My Independent Concentration

I recently found out that my proposal for an independent concentration in Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry has been approved! Just what does this mean, and why am I so happy about it?

First of all, a few words on what an independent concentration is (at Brown). Apart from the standard concentrations (majors) we offer, every student has the opportunity to design their own course of study. This concentration proposal must be reviewed and approved by a subcommittee of the College Curriculum Council, the same body that approves regular concentrations. The process of proposing an IC is supervised by the Curricular Resource Center, which has multiple peer student staffers who meet regularly with students who want to create an IC. The actual proposal is long and rigorous. Furthermore, the committee almost as a rule rejects first-time applications; there is a heavy emphasis on the process of proposing an IC as a conversation between the committee and the student with the aim being to create a well-articulated, coherent, and rigorous course of study that aligns with Brown’s wider educational goals. I personally found this process extremely rewarding: it helped me process my interests and a few thoughts that had been rolling around in my head (many because of courses I had taken). I am now much more articulate about these interests and I have a much better idea of how they align with my broader life goals. Although the process of creating an IC is arduous, for me it was well worth it.

To explain what my Independent Concentration is about, here’s an excerpt from my proposal (which you can find in full here):

What is Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry? It is the study of global social phenomena such as postcolonialism, nationalism, and global justice through the philosophical lens of critical theory. I think dialectically about both the institutions derived from the Enlightenment and the practices, communities, and identities developed and deployed in resistance to these institutions. I am thus equally invested in studying the universal and metropolitan on the one hand and the particular and peripheral on the other. As a field of study, I imagine my Independent Concentration as a conversation with a number of figures invested in this dialectic – chief among them Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, and Cornel West. In many ways, this field of study is constituted by its intellectual genealogy: while investigating questions about how societies cohere, how politics functions, and how the past shapes our present (and drawing on sources from many times and places), what distinguishes Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is its distinctive perspective. This reflexive, provisional approach is gathered from the theoretical consciousness developed through the philosophical tradition of critique. Given my commitment to provisionality and reflexivity, I do not intend through this concentration to provide conclusive answers to the questions I described above. The fundamental aim of Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is instead to develop concrete questions, modes of interpretation, and resources for action that resonate across different commitments and backgrounds. Through my concentration, I develop a map – a way to navigate the incredible diversity of thought and experience our world has to offer.

Working with Women’s Refugee Care

In Fall 2017, I was fortunate enough to take an engaged course in the French department called L’expérience des réfugiés et immigrés (The Experience of Refugees and Immigrants). This course was developed last summer and offered for the first time this year (see article for more). It combined a survey of Francophone texts by and about migration with an engaged component: working with Women’s Refugee Care (WRC). My French improved because I got the chance to use it in a setting with no safety net: in the community engagement portion of the course, French really was the best means of communication. More importantly, this course was a great opportunity to get involved with a local nonprofit and explore the idea of engaged scholarship (which I’m continuing to do through the Engaged Scholars Program in Archaeology).

My work with Women’s Refugee Care centered on three interviews I did with members of the Congolese refugee community here in Providence. Along with Jeanelle Wheeler, my wonderful colleague, we got to know the community, attending a few gatherings and meeting lots of interesting people. We then arranged interviews with a few of those we met at their homes. After recording the interviews, we translated them into English and then posted them on the WRC blog.

I’m particularly happy with the final result: interviews with Katerina, Aline, and Sylvie. I encourage you to read what they have to say — not just to admire their successes and appreciate the challenges they faced, but to acknowledge them as multifaceted human beings. I also wrote an introduction to the interviews (in French), where I reflect on the entire experience, including obstacles, challenges, and the path we took in presenting them as we did. If you find this interesting or stimulating, I would love to know — just add a comment here or send me an email.1

The “Temple of Aphrodite”

My mother was born and raised in Limassol (Lemesos), a city on the southern coast of Cyprus which I also lived in for five years. The city proper is not ancient; the oldest building is the medieval castle. Yet the Limassol metropolitan area is anchored at its western and eastern ends by the ancient cities of Kourion (Curium) and Amathus, respectively. Going to the beach, to a restaurant, or visiting friends often involves passing by these very tangible reminders of classical antiquity. Examples of neoclassicism also abound, though they often take surprising forms. Cypriot buildings that draw on classical elements are mostly unlike the civic architecture of, for example, Washington, DC; to put it uncharitably, Cypriot neoclassicism is generally “touristy” and “kitsch.” One characteristic example comes to mind: a structure called Aphrodite’s Temple that was built just a few hundred meters from my school in Palodia, around ten kilometers from Limassol. A few months after Aphrodite’s Temple opened, police raided the building and arrested the operators on charges of sexual exploitation. The owner’s lawyer threatened to reveal the names of prominent government officials who patronized the brothel if the prosecution continued. The intermingling of classical antiquity and powerful interests – including the archbishop of Cyprus, according to one source – demonstrates how the material legacy of classical antiquity continues to be meaningful in Cyprus.

ΟΕΔΒ and Classical antiquity

When I attended Cypriot public school, I remember glancing at the back cover of many textbooks in moments of boredom. Staring back at me from some corner of the textbook’s cover was almost always an owl standing on a pile of books. Many years later, I visited the RISD museum and stopped in front of their display of ancient Greek coins. There again was that same owl, staring at me with its bulging eyes. As it turns out, at the time I was in primary school many Cypriot textbooks were published by the Οργανισμός Εκδόσεως Διδακτικών Βιβλίων (Organismos Ekdoseos Didaktikon Vivlion, State Organisation for the Publication of School Textbooks), or ΟΕΔΒ for short. This organization was founded by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1937, which had close ties with Greek nationalism.1 ΟΕΔΒ has long played a crucial role in the propagation of state ideology, as might be expected from a state-sanctioned publisher. For example, ΟΕΔΒ is tasked with producing history textbooks by the Ministry of Education. The aims provided by the ministry include “developing an ‘awareness of Hellenic continuity’” and “cultivating genuine national pride.”2 The role of ΟΕΔΒ in the construction of Hellenism intertwines state authority and the legacy of classical antiquity. Nowhere is this better symbolized than in ΟΕΔΒ’s logo, which is little more than a stylized version of the Athenian owl (see above). The owl was a symbol of Athena and of wisdom. In this role, the owl was famously used as the reverse of the tetradrachm – a type of silver coin – minted in Athens from at least 500 BCE.3 ΟΕΔΒ clearly paid homage to this coin in its choice of logo, thus also identifying classical Athens as the root of education in the modern Greek state.