History Professor Manan Ahmed – DT009
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Manan Ahmed is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of two books and is working on a third. His most recent book is titled A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia and his upcoming book is titled, The Loss of Hindustan. He is also the author of Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a collection of blog essays.
Professor Ahmed speaks with Dean Harris about the process of becoming a historian, his scholarship that challenges conventional wisdom about the origins of Muslims in South Asia, and offers some insight into how he fuses his scholarship with public engagement.
Associate Professor of History at Columbia University
History Professor Manan Ahmed – DT009
Fred: Manan Ahmed is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of two books and is working on a third. His most recent book is titled A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia. The book traces and challenges the narratives of Muslim conquest in the history of South Asia, and in doing so, provides an important corrective to the divisions between Muslim and Hindu that often defines Pakistani and Indian politics today. Manan’s upcoming book is titled, The Loss of Hindustan, a book that promises to explore the political and historiographic idea of Hindustan that was a British colonial project. Manan is also the author of Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a collection of blog essays that interrogates the imagination, or the lack thereof, on American elites perspectives on Pakistan. I invited Manan to The Dean’s Table to talk about the process of becoming a historian, to reflect on his scholarship that challenges conventional wisdom about the origins of Muslims in South Asia, and to give us some insight on how he fuses his scholarship with public engagement on contemporary issues facing South Asia. Manan, welcome to The Dean’s Table.
Manan Ahmed: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
Fred: So, I would like to start with the sentence I read in the acknowledgment section of your monograph, A Book of Conquest. It is the very first sentence, and it reads as follows: “In the summer of 1995, I was an undocumented fast-food worker who walked off the street into the offices of Matthew S. Gordon and Linnea Dietrich at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and asked for their help in becoming a historian.” Tell me about your journey of becoming a historian.
Manan Ahmed: Absolutely, yeah. So, I guess the background to that story is that I came to the United States in order to become a computer engineer and that was something my parents — my father was working as an electrical engineer and was very keen that I follow in the family tradecraft. I did that for a couple of years and then I basically lost my will to remain an engineer and I didn’t know what the next step was. And during that process, I also was no longer an active student and fell out of status — I became undocumented. And that lasted for about four or five years —
Fred: Oh, really?
Manan Ahmed: — where I was in many kinds of customer service, service-oriented work in the service industry. And during this process, I kept reading books and basically keeping a note of what kind of books I was reading because I had no model that I wanted to be a historian at that time; I was just reading things.
Fred: How did you select the books?
Manan Ahmed: I actually just purchased them by weight. So, there was a warehouse next to the Taco Bell where I worked. And you could go there with a bag, and you could fill the bag with as many books as you want, and the bag cost one dollar. And so, these were remaindered texts. So, I would just buy these books for a dollar.
Fred: Randomly selecting books?
Manan Ahmed: I mean, I started to kind of — if I remember correctly — I think I started with biographies and I think I went really deep into the history of psychology for a long time.
Manan Ahmed: And then eventually I got this — let me see if I could remember this correctly. Daniel Boorstin was an American historian and I read these books of his. One was called The Discoverers, and they were kind of big-picture world history books. And I really just agreed with them in the sense of the scale and the writing. And I disagreed with them in the sense that the Muslim world, or the people of color, were absent from this world, that we didn’t discover anything, we were the discovered. And I didn’t have that kind of language, but I recognized the lack of history that I was familiar with from my own background. So, I went to the library and I looked up in the Who’s Who — this is 1993 or ‘94 — I looked up in the Who’s Who his address and he was the Librarian of Congress. So, I wrote him a letter.
Manan Ahmed: And I said, “I would like to, basically, do what you did, as in, write this kind of history book. How do I do this? Like, how do you do that?” And I mailed it out and a few months later, I got a letter back.
Fred: Was it a pat response?
Manan Ahmed: No, it was a response from him and he said, “Thank you.” Because I — in my letter I said, “Well, you did this wrong. Because I know for a fact that, you know, we invented algebra.”
