Spotifying Arabic Literature: Creating a Soundtrack to Your Intro to Arabic Literature Syllabus

Looking for new ways to engage your Introduction to Arabic literature students this fall? During the 2016 Innovative Teaching Summer Institute, PhD candidate Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah developed a collaborative, soundtrack-oriented assignment:

By Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah

My teaching philosophy is that a good teacher is a guide to better questions and a facilitator of inclusive discussions by which students are empowered to rigorously inquire, contribute, contest, and collaborate. As scholars, we know that Arabic literary production has a long, prolific, and varied history that exists not only within a wide range of texts but also in culture and memory; however, many of our students do not begin with that assumption.  Thus, I teach literature with recognition that the North American classroom in which Arabic language and literature is taught is one saturated with prior knowledge of stereotypes that can alienate a reader from the text. One of my primary goals in an introductory course is to address those stereotypes that hinder close reading and critical engagement by modeling questions that lead to knowledge and constructive analysis of literary conventions.

Figure 1 : ITSI Assignment Poster

At the 2016 Innovative Teaching Summer Institute (ITSI) organized by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, participating graduate student instructors were required to develop an assignment for a course they have taught or will teach in the future.  During the Teaching Institute, I joined a team of graduate students who focused on how to incorporate media production and online interaction within one’s own pedagogical practices. Representing Arabic Literature, I was able to develop my assignment “Spotifying Arabic Literature” through participating in ITSI workshops and exchanging ideas with the scholars in my team who represented a range of disciplines including Italian and Slavic languages and literature, Ethnomusicology, Social Work, Sociology, and Chemistry.  The institute allowed me to tap into my creative side in a way that was satisfying and bridged my scholarly, teaching, and broader social interests.

Based on a prototype assignment I first introduced in a Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy course (better known as Literature Humanities), I developed a collaborative assignment for future Introduction to Arabic Literature courses that involves creating a soundtrack for the course syllabus. Using a backward design model, I identified that the primary goal of the assignment would be to challenge students to engage contemporary culture while closely reading assigned texts in order to locate and make a focused argument about affect, imagery, motif, symbolism, style, etc. rather than broad comparative observations about culture. More simply, the students would consider the multiple meanings of the assigned texts through a poetic with which they are most familiar.

The final assignment I submitted as my ITSI project is as follows:

Arabic literary production has a long and prolific history that exists not only within texts but also in culture and memory. In a semester long collaborative assignment for this Introduction to Arabic Literature course, you will be required to consider the multiple meanings of the texts — including words, imagery, style, affect, symbols, etc. You will then be challenged to locate those meanings — or the contestation of them — by selecting your own favorite musical pieces and as a class, collectively curate a soundtrack for the course syllabus. After the final discussion of each assigned text, you will be given a hashtag to use when you tweet your argument for the song’s relevance to, resonance with, and/or critique of the text. The goal of the assignment is for students to understand and engage with the assigned texts through the language of contemporary culture and poetics as well as construct a concise thesis.

Thus, over the course of a semester, students will collaboratively create a playlist of songs for each text along with an archived series of their own literary analysis (searchable via tweets and hashtag). Considering accessibility and costs, the primary social media tools that would be used are Twitter and a class specific YouTube channel that the instructor can create for free and grant students access.

For the past two academic years, I assigned selections from A.J. Arberry’s translation of Ibn Ḥazm’s The Ring of the Dove to my students. For the most part, my students’ encounter with the accessibility and entertaining language of the text – a medieval Arabic treatise on love which defines, analyzes, and represents various models of love through poetry and often entertaining prose narratives – was one of surprise. During the semester when I tried a basic model of this assignment, a student added Haddaway’s “What is love?” to our class playlist in response to Ibn Hazm’s “Preliminary Excursus” on the definition and signs of love.

When I shared this particular example, Andrés García Molina – one of my ITSI colleagues who is an ethnomusicologist – pointed out that many of the students may immediately gravitate toward similarities in word choice. For this reason, I included in the assignment design the requirement for students to construct an argument that gives them parameters for their selection based on close reading literary analysis.

As the assignment runs, it is important to have several check-in points – at least three times during the semester – in which students get into small groups to discuss and fine-tune their theses.  As positive reinforcement, I suggest selecting one of the students’ suggestions each class and playing their song at the beginning of class.  At the end of the semester, the instructor should share the YouTube link(s) to the compiled playlist(s) with all the students.

For those of us who teach literature and require that students write papers, it is important that students are able to differentiate between the construction of an argument and making an observation like identifying common language between the a text and a song.  For those of us who teach non-western canonical literatures in the United States, our classrooms are also spaces in which we teach literacy of cultural generalizations. Thus, the assignment can also be used to demonstrate and workshop strong theses statements in class for a short literary analysis.

For example, as illustrated in the image above, a perceptive student might see that although Bill Wither’s soulful “Ain’t No Sunshine” does not once mention the word love, the song illustrates the despondent state of a lover described by Ibn Ḥazm.[1]  During a class session in which the selections are discussed, classmates may contend that the thesis needs to be refined in order to indicate one of the many kinds of lovers and beloved Ibn Ḥazm illustrates. Ultimately, how the assignment would be incorporated in the students’ final grade is up to the professor.   Some professors may decide that they would like students to build their course paper(s) upon one of their tweeted theses.

Although the assignment has yet to be tested in a classroom, I foresee it has immense potential for opening doors to online interaction across literature classrooms within the university (for example, where Arabic literature students share their curated playlists with Russian literature students at Columbia University) and across institutions (where, for example, Arabic literature students at Columbia University share their playlists with English literature students at the American University of Cairo) in a way that is accessible and (dare I say) fun. Should other professors and graduate student instructors implement this assignment, it could become a wonderful opportunity for not only pedagogical strategies and playlist sharing but also scholarly collaboration among students and teachers from different universities via social media platforms around the world.   Finally, if an assignment for a survey course successfully guides students to better questions, then it would also facilitate literary analysis of the texts beyond reductive arguments about culture and empower new readers and young scholars of Arabic literature.

Editor’s note: Anyone who creates an assignment inspired by this should send a note about how it went.

[1] In the preface to T.H. Emil Homerin’s translation of Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s thirteenth century mystical poetry, Michael Sells writes,
Popular western love songs echo the lyrics of Islamic poetry in the lover’s complaint, the polemic against the beloved, and the madness of love. It is no surprise then that the Majnūn Laylá story inspired one of the most popular songs in modern western music, Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla.’ In addition, the role in the West of love lyric as a milestone of remembrance and emotion across lifetimes parallels its role within the Islamic world…
See T.H. Emil Homerin’sʻUmar ibn ʻAlī Ibn al-Fāriḍ: Sufi Verse, Saintly Life (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), xii.

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.  The 2016 Literature Humanities Core Preceptor Teaching Award recipient, Sahar is currently completing her dissertation “The Poetics of the Amatory Prelude in the Post-Classical Arabic-Islamic Encomium.”