Gnostics and lovers speak of the death of the self, and I suppose transformative learning can feel like that, too. It is as much about burning bridges as it is about building them. In that sense, there are no survivors in Asma’s classroom.
I see that now, as I stand in front of my own classroom, and realize I can’t be the same kind of teacher she is. Good teachers do “destroy” their students (lovingly!) as they guide them through the learning process. But few stake their own selves so completely in the process. And that’s what makes Asma’s teaching (and love!) so deep, so devastating, and so risky. It might take a couple of weeks, but you eventually sense that this class will completely transform both of you, all of you.
I’m not surprised at this approach, because now I understand that’s how Asma approaches life in general: wholeheartedly. But I am constantly amazed at the energy she has had to expend to carry out this kamikaze pedagogy of love. It has come at a huge personal cost. Retirement is warranted, although I suspect the teaching will continue in some form.
I’ve mentioned Love a few times already. Unfortunately, our culture is poorly prepared to talk about learning and eros. Our imaginations are quite limited when asked to consider teaching and learning as an erotic engagement, given the vulgar and narrow understanding of the word. And yet, what is teaching without passion? What is learning without desire? Shouldn’t the relationship between teacher and student be intensely intimate, if it’s to be worth anything? Eros is the god of desire, but desire is complex, and the erotic complexity of the desire felt by students in their quest for knowledge and self-understanding is something our society finds disquieting, because it is so powerful. Some argue that teachers and students fall in love not with each other’s bodies, but with each other’s souls and minds. I’m not sure I buy into the supposed boundaries between bodies, minds and souls. But I do know that loving and being loved by Asma has been tremendously edifying, at multiple levels.
It has been hard as hell, too, because this love/learning demands that I confront my limited self, in all its contradictions. Eros is the son of Aphrodite, but also of Ares. The lyre is at hand, but so is the bow and arrow, because desire is the primordial force behind learning, and learning often hurts and destroys. Transformative learning hurts and destroys even more! The love and pain of learning —a love and pain embodied by the teacher— is a special invocation of Eros, a war with oneself and with the Other, but a loving war (Ares and Aphrodite are smiling). This is not true of all classrooms, but it was certainly true of Asma’s, where we had to dismantle old selves and forge new ones. How many such chances present themselves to us in a lifetime? We were fortunate that the individual guiding us through this creation and destruction, handing off the arrows and the lyres, knew how to do so with care and integrity. Socrates, Rumi, and all romantic teachers would be pleased.
Prof. Barlas sat in her office recently, shredding 30 years of students evaluations. Upon hearing this, my initial reaction was one of sadness: Is this what an exceptional teaching career boils down to? No, it is not. I am thankful that assembling this website has allowed me to see the impact Asma has had on other students’ lives. Among the pile of evaluations, she did find one from 1993 from a certain Film & Photography major, who speaks of the transformative power of the class. Little did I know this transformation would still be unfolding decades later. That is the true power of love…
Teacher and learner.
Love and beloved.
Where ends the Self?
Where starts the Other?
p.s. It feels like we are currently witnessing the death of the classroom, courtesy of a bat virus. Classes are moving online, where face-to-face discussions between teachers and learners feel more… detached. But love endures, even through virtual distance. When this has all passed, perhaps we will come to appreciate the eros of learning in new ways. I truly hope so, for the sake of future generations of Asma’s students.