Fred: So, you had some critical perspectives.
Manan Ahmed: And so, he wrote back and he said, “Thank you for your letter and I think you are correct, as in — I feel like you can be a historian.” And that was kind of a moment where I said, “Oh, okay, one can become this.” He wasn’t born with this book in his hand, so to speak. And at that point, I was living in a very small town in south Ohio. And one day, just kind of driving, I chanced upon this campus, which was the Miami, Ohio campus.
Fred: Was it in the town, Oxford?
Manan Ahmed: Oxford, Ohio, exactly. And it was a random Thursday or Friday maybe. It was summer, so there were no students around. And we just parked the car and I just asked someone, like, “Where’s the History Department?” And they pointed to a building. I went inside the building. All the doors were closed except one, in which, in retrospect, a young man was unpacking some books. And I knocked on the door. And he was Matthew Gordon, who was a Columbia graduate. He had just graduated from Columbia and gotten his assistant professorship. And I said to him, “I would like to become a historian.” And he said, “What are you talking about?”
And he said, “Do you have a B.A.?” And I said, “No, I don’t have a B.A. in history.” I mean, I had a B.A. in computer science. And he said, “Well, you have to get a B.A. in history, and then you have to get a PhD and this, and then.” He was very nice and very patient and very lovely and he sat with me over the next weeks. He helped me write an application that got me admitted into Miami, Ohio and I did my B.A. there in history.
Fred: So, you did another four years, or another undergraduate degree?
Manan Ahmed: Yeah, I did a full undergraduate degree and then, Linn Dietrich was the other person I met. She was an art historian; a very, very influential person for me. Both of them basically gave me the training and, like literally, taught me how to write in a sense because I had never written a word in English. And, yeah, that’s how — and so, from there I went into a PhD program in Chicago.
Fred: Right, we’ll get there in a moment, but this is very interesting. So, what are your thoughts on mentorship, given your own introduction to the discipline of history by these mentors?
Manan Ahmed: I have never not responded to an email because you don’t know who writes to you and how you intersect with them. And I think the lesson I learned, which is a lesson I keep, is that people who show up at your door, who send you an email, they deserve your attention. And I think if this young assistant professor hadn’t given me attention at that very moment that I needed attention, I don’t know if I had the will to follow through. Like, you know, there’s a storyline where I show up randomly, and the person says, “I’m sorry, I’m just starting this job here. I don’t know. Please go to the admissions office.”
Manan Ahmed: And that would have been it and I don’t know how the next things would have — So, I think for the mentorship, the question that has always been foremost to me is, like, “How can I be as ethical to everyone that comes into contact with me as these individuals — Linn Dietrich and Matthew Gordon — were to me?” And I’ve been lucky enough that even in a graduate program, I kept encountering individuals who have been generous, who’ve been ethical. And so, the question of mentorship has really been shaped by my own personal history and in recognizing that people come at you from very different backgrounds. And it’s not like everyone isn’t already trained, doesn’t already have the answers, so, to recognize that is, perhaps, I think a very important step.
Fred: Right, so, that’s interesting. So, several years later after this encounter with these mentors, you start graduate school at the University of Chicago. What was that experience like?
Manan Ahmed: It was quite intense. I mean, University of Chicago is a — especially the programs that I was interested in, the Near East and South Asia — they’re very philologically-centered, they’re on the Germanic model. A lot of German-Jewish faculty joined the University in the first half and the second half of the 20th century. It was something that, in a sense, I was not prepared for. I’m coming from a very small liberal arts college and my peers were coming from research R1 institutions and had many years of language training that I didn’t have. And it took me a few years to kind of find myself as a student. And again, it was a lot of thinking alongside intellectuals who were willing to sit with me and explain, you know, the “Chicago way.”
Fred: Right, yes, which is a particular way, I’ve been told.
