Asma’s influence on my life has been profound to the point where hers is one of the voices of reason and conscience that I hear in my head when I’m making decisions. While more than twenty years have gone by since I sat in a classroom as her student, I still remember key moments vividly. I try to channel those insights into sorting things out.
I channel her every time I have to explain to a student or a parent why I decided to study and teach politics. Naturally, it isn’t for the pay or the public adulation. I honestly see my role as more of an evangelist for the importance of politics and government in everyday life. It comes down to my desire to bring positive change into the world and to help students figure how to become change agents in their own worlds.
As a student, my core dilemma was my need to find an outlet for my frustration with the status quo. I had gotten involved in several like-minded organizations on campus and at Cornell. However, after a while, I had doubts about the way certain groups were going about achieving their goals. Were they really “giving voice to the voiceless,” as they claimed? Several conversations with Asma led me to the conclusion that while well-intentioned, some of their activities might do damage, because they didn’t stop to consider whether the “voiceless” would agree with what they were doing. Asma constantly pushed me to look more closely at these activities and to think through their implications. Today, when I’m asked to moderate a community dialogue or to talk in public about something in the news, I listen to her voice before moving forward.
In fact, perhaps one of the most important things that I learned from Asma was that true learning and tolerance comes from impassioned and equitable dialogue. The key to creating a truly just world is not to accept every viewpoint as valid on its own terms but to try to find a meaningful common ground through passionate advocacy of competing principles. If we give each perspective an equal opportunity to argue its case, to carefully consider the merits of each case, we may find common ground to move forward.
In many ways, Asma’s teaching style is an outgrowth of this idea of principled dialogue. As an instructor, Asma had high expectations. She would cut a swath through someone’s hare-brained argument about free will or determinism by stripping away delusion, pretension, and denial. By expecting more — better preparation, clearer thought — Asma conveyed to students the respect she has for their intellectual abilities.
If students did not enter the discussion with an opinion, she was very adept at provoking one. Asma’s ability to stimulate intense, yet collegial discussions is brilliant. The most important lesson that Asma’s students learn is while we should consider all perspectives, not all stand up to intense debate. She encourages students to push every question, opinion, and idea a step further.
I had an epiphany one day spring day. The session was getting started, she went around the class asking about students’ post-graduation plans. I saw a tenderness that I had never noticed before. I suddenly realized that her impatience with mediocrity reflects her intense desire to endow her students with the critical tools that they will need in the outside world. In many ways, Asma embodies Che Guevara’s observation that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” I came to understand that the bond between an instructor and student wasn’t just about watching their intellectual growth or how well they wrote papers or articulated opinions. It is also about their growth as human beings recognizing the importance of principle, integrity, and perseverance.
Finally, I channel her fierce commitment to undergraduate education. Our job is to push students to open their minds to new ideas and new ways of being, and helping them to develop the tools to put their ideals to work. This is hard, frustrating work sometimes, but I cannot imagine a higher calling. To do it well, you need to have a reliable compass. I am deeply grateful to Asma for helping me to find that compass.