I encountered Professor Barlas while in the United States on a Spring exchange semester. I still cannot explain what drew me to take up her Understanding Islam class as a Journalism major – perhaps it was the culmination of years of intermittent religious and cultural curiosity, or a kind of fate, or perhaps even a moment of folly. The root cause is indeterminate, but the impact of this brief encounter has only clarified over the years. In an academic journey filled with a litany of forgettable modules, Professor Barlas and her class are among the very few things that continue to burn in my mind.
The passion that Professor Barlas brings to her teaching is something that those fortunate enough to cross paths with her can attest to, and palpable from the first class. Understanding Islam wasn’t the kind of class you could just coast through, much to my initial dismay. The intensity of her passion was so all-consuming, you were compelled by its sheer presence to engage with the material at hand. Within the four walls of the classroom, there was no room for the evasion or elision that society seems to encourage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, through her, my eyes have been opened and I cannot go back.
While it would be fair to say that Professor Barlas did not suffer fools lightly, it would equally be true to acknowledge her tender, nurturing side. Her constant exhortations to think deeper and speak clearer belied her intense desire for her students to be able to interact with the world at large through a more critical lens. With me, she was also exceedingly patient with my intellectual struggles and need for time to process my thoughts.
It could not have been easy to have taught like Professor Barlas did. In hindsight, I wonder if it was as exhausting for her as it was for me as a transient student. That she sustained this flame for the entire semester and the many years before I joined her class – and judging by the many other comments on this website, for many years after as well – speaks to her infinite reservoirs of love and hope as an educator. I can only hope I took away from her classes half the critical thinking and compassion she demonstrated.
Professor Barlas’s impending departure from Ithaca College into well-deserved retirement will leave the community a slightly less bright place, but I have no doubt she will continue to engage young minds in a different capacity. I still find myself thinking back to the learnings of that time and of Professor Barlas even now, and of her much cherished guidance for a foolish youth in a foreign land. I wish her nothing but the best as she enters the next phase of her life, and can only hope I’ll have the opportunity to catch up with her over tea and samosas again one day.
– Ng Jian Yang