Manan Ahmed: Yeah, it’s a very particular way, and they insist on it. But I was lucky in the sense that Chicago at that moment was a place where some of the leading scholars for postcolonial thought as well as people who were thinking about questions of globalization were there when I joined. And then, some people who were very influential and went on to be my colleagues here — like Sheldon Pollack, where he was the chair of the department when I was there — ended up shaping a lot of my intellectual work.
Fred: Okay, so, then tell me about your book, A Book of Conquest — any Chicago influences? Because I suspect it’s from your dissertation. But I just want to quote here; one reviewer notes, “It is an innovative, refreshing, and provocative intellectual history that makes a major intervention in debates surrounding the question of Islam’s advent in the South Asian subcontinent.” And this reviewer goes on to say, “It aims at dismantling the dominant origins myth that portrays Islam’s encounter with India as conquest.” So, tell us more about this project. What is it really about?
Manan Ahmed: Right, in a sense, I grew up — before I came to the United States, I grew up in Lahore in Pakistan and I grew up in a military dictatorship. So, I came to my political, as well as kind of social, maturity as a 13-, 14-year-old. So, it’s a very, very old city — as in, we have accounts as far back as the 4th, 5th century, and it’s been inhabited since then. And it’s a city, also, that is part of a network that connects it to Kabul and Delhi on the one hand, and the Indian Ocean on the other end because of the rivers that intersect it. So, it’s — I mean, in wide cultural terms, it’s always been known as a seed of intellectual poetry, religious and sacral power — so, not state. So, it was one of the key sites for print publication in the early part of the 20th century, so, most of the presses were there, a lot of authors were there, a little bit of kind of a Paris vibe, in terms of intellectuals who congregated there in the ‘20s and ‘30s. By the time I was in Lahore, Lahore was the seat of political unrest against the military dictatorship. And so, a lot of my colleagues, a lot of my peers, we were actively resisting Zia-ul-Haq, who was a dictator who, once he had taken power, kind of oriented himself in alliance with the United States as someone fighting the proxy war in Afghanistan. You know, this is the kind of birth of the Taliban, as we all know. The argument that he used internally to the citizens of Pakistan was that we Pakistanis are not at all like the Hindus of India. And that Pakistan exists in a geospatial and cultural relationship with the Middle East and is no longer part of the Indian subcontinent. So, even if we are ethnically, racially, linguistically from South Asia, we need to be imagining ourselves as Arab and looking towards the Middle East. So, that’s what you hear in your classroom, your school textbook. When I came home, my family had a longstanding commitment to Urdu poetry. And so, we would read — me and my mother, especially — we would read these poets who were speaking in a lexical register that dated back three, four hundred years and connected to Deccan and Delhi in profound ways. So, in a way, at home you’re reading a poem that has nothing to do with the Middle East. It has everything to do with what we call “India,” because that’s the political border.
Manan Ahmed: And I think when I began graduate school, one of the puzzles that I wanted to solve was how Zia-ul-Haq, as a dictator, was able to marshal an argument that 160 million people connected geographically to a subcontinent didn’t actually belong to that subcontinent. And in order to rethink that, I began looking at the source around which this narrative was constructed. And the way that the military state constructed this narrative was — and it also inherited it — but the bulk of it was that there was this general by the name of Muhammad bin Qasim, who in the 8th century came as a part of a military campaign to Sindh — which is right in the Arabian Gulf, currently close to Karachi, the mega-city of Karachi. And the argument was that this general in the 8th century, 712, was the first citizen of Pakistan because he was from Arabia, from Syria. And that Pakistan, even though it was founded in 1947, was founded by this — that’s the founding father of it.
Fred: Oh, I see.
Manan Ahmed: And so, they do — in a sense, our school textbook made this radical jump that goes from 712 CE to 1947. And we were told that we had to be like Muhammad bin Qasim, and, you know, just a very similar story as in your Washington or your Hamilton —
Fred: Founding Fathers.
