• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: Pictures of Muhammad

Difficult questions for a course on the Middle East.

July 19, 2015

I could feel the urge to duck as I read this one. A returning correspondent, who is preparing a class on the history of the Middle East, writes:

An issue has, however, arisen regarding one of my new lectures. I happen to have an extremely image-intense lecture style, often showing over a hundred slides in a 50 minute lecture. I confidently assume most of my not-particularly-diverse student body doesn't know anything about Islam. So, I'm doing a lecture explaining the basics of Muhammad's life and teachings. I've therefore made slides showing images depicting various moments in Muhammad's life. On second thought, however, I wonder if showing those images is wise.

The details matter, so, specifically, I've got (1) a sixteenth-century picture of Muhammad going up to his cave to meditate now held in Topkapi palace museum in Istanbul (2) a fifteenth-century afghan image of Muhammad being visited by the archangel Gabriel, (3) an Algerian postcard from the 1920s showing him hiding from the pagan Meccans in the cave with the spiderweb, and (4) nineteenth-century Ottoman image of Muhammad's army destroying the idols upon the conquest of Mecca. Some of the images show Muhammad without a face: (1) shows him as a white outline with no detail, (4) shows him as a pillar of flame. Image (2) shows him with a face, presumably because it's a shia drawing and one school of shia thought holds that depicting Muhammad before he gives his first recitation is allowed, since before he becomes a prophet he's an ordinary man. Image (4), finally, shows him as a sort of cartoon figure. Image (4) is thus the most sensitive, and the only image not from a Muslim-governed society, but since it's bilingual in Arabic and French, it still seems aimed at a Muslim audience.

The case for showing the images runs as follows. The existence of all these Islamic depictions of Muhammad is itself a teachable moment, because they illustrate that the taboo against depicting the prophet has been more or less strict with time. The shia rule that it's okay to depict Muhammad before his revelations is also interesting. Furthermore, I'm not a Muslim and feel some desire to assert my right to show whatever historical artifacts as I please, given that it's not against my own beliefs to do so. In the 1980s, Adam Michnik, a Polish dissident I admire, urged his fellow Poles to "live as if you lived in a free country," and I've often tried to take his advice to heart. Well, if I lived as if I enjoyed the freedom of speech I think ought to exist, I'd show these historical artifacts: they're cool images that will help explain the points I want to make.

On the other hand, I'm not keen to get in the newspaper as the controversial professor who offends Islam. Actually, I'm not keen to get in the news at all. I'm also not keen to make friends with the Islamophobic types who would applaud me for doing so. Furthermore, I'm very keen to not get death threats, which I suppose is a possibility that can't be ruled out. I like my quiet life, and if I am honest with myself, I must admit that I lack the courage of Adam Michnik. So, perhaps I should censor my own slides, particularly image (4) but possibly (2) as well, and explain to the class that I've done so out of fear. So, those are the options that I've been considering.

Pondering these options, however, I wondered what the stance of the university administration would be. Perhaps the administration would like to not be blindsided by this lecture? So I wrote an email explaining my thinking to the head of school, and asking for feedback from the powers that be. And that's what leads me to write you, oh community college dean: he forwarded the email to a dean and said he'd get back to me, but now, six weeks later, it seems that everybody has simply forgotten about me. The course won't be taught for several months, there's plenty of time ... but I think it's just fallen off everybody's radar. I find being ignored over this issue discouraging and unsettling.

So, while you and your wise and worldly readers may have opinions about the issue of "showing the images" vs. "censoring my own slides," I'm really writing to ask: what do you think about the administration's silence? Do you think I'm right to be upset? Or am I taking it too hard? Should I just ... well, send a reminder?

I’ll start by answering the question that was asked. Send a reminder. From an administrator’s perspective, it’s easy sometimes to slip into “triage” mode, especially with email.  That involves sorting emails into “on fire” and “not on fire,” and then (often) forgetting the latter group. With a topic as complex as this one, the temptation to look at the date, decide it can wait, and move on to something both simpler and more urgent is real. So I’d start with the simplest, lowest-cost strategy.  You can always raise a bigger stink later.

Of course, they may be quite aware of it, and sort of hoping that it goes away.  A tactful reminder can let them know that it isn’t going away.

In terms of the heart of the matter, I’m thinking this may be the best case I’ve seen for “trigger warnings.” There’s a strong academic freedom argument for following the research where it goes. There’s also a strong pedagogical argument for not jamming students’ radar and overshadowing the point of it all.  I’d be inclined to suggest splitting the difference by offering links to the pictures, without showing the pictures themselves, so the students could decide individually whether they wanted to see them or not.  Those students who would be severely offended by seeing it, wouldn’t be subjected to it; those who are curious to see, could.  That would also offer a reasonably elegant opportunity to discuss the point about changing rules, without turning the class into a circus.

In talking with your dean, you might want to raise the possibility of having someone from student services alerted to it, so if a student has a strong visceral response, you’ll have a trained professional at the ready to help them process it.  You also might want to time that particular lecture to avoid certain holidays, since that would just add insult to injury.

The closest parallel to that I’ve dealt with in my own teaching involved historical documents that included what we’d now consider racial slurs. I didn’t eliminate every source that included them -- history isn’t always pretty -- but I did make a point of providing extra context both before and after.  I told, and showed, the students that I assumed they were adults, and they could handle difficult issues if they chose to.  They always did, which was gratifying.  That said, this case is much more electric, so I’m thinking a little extra circumspection would be in order.

If you come to the discussion from a framework of how best to reach students, rather than how to make a political point, you’ll probably have better results.  

Good luck!


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