I first met Dr. Asma Barlas at a CSCRE discussion series back in 2013. In fact I specifically remember the event; Ruth Wilson Gilmore was getting ready to give a talk on prison abolition and I was standing in the hallway getting ready to enter. It was the briefest of encounters folded up into the grandeur of Dr. Barlas’ reputation; a reputation that at the time was surrounded by controversy. She was at the center of an impassioned philosophical debate in her department over the direction of ethnic studies, the limitations of a liberalized racial unity, and the shortcomings of recognitional politics. It was within this debate that students like me were swept up and ultimately transformed.
But my first lessons from Asma did not take place in a classroom but rather during talks at her office hours. We talked casually about a range of things and all of those discussions had made an impression on me. I remember one discussion in particular where she had pointed out how the western cartographies of Africa rendered the continent much smaller than it actually was. The notion that western map making revealed how the west desired to read Africa was entirely earth-shaking to me. I didn’t know at the time, but these were my earliest exposures to the essence of Asma’s intellectual interests in hermeneutics. As an undergrad kid from the Bronx, Dr. Barlas was my introduction to hermeneutics before I even knew what it meant. It crops up brilliantly in so much of her work, her interests, and her pedagogy.
In speaking to her pedagogy, her Race & Colonialism course was and is, without question, the most important class I have ever taken. It is not important purely on the basis of its content in the way so many students might recall what they learned in a favorite course taken during their study. Where a fondness is felt for the ease in which a course could animate a student, or the harmony struck in the student from exciting new discoveries, race and colonialism was entirely different. I remember the class, have a fondness for, and give reverence to the ways in which the course was utterly difficult, impossibly conflicting, and in the end, unbelievably rewarding. It has been said that Dr. Barlas’ pedagogy is about teaching through conflict; I find this is not fully the case. What her pedagogy does in the classroom is to create the conditions in which the student confronts themselves. The texts we were assigned became springboards for that confrontation; the hermeneutics turned the mirror back onto the student and it was up to the student to make that confrontation generative.
Something happened to me within that confrontation, the reverberations of which changed my life and are at the foundations of my intellectual and political development. The following semester after that class would intensify and deepen my relationship with activism and organizing. This culminated into a series of student actions that me and other classmates (some from that race and colonial class) participated in. That flash-point of student activism, the kind that was subversive, bold, and unyieldingly anti establishment, inspired the protests that would rock Ithaca College a year later and result in the resignation of Ithaca College president Tom Rochon. Through that whole saga, Asma was not only an ideological inspiration, but also a comrade, a conspirator, and a friend when her colleagues chose to take more conservative postures.
Her Race & Colonialism course was also the impetus behind the anti colonial magazine I developed and ran for a time after graduating from Ithaca. That project allowed me and many others the space to explore anti-colonial politics, decolonization, and third world solidarity free from the constraints of the academy. One of the best gifts Asma had given me was a language and a framework for analyzing the colonial situation, but while focusing less on the question of decolonization. She did this so that we might sit with and properly wrestle with colonialism without seeking an immediate out, or solution. It was through this discomfort of sitting with the colonial situation that propelled me towards decolonization in my own studies. The Decolonizer magazine was at base the instrument I used to investigate this, essentially taking Asmas class and extending it beyond the classroom. The outcome helped me find my own voice and elaborate on my own politics. Decolonization, what it means and what it grew to encapsulate for me was undeniably influenced by Asma’s course and The Decolonizer project.
Through it all Asma has been a towering mentor and a dear friend who has never stopped teaching me. This pedagogy, a pedagogy which for me began outside of the classroom, has always existed outside of the classroom. Our conversations and email correspondence have cumulatively been as foundational for me as what took place in the classroom itself. The debt I owe to her is immense and unquantifiable, although she would never admit it. For her, the work and the courage required to face one’s self is on us. She only devises ways to ask this of the student. I am infinitely lucky she asked this of me.