Manan Ahmed: — Founding Fathers. So, the book is really in a sense forcing us to rethink that history, to rethink this jump. And the way that I imagined doing it in my dissertation ended up being very different than the way I did it in the book I published, but it involved us as scholars, scholars especially of South Asia, to confront a very basic prejudice that I think the British colonial regime embedded in it. And that’s the prejudice that said: “Muslims are really in the Middle East. They’re in Mecca and Medina in Arabia. And if you’re a Muslim man in Indonesia, or if you’re a Muslim man in China, or if you’re a Muslim man in South Asia, then you’re foreign.” And this is absolutely backwards if you compare it to the question of Christianity — that Christianity is not actually Bethlehem; as in, you could be Christian in any part of the world and then have an additional identity that you ascribe to. And this was really the kind of colonial way of what the older historiography called “divide and conquer,” so, creating a division between different segments of the society, which more or less got internalized because the nationalism that came into being in the early part of the 20th century also recognized this as a winning strategy. And we see this — obviously we see this now with the idea that, you know, there’s only someone, some very particular subset of people, that can be counted in the “Make America Great Again,” that America is a very small group of people.
Fred: Right, so, maybe you’re getting to my next question, which is: what are your thoughts on the Amended Citizenship Act in India?
Manan Ahmed: Yeah, I mean, this is the direct correlation precisely to the problem that I’m just raising.
Fred: Could you tell our listeners what’s that act all about?
Manan Ahmed: Absolutely, so, this is a party that — the B.J.P., which is currently in power and has been in power — this is the second term —
Fred: In India.
Manan Ahmed: — in India, but this particular strain of argument that they have been using has been there since the early ‘80s, and really, in 1992 when a mosque was demolished in Ayodhya. And the argument is, as my forthcoming book will argue, is an argument that was made in 1905, 1906. The argument was that the word Hindustan — Hindu in the word Hindustan — meant that Hindus are the only inheritors and residents and citizens of what becomes the Republic of India. Now, the roots of this — what’s called a “two-nation theory” — are something that I tackled in A Book of Conquest; that this is the colonial state’s intervention into this history, but that logic is picked up by nationalism — both Indian nationalism of this very recent variety and Pakistani nationalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s — in order to make the argument that only Muslims belong in Pakistan and only Hindus belong in India. Now, there are 300 million Muslims in India. There are 30 million non-Muslims in Pakistan. These individuals are then asked by the state to prove their citizenships, to prove their sense of belonging. And so, the new law that’s been passed — there’s two laws. There’s the National Registry, in which everyone has to prove that they are, in India, citizens. And then, this Citizenship Act that is asking them to register if — giving them a path to citizenship if they are refugees, but not of Muslim origins or from Pakistan, et cetera. So, the net result is precisely to argue that India can only be a space where Hindus can live and to expel those that are considered to be outsiders. In this particular case, the Indian state is saying that in the Northeast, we have Rohingya and Bangladeshis who are coming in and we have to expel them, but the logic of the law could be applied to any Muslim who happens to be in the Republic of India.
Fred: I want to switch gears a bit and I want to talk about your public engagement through your scholarship. You blog, you’ve been featured on news shows like Democracy Now, you’ve been involved in online projects that focus on new scholarship, and you put together a collection of essays in a book aimed at a public audience. It’s titled Where the Wild Frontiers Are. So, in that book you mention that your purpose was to disrupt narratives on South Asian history. You also mention that some faculty in your graduate program told you, and I’m quoting here, “The public space is already lost.” Do you believe that? You’ve written quite a bit of op-eds.
Manan Ahmed: Absolutely, I don’t believe it, as in, I don’t believe my erstwhile advisors.
Fred: Right, right, tell us about that work and that collection of essays. Who was your intended audience?
