In the wake of the recent college admissions scandal, educators have been discussing teaching and the consequences of having less-than-prepared students in the classroom. They have expressed a divergence of views, but the role of professors and lecturers in the student learning process comes through in all these discussions. Educators discussing pedagogy are not new or unique to the contemporary period. An example of a peer teaching evaluation from the seventeenth century found in a manuscript compilation of the hadith—the oral reports of the sayings and/or deeds of Muhammad—from the Muslim world displays the very same concern.
The Qur’an gets most of the attention when thinking about Islam in the modern period—as if the entirety of more than fourteen centuries of Islamic thought, belief, and practice can be reduced to what can be found across a little more than six thousand verses. The Islamic intellectual tradition is multifaceted, and there are more sources, both textual and non-textual, that shape this tradition than just the Qur’an. Thanks to the intervention of a ninth-century scholar, the hadith were elevated to the position of the second most important source of scriptural authority for Muslims. The hadith are how the memory of Muhammad has been passed down for generations, so there is a lot at stake for its correct preservation, and Muslims have a long history of collecting, evaluating, compiling, and commenting on these reports. One of the most authoritative sources that came out of this process was Muhammad al-Bukhari’s al-Jami al-sahih (The Sound Collection).
I recently examined a manuscript copy of Bukhari’s al-Jami al-sahih used for teaching at the Suleymaniye Darulhadis, a leading institution for the study of hadith in Istanbul, the capital of the former Ottoman Empire that encompassed the Middle East, the Balkans, and beyond. This manuscript contains the marginal notes of four seventeenth-century instructors who taught from that very text. The most extensive notes are from Seyhzade Ahmed, who moved between various positions in the learned hierarchy that organized the advancement of scholars from judgeships to lectureships across the empire. Seyhzade Ahmed spent approximately eight years serving on-and-off at the institution (judgeships in Damascus and Bursa intervened), teaching various chapters of al-Jami al-sahih. In one of his notes at the end of the text, he writes that he read and studied the work with students using the manuscript. The word used in this note, however, suggests that there was no discussion around its reading.
Seyhzade Ahmed did not provide much more detail to clarify what he meant in this note. The task of elaboration fell to another teacher, Abdurrahman al-Husayni, whose notes to the same text, written nearly seven decades later, paint an uncharitable picture. He wrote that “if [Seyhzade Ahmed] completed [teaching al-Jami al-sahih] by way of reading, without making corrections, then there is great error in his doing so.” Husayni goes on to say that it is necessary to correct errors and that it is inadequate for an instructor of the text to teach certain topics and to neglect others. The point implied in his comments is that the teaching of a text involves dialogue and the exchange of ideas, a point with which many an educator today would agree. We want our students to engage critically with what they have read in classroom discussions rather than to recite passages back to us from the text. The ideal in the classroom—both then and now—is that the study of a text serves as the point of departure for discussion, not the basis of something to be learned by rote. He then brings up his method of teaching the text: he completed the entire work over the course of a whole year. In a final, unsigned note on the topic that was very likely written by Husayni, we are provided with an overall assessment of Seyhzade Ahmed’s teaching: “this person is like this: a man who is derelict [of his duties].” Damning words indeed! Peer teaching evaluations are a regular part of the evaluation process at my institution and if a colleague of mine had ever written this statement on any of my teaching evaluations, my provost would have had a long conversation with me about how to improve my teaching before the start of the next semester.
I teach at a private liberal arts college, and I have been involved in many conversations with colleagues about the nature of teaching within the context of curricular discussions at our institution. Some of my colleagues’ views on teaching, and my own, differ from those of our other colleagues: there are those of us who prefer to emphasize skills whereas some of our other colleagues prefer to emphasize content. Even in the midst of the most heated of conversations on the topic, I know that everyone at my institution is coming to the conversation from a place of deep concern for and commitment to student learning. Our conversations on campus are not novel; our views reflect different positions that we have staked in the broader context of curricular discussions currently taking place in higher education. There has been a long history of educators—and today we can also include politicians, entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley—rethinking the university’s purpose and curriculum and whom they serve.
