“One, two, three, four . . . ,” I counted, speaking each number aloud, to myself, one through thirty-two, as the Carleton College students with me in Egypt this winter term hiked down the hill that divides the Valley of the Kings from the 15th-century BC Temple of Hatshepsut. “We’re all here,” I said, again aloud, again to myself, when I reached number thirty-two. “Thank heavens.”
Anyone who has led an off-campus study program, especially any such program that travels, moves about from city to city, country to country, will recognize and share the relief I felt when I reached number thirty-two. When we lead such programs, we are professors, of course, but we’re also advisors and deans and much more. We’re on, on duty, all the time. We’re responsible not just for our students’ learning, but also for their safety and well-being.
Two days later, we were back in Cairo, where we’d begun this term of study and where we’d lived for ten days before taking off for Alexandria, then Luxor and Karnak. This day’s beginning found us shivering, as cold as I can remember being, anywhere, including either Northfield, Minnesota, where Carleton is located, or Hanover, New Hampshire, where I was for many years a professor. We were in an unheated classroom on Zamalek, the northern end of Gezira Island, with the Nile flowing south to Lower Egypt on either side of us. The cold inside in Cairo is the more daunting because it’s unexpected. Hours later, we, all of us, were leaning against an Old Kingdom temple, blissfully warmed by the afternoon sun, which soon set behind the pyramid of Khafre. The students, at once exhausted by our non-stop classes and reading and lectures and discussions and yet openly in love with Egypt, produced shadows against the ancient stone with their hands and arms, spelling words in English and Arabic and more. Last winter, when I first introduced this program in Egypt to potentially interested students, I told them that world cities come in two categories: Cairo and every other city. They begin, I think, to credit my claim as more than hyperbole.
We’ve read, these weeks past, almost nothing but primary texts: Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts and narratives from ancient Egypt; a Hellenistic novel, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass in the sparkling, witty, altogether wonderful new translation by Joel Relihan; and material from various periods in the development of various Islams. We’ve visited the obligatory museums, inside and open air, and studied Islamic mosques, but we’ve also walked the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, through neighborhoods seldom visited and we’ve gone to a small, one-room school for young girls in a tiny village in Upper Egypt. Those students who had begun Arabic at Carleton were able to continue some of what they had learned in conversations across Egypt, and all of us learned some Arabic, street or survival Arabic, as our program began. Our students will conclude their time in Egypt by introducing the ancient Near East and the modern Middle East to a group whom I will then lead on a Nile Cruise.
I’ve led Nile Cruises, often before. I’ve led off-campus study programs, several times before. But both courses and cruises in previous decades I led as a full-time professor. Now, I’m a full-time college president, and I'm doing all the teaching, although two other professors are here with the group too. Teaching is a bit like riding a bicycle: One hops aboard after years of absence and discovers, after a rocky moment or two, that this is challenging but a lot of fun and quite doable. The most difficult part is identifying appropriate analogies. Teaching is, for me, centrally about shaping analogies, and I'm much more removed from students' experiences today than I was twenty years ago.
As president, I'm in daily e-mail contact with the college, and I call my office most days. No major decisions are we making without some advice from me, but the fact is I can manage an absence like this because of the uncommonly talented and committed senior staff we have at Carleton.
To devote many weeks away from campus teaching as I’ve done these past days is great fun and a terrific learning experience for me, but it is not easy. Indeed, in the months leading up to this program, as I worked evenings and weekends, non-stop, to re-learn the languages and histories and religions with which I was once easily comfortable, more than once I thought a college president’s leading such a program was something between odd and deranged. Good heavens, what was I thinking?
What was I thinking? Why devote weeks in Egypt to teaching and learning with thirty-two undergraduates? Because liberal arts colleges, like Carleton, are committed to teaching and it had been some time since I’d exercised this commitment, which all of us at such colleges dearly love even as we recognize the ceaseless demands teaching brings – one can always, always shape a finer class. Because programs around the globe, programs which can and do transform lives, are really important. And because our learning more about the Middle East in particular -- learning Arabic and something about the varieties of Islam and the Ottomans and the architecture of the Mosques of Ibn Tulun and Sultan Hassan and much, much more -- is important, really important. These programs can be transformative. This one was for all of us, for those who hiked down the hill above Hatshepsut’s temple and for the one counting them from below.
Rob Oden has served as president of Carleton College since 2002, following seven years as president of Kenyon
College. His Ph.D. is in Near Eastern languages and he was for many years a professor of religion at Dartmouth College.