Manan Ahmed: So, again — I mean, I started a graduate program in ‘99 and when September 11 happened, when the attacks happened on World Trade Center, I was in London doing research. So, I was in the British Library that day and I came out, and I was one of the people who were — because air traffic was stopped for almost ten days — I was one of the people who couldn’t come back. And I was also a Pakistani passport holder. So, 9/11 really — those of us who were in graduate school or in this intellectual environment — 9/11 really forced us to rethink our relationship with the public. That it wasn’t passive. It wasn’t a choice, especially if we were identified by others as being Muslim or having a particular relationship to countries that were identified as a source of danger. So, George W. Bush had this axis of evil that he identified and, you know, my scholarship was on the axis of evil. And at the moment, I remember very acutely that I went to my advisors, who were scholars of immense credibility and scholars of colonization, scholars of decolonization and I said to them, “It’s very important that you speak up.” Because all we were hearing was that the war in Afghanistan was correct, the war in Iraq was correct. And no one was speaking up to say, “Here’s a historical world view. Or here’s the reason in which these wars are a bad idea.” And then, as you read in that quote, my advisors, or my scholars that I was being trained by, said, “You know, this country is convinced that it must go to war and there’s nothing we can do about it.” And I specifically said to one of my advisors, like, “I mean, you are one of the big scholars of Islam. You should write to Chicago Tribune, the local newspaper, an op-ed about the question of Islam and how it has been shaped.” And he said, “Look, this is not — it’s not worth it.” And so, there was a kind of strategy of quietism, I might say, or removal from the public sphere as intellectuals. Especially intellectuals who were Muslim or intellectuals who were — who felt themselves in danger opening up to — I mean, Rashid Khalidi, who’s now my colleague, was one of the scholars who was speaking out because he had been speaking about the question of Palestine for so long. And I think he was receiving, at that time, a lot of negative attention. And I think other colleagues who didn’t have that experience were reticent to participate in it. I began blogging precisely because I didn’t believe that the public sphere was lost and that I didn’t have a role to play in it. I mean, I was just a graduate student in second-year grad school. I claim no expertise in anything.
Fred: Is this your introduction into being a public intellectual?
Manan Ahmed: Absolutely, I mean, you know — I mean, I worked in Taco Bell. You know what I mean — ?
Fred: You know, I worked at Burger King, so —
Manan Ahmed: There you go. So, we know how to talk to — public is a question of service. But, that was exactly — So, after 9/11, I began by — people would ask me — I went to, what do you call them? Columbus? Knights of Columbus.
Fred: Ah, really?
Manan Ahmed: These lodges.
Fred: Yeah, that’s very kind of, middle of the road spaces.
Manan Ahmed: Yeah, these very — these lodges — and they would ask me to come and speak to them about Islam.
Fred: How were you received?
Manan Ahmed: You know, they listened to me.
Fred: Is this in Chicago?
Manan Ahmed: This is in Chicago. This is in Ohio because I still had contacts in Ohio. So, I started there. I just would go —
Fred: How did you get these invitations?
Manan Ahmed: Because people knew that I was studying Islam, people who were in the community in Ohio. And there was an actual genuine cry from the public, like, “We want to hear more.” So, I started with these Knights Lodges, I went to libraries, and then I began to — because of my computational background, I knew how to set up a blog, and I set one up, and I started writing on it. And that quickly became a place where, especially graduate students and junior faculty who were studying questions of Islam from various backgrounds, started to congregate. And I want to say, within two years, we had a very substantive public presence. I mean, I was invited by New York Times to write my first op-ed, basically because I was blogging on all these issues.
Fred: Did you find the work rewarding? Did you think you were making a difference?
Manan Ahmed: I think, I guess I never asked myself in those terms of making a difference. But I definitely never felt that I was speaking into a vacuum. I always felt that there was a dialogue. I mean, I got a lot of negative attention as well, but there was always a dialogue. There was always a positive relationship that I always had.
Fred: So, this is interesting to me because we get a lot of perspectives on public engagement, that American society is too ideologically polarized. And so, it seems as though you were talking to people on the opposite end who were receptive. Have you seen a shift, in that moment from where we are today, at least in American society?