So, were similar concerns behind Husayni’s critique of Seyhzade Ahmed’s teaching? After all, Seyhzade Ahmed had died more than sixty years before the critiques were leveled against him. What was the purpose of Husayni’s comments?
One audience that Husayni had in mind was his own students. He was informing his students that they were getting a much better education than previous ones at the institution. An earlier generation of students had a negligent teacher, but current students have a teacher who teaches the text thoroughly, intensively, and rigorously. Husayni showed no restraint in letting his students know how good they had it. In terms of pedagogy, the present is better than the past.
Another one of Husayni’s goals was to provide teaching advice to future teachers. The manuscript in which he placed his notes was distinct because it was part of the collection of books endowed to the Suleymaniye by the preeminent sixteenth-century Ottoman sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent. Husayni was the fourth teacher to add his comments to the text; this manuscript was the teaching text for hadith at the Suleymaniye Darulhadis in the seventeenth century. He could reasonably expect that later teachers at the institution would continue to use this manuscript for years to come.
Notes placed in the margins of a text allow for a continued conversation across time—long after the death of the individual writing them—and they can serve as the basis of future conversations with new audiences that can pull a text in a different direction. Such notes enable dialogue between the past, present, and future. Husayni intended his critique to provide a blueprint for teaching for later generations of teachers at the Suleymaniye Darulhadis. His comments are about teaching standards and, despite the harshness of how he phrased his words, there is an echo of familiarity to Husayni’s comments: there is always that teacher who asserts that he/she is the only one who maintains high standards and that no one else teaches to these standards. Husayni wanted to ensure that later generations of students would receive the same high-quality education that he was providing his students through notes placed in the margins of a text. His goal was to ensure the success of future generations of students.
Though Husayni’s critique of Seyhzade Ahmed was made in the seventeenth century, similarly negative variations of it endured in twentieth-century discussions of education reform in some of the post-Ottoman successor states. Oftentimes, as an emphasis on the “correct” type of pedagogy became equated with progress and modernization, the method of in-class, line-by-line reading with no discussion was portrayed as primarily taking place at institutions of Muslim learning in the early twentieth century. This style of teaching was then equated with antiquated modes of learning that were partially to blame for the Muslim world’s predicament. The realm of education became one of several sites for reformers to make their case for change based on the simplistic binary of modern versus traditional as discussions of pedagogy were inextricably linked to nationalistic visions of future success. Many of the people involved in these discussions were those who knew well the educational institutions they were critiquing, and a line can be traced from their public discussions about pedagogy and concerns about student learning to visions of reform and the goals of state formation.
When we talk about improving teaching in any time period, we are expressing our desire to improve student learning and securing their future success. These discussions are not value-neutral. In the contemporary period, advocates for a curriculum that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at the expense of the humanities make certain assumptions about the value of acquiring skills versus cultivating creativity and a vision of the economy for which they hope students will be prepared. Discussions about pedagogy similarly involve the adoption of particular sets of values. The peer teaching evaluation process is one way to initiate discussions about institutional values, to improve teaching in light of these values, and to cultivate the conditions for student success as defined by these values. It was precisely these concerns that were behind Husayni’s comments in this particular manuscript, and it is no surprise that these discussions took place in the seventeenth century, the twentieth century, and continue to take place in earnest today.
Discussions in both the past and present demonstrate that educators disagree about the methods used in the learning process and what form their involvement should be in it. We are still in search of the best way to facilitate this process. But it is clear—from the free-flowing marginal notes placed in a medieval text to the structured process at my institution—that the commitment to student learning is timeless and has been a shared concern in different places and transcends the realm of education. The intersection of discussions about student learning and peer critique is about a society’s vision for its future and the values it professes to espouse.