Halftime at the Knight-Wallace program: Course update

Here it is mid-January and I’m already halfway through my fellowship. My study plan is focusing on Bahrain and the Pearl Revolution (as well as the wider Arab Spring), and last semester I tried to take courses which focused on that region:

I also started taking a yearlong fiction writing workshop held once a week at the fellowship headquarters, Wallace House, with a bunch of the other fellows—and which Sari is taking too. That has been a fun and thought-provoking experience, and the skills I’m learning will undoubtedly help my work as a comics writer.

The America and Middle Eastern Wars class was fascinating, and gave me a very strong background on the recent history of the region, and how inextricably tied the U.S. is to everything that happens there (with Bahrain certainly being no exception). The class was taught by the very brilliant Juan Cole (who is also my academic advisor), and at the end of each perfectly crafted lecture I felt like jumping to my feet to applaud. The Quran class was an amazing experience, getting deep into a topic that I really knew nothing about. (I felt very strongly after completing my Cartoon Movement piece on Bahrain that if I was to truly understand the roots of the conflict there I would have to learn more about Islam and the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide.) The fine line the professor walked was treating the Quran as a sacred text (in deference to the many Muslim students in the class) while trying to really unpack it for a Western audience. A lot to chew on. The journalism & ethics class was relevant in the sense that here I am on a journalism fellowship and I had never taken a journalism class before. In the end, I found it incredibly useful—even if it does seem that I often break the “rules” in my own practice as a comics journalist!

But now here it is the Winter semester—which takes us through April and the end of the fellowship—and it’s time to decide what my final few University of Michigan courses will be. Our “head fellow” Charles Eisendrath always encourages us to stretch our horizons, and I’m acutely aware that this may well be the last chance I get to just be a student. I really want to take advantage of the intellectual resources available here at the university. So with that in mind I really pored over the Winter course catalog, looking at classes in Religion, Art & Design, Communications, English, Screen Arts, History, the Humanities, Political Science, Sociology, and even the School of Information. In the end I narrowed it down to three choices, and now after the first full week of classes, I feel pretty good about them:

The Intro to Islam class may sound a bit remedial, but it’s actually the perfect follow-up to the Quran class—and is being taught by the same prof. (In fact, he wrote the book on the topic!) Now that I’ve learned a bit about the Muslim holy book, I can follow its growth as a religion that started in a small portion of modern-day Saudi Arabia and today has spread to be the faith of over 1.6 billion people worldwide. The Apocalyptic Film & TV course, which is cross-listed in both Screen Arts & Cultures and English, is definitely my “fun” course, but I can justify its relevance to my craft by just citing A.D.: a graphic novel about the near-destruction of an entire city. (And aren’t all comics sort of about the end of the world?) Plus, it’s no joke of a class. Major critical theory reading is in store, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Lacan, Susan Sontag to Walter Benjamin. The teacher is younger than me (damn him!) but he’s whip-smart, with a really charismatic classroom presence. The comics class is being taught by the very great Phoebe Gloeckner, and I’m really excited to take part in my first-ever such class! After all, back in the day when I went to high school (and college, natch), academia wouldn’t touch comics with a ten-foot brush. Times have changed in 25+ years…

As I mentioned at the start, time is running out on this gift of a fellowship, and I’m feeling the pressure to squeeze out every ounce. And, what with the classes, twice-weekly fellowship seminars, the fiction writing workshop, and our fellowship’s upcoming trip to Turkey in March, my biggest challenge—as it was last semester—will be just keeping up with the readings.

About joshcomix
Brooklyn-based cartoonist specializing in nonfiction comics about topics like Hurricane Katrina, the media, travel, and finance.

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