Manan Ahmed: It’s a good question. I mean, I remember one of my radio shows that I went to was a very conservative radio host. And he had me on in order to basically make a case against — at that point, this must be 2004 — expanding the war in Iraq to Iran, which he was convinced of. And I went there and we spoke for about two hours, and it was a call-in show so people could call in. And everyone who was calling in was a supporter of the Iraq War and was a supporter of expanding the theater. I remember after the show ended, he said to me, “It’s good that you were able to articulate your position and hold onto it, because we just don’t see an informed, principled other side. And you see, like, ‘No War in Iran’, or ‘No War,’ but there’s no depth to that. But, you were able to explain things that didn’t come through.” And I don’t think I convinced him, but I think he listened to me, which is a different — that, I think, is important to hold on to. I think as scholars, as experts, as informed citizens, it’s our duty to contribute our, you know — which is always going to be more complex, more nuance, more history, more theoretical — to the public discourse. I think it’s a mistake to say that the public discourse is black and white, and if we are to engage in it, we have to be black and white. I think our commitment to scholarship has always been — within our scholarly circles is always — to a finer, more gritty, more granular, more reformed outlook. And I think that those habits and those skills and that training — we as people who are situated in the academy, I think we have to take those skills and those positions to the public discourse. Not to become black or white, but rather to insist upon the granularity, to insist upon the history, insist upon the contextuality because no one else is trained and/or able to do that. And I think that’s a unique position that we hold in the academy, or as academics.
Fred: So, a little bit more about your blog, Chapati Mysteries. Where did you get that title?
Manan Ahmed: So, the Chapati Mysteries — so, the title is a nod to a mystery that the British colonial regime was forced to stare at for a long time. And this is what’s known as the kind of — we call it The Uprising, but in the colonial terms, it was called the Sepoy Rebellion. And this is in 1857. It began in 1857, lasted for a couple of years. And this was the first major indigenous attempt to overthrow the colonization of the East India Company in north India. And the reason it became that the colonial state, after it had crushed the rebellion, became obsessed with chapatis — which are these breads, naan breads, that you may order at any restaurant, Indian restaurant or a Pakistani restaurant, Bangladeshi — was that the colonial state was convinced that the network of information through which the rebels had coordinated with each other was carried by these chapatis that held secret meanings. And the idea was that baked into this bread were messages. And they became obsessed with cracking that code. And it became — and, you know, this would be a familiar story to those of us who have worked on slave rebellions and other kinds, where songs and colors and symbols became imbued with meaning by the colonizer and the slave owner. So, the chapati became such a thing. So, after the rebellion was crushed and a lot of the rebels were executed — brutally executed and killed and enslaved and taken and sent to prison in the Andaman Islands — an inquest was held about the meaning of the chapati. And I think as a graduate student, but perhaps in my own sensibility, I really responded to this idea that there are meanings that are secret from the powers that be that hold communities together. And the colonial state couldn’t crack this and shouldn’t crack this and will never crack this. So, the mystery of the chapati was: what does it mean?
Fred: Oh, I see. So, you’ve probably mentioned this already, but you use a very specific term to talk about your scholarship, or what maybe scholarship should be. You use the phrase “process-based scholarship.” Can you say more about what you mean by process-based scholarship?
Manan Ahmed: I mean, one of the things that I’m really interested in is contextualizing the ways in which scholarship emerges from activism and goes towards pedagogy. And I think both of those venues are ways in which we perform different steps as scholars and as citizens and as activists. And I think by looking at the kind of fullness of our intellectual worlds and seeing how different types of narrative get deployed in different ways — and as we deploy them — I think it’s very important for us as scholars to, kind of, be aware of it as a methodology and to deploy it. I think, oftentimes, even with graduate students nowadays, I find a reticence in recognizing that their role as a teacher, their role as a citizen, and their role as a scholar are codependent and intermingled. And I think students want — maybe, perhaps, wish — for a more rigid separation between these processes because it makes — in all the other precarities, it makes a certain sense, I think, to say, “Oh, if I can just focus on this, this is what it is.” But I think it’s a disservice to our intellectual worlds to insist on that separation. So, that’s where I think I try my best to write from a perspective that is very cognizant of the various processes that I am a part of. I also tried to envision my scholarship speaking in different ways and it’s not simply the product of a monograph, and it’s not simply a product of — you know, in sort of one — not just the classroom, but there is a process that connects everything.
