commitment to educating students who are true citizens of the world.” The use of the phrase “citizen of the world,” associated first with the Greek philosopher Diogenes, suggests that the university prides itself on its embodiment of cosmopolitan values. We understand cosmopolitanism to denote not just an alternative to nationalism, but also a perspective that is about recognizing the merits of the sometimes-conflicting claims that can be made on behalf of human sameness and human difference and, where necessary, adjudicating amongst them.
The gist of the anonymous letter, recently distributed to various NYUAD faculty members in hard copy and then published with a prefatory note in The Gazelle on Feb. 12 is that, in the design and delivery of its curriculum, NYUAD has failed to live up to its cosmopolitan principles and thus failed to live up to its cosmopolitan promise.
As members of the faculty, we applaud the initiative of this letter, insofar as its aim was, as the prefatory remarks published in The Gazelle suggest, an attempt “to start a conversation about classroom dynamics and pedagogical methods” as part of NYUAD’s ongoing self-evaluation.
Conversation is one of the primary aspects of cosmopolitan thinking today. Cosmopolitanism is built on the idea of conversation between individuals or groups that have different values and perspectives from one another. As our NYU colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah constantly reminds us, cosmopolitans are not moral relativists: they don’t believe that all ideas are created equal, and they believe it is the task — indeed the duty — of thoughtful individuals of good conscience to identify which ideas are better than others by subjecting them to a constant process of testing through the gathering of evidence, critical thinking and rational debate. Many of us would argue that this description of the cosmopolitan’s task is also a description of the task of every university or knowledge-producing institution.
It may be the case that not all members of the faculty have been equally diligent in re-evaluating their pedagogical and research practices in the light of the insights and opportunities that our global university has opened up. There are a few — but still too many — courses that have simply been imported from other institutional settings, and there are a few — but still too many — professors who believe that their disciplines simply require delivery of key concepts and nothing else. There may be, in other words, faculty who are not thinking about what it means to be teaching in Abu Dhabi in the early twenty-first century.
Members of the faculty are, therefore, taking the impulse behind the Reading Group’s letter seriously. We recognize and are sympathetic to the letter’s desire that all students should feel accepted and valued in the classroom. The recent revision of the Core Curriculum is one sign that, as an institution, we continue to be self-conscious about our pedagogical aims and the methods we use to achieve them. At the same time, however, as faculty members who take seriously ideas of intellectual rigor and creative discipline, it is difficult for us to understand the request to create “alternative spaces of contribution that do not require overexertion during class sessions.” Learning, like sport, is hard work and the classroom is a space in which students are rightly asked to exert themselves in the pursuit of knowledge. As the intended audience of this letter, we do not understand what the letter-writers intend with this phrase. We remind our students that we do them a disservice if we coddle them; it is our job to train students to meet the challenges that the world and its power structures will present.
We therefore believe that it is necessary to reframe the letter’s charges in ways that can be conducive to constructive public discussion. This anonymous letter runs the risk of shutting down discussion before it has a chance to start, in part due to its deployment of what many of its potential readers would regard as accusatory jargon and in part due to its anonymity. Do the students who authored the letter really believe that they might have been the subject of reprisals if they had written and signed a critical opinion piece for The Gazelle? We sincerely hope not.
If a discussion about syllabi and curricular design is what the letter-writers seek, then we hope that the members of the Reading Group will now take steps to start a broad discussion of the issues that concern them within the student body and with the faculty. Possible next steps might include bringing the matter before the NYUAD Student Government, which could then take up the letter’s charges, gather useful evidence to substantiate or disprove those charges and then discuss that evidence in a student forum or asking the student members of the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee to set up a meeting with the committee to discuss these concerns.
Without such efforts, the letter itself is too easily dismissed. We hope with our letter to demonstrate our willingness to discuss these issues in a campus-wide conversation.
Marzia Balzani, Research Professor of Anthropology
Wendy Bednarz, Assistant Arts Professor of Arts and New Media
Kevin Coffey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Taneli Kukkonen, Professor and Program Head of Philosophy
Judith Graves Miller, Global Network Professor of Literature
Ken Nielsen, Senior Lecturer in the Writing Program and Director of the NYUAD Writing Center
Cyrus R. K. Patell, Global Network Professor of Literature and a former Associate Dean of Humanities
Jim Savio, Senior Lecturer in the Writing Program
Joanne Savio, Arts Professor of Film and New Media
Charles Siebert, Professor of Practice of Literature and Creative Writing
Matthew Silverstein, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Justin Stearns, Associate Professor and Program Head of Arab Crossroads Studies
Miguel Syjuco, Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice Literature and Creative Writing
Deborah Lindsay Williams, Program Head of Literature and Creative Writing
Yi Fang, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Shamoon Zamir, Associate Professor of Literature and Visual Studies
Members of the NYUAD Faculty are contributing writers. Email them at
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