Fred: So, Manan, describe for me the Group for Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research
Manan Ahmed: xpmethod — so, we are a group of scholars based in the History Department, in the English Department, computer science, sociology, in the library. And we are scholars at different ranks, so, everyone from undergraduate to professor. And we are a group that does what we call “mobilized humanities.” We do projects that are a response to specific events and intellectual work that we think is of use to the broader world. And what we began by thinking about was how to — in response, for example, to particular events in the world — how do we as social science and humanities scholars mobilize ourselves? So, we started doing projects, such as in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the destruction in Puerto Rico, a mapping project that brought together students and faculty and staff to draw maps where — At the moment, there were no maps for rescue workers to understand what was happening. When the southwestern borderland spaces were categorized as a “No-Pass Zone” by the Trump administration, and then families were being apprehended in the summer of 2018, we began a project to map ICE detention centers and the presence of ICE across the United States. And so, the idea here is that we are all scholars, whether we work in the library or we work in a particular department. And then, we can produce something in a very short period of time that can be utilized for pedagogy, used in the classroom, could be used by journalists, who have a general training and we have a specialized training. So, they create something from a generalist perspective, but we can create something from a specialized perspective. And so, the idea with these projects has always been to collapse these boundaries between classroom, scholarship, and even within the university, we have boundaries between disciplines and staff and faculty and graduate students and undergraduate. You know, I mean, there’s lots of hierarchies.
Manan Ahmed: And so, the Group for Experimental Methods is really a project-based space where we are committed to the idea of nonhierarchical, collaborative work that is short-term and very focused. So, it’s not — it doesn’t extend — we do very small, specific projects. Everyone gets equal credit and we aim this to be facing outwards, aim this for consumption. So, the Torn Apart project that we did in the summer 2018 ended up being heavily used by other colleagues in journalism, in other departments, other libraries, and I think contributed to people realizing the footprint of ICE in this country when that conversation hadn’t started yet. I mean, you know, it’s a much more visible conversation now a couple years later. But I think that was certainly coming from this philosophy of coming together and using our scholarship to do something, rather than cordoning our scholarship and saying, “Let’s work here as activists. No, we are scholars.” Let’s work as activists from our scholarly perspective.
Fred: More like scholar-activists?
Manan Ahmed: More like scholar-activists, yeah, absolutely. I mean, the late Edward Said had a lot of mean things to say about what he called the “scholar-warriors,” I think. You know, the people who were advocating for war in the Middle East. And I think there’s a positive version of that.
Fred: Right, so, I actually have a final question. And so, Manan, you’re a historian, so you’re very good at remembering dates. You just told me where you were during 9/11. You were in a British library.
Manan Ahmed: Yeah.
Fred: Do you remember where you were on December 15th last year? Were you thirty-eight-thousand feet somewhere?
Manan Ahmed: Oh, right, yeah. Yes, I was. I was thirty-eight-thousand feet in the air.
Fred: Did you get some important news?
Manan Ahmed: I did, I did, it was a phone call from my department chair, Adam Kosto, informing me that I’ve been given tenure at Columbia.
Manan Ahmed: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Fred: So, you do have a good memory. Well, thanks for coming through The Dean’s Table. This has been fun.
Manan Ahmed: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
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The Dean’s Table is produced by Ursula Sommer with production assistance from Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are A.J. Mangone, Airiayana Sullivan, and John Weppler. Our researchers are Emma Flaherty and Angeline Lee. Our logo is by Jessica Lilien. Our music is by Imperial. I’m Dean Harris.