“And what of work, Sanaa? The one where Sanaa retires.”

Yasmine Motawy

Yasmine Motawy (YM): Sanaa, it is a pleasure to be speaking to you today for Rhetoric Today. You are an exceptional colleague, educator, scholar, advocate for student and faculty rights, and human. You were recognized for your advocacy on behalf of faculty in 2012 when you were named Outstanding Senator. On the occasion, our former Dean Switzer said that he had heard you referred to as the Lion of the Senate, which I find to be a perfect description of you in general. Today, you are our department's oldest faculty member, retiring in June after over 25 years of service.

I have thought up and down about how to use this space to celebrate your years here at AUC, to ask you questions that both make use of your institutional memory, your personal wisdom and ethos, and that address our concerns as educators in this unique moment in history when you are stepping out of academia, since the educational sector is one of the most impacted sectors by this pandemic and it seems will never look the same again.

Finally, the format that I felt appropriate for this interview with you was that of Khalil Gibran's prose poem The Prophet. This poem is set at the point where the fictional protagonist "the prophet" is about to board a ship leaving the city of Orphalese where he has lived for twelve years and is stopped by a group of people who pose questions about life, love, pain, good and evil, and death, as he poetically answers. I have included the relevant lines of Gibran’s poems in red for our colleagues to reflect on.

YM: A bit of history first: You joined AUC in 1970 as a BA student in English Literature graduating with highest honors and stayed until 1977 when you completed an MA in Islamic History. You returned from Harvard in 1981 after earning another MA and PhD in Muslim Political Philosophy followed by a year at the UNDP as a research analyst. You taught at the Freshman Writing Program at AUC from 1982 until 1985 when you met your husband on campus and took a break from teaching to start a family. In 1996, you returned and taught until today; tell us about that.

Sanaa Makhlouf (SM): Yes, I had planned to work only for one semester to pay for a family trip to Disneyland! I came as a one-semester hire and we made the trip to Disneyland, but then I was offered a full-time job by Lammert Holdijk, the Associate Chair, and I stayed for 25 continuous years. At the time, I felt that rhetoric and composition was a very invigorating field and that its founders--unlike those in other fields-- were culturally and racially diverse, and that there was a possibility for me as an Egyptian female academic to find a way to contribute and make a difference. What kept me going this long was that the constant drive to find issues that engaged students to read and write critically was stopping the mental ageing process for me! Teaching keeps you agile; it makes you aware of newer generations; it is like time travel to the future, and I found great reward in that.

YM: You have written before on the all-important question of reading. Tell us about reading, Sanaa.

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”

SM: Reading is what made me. It allowed me to live the many lives I could not live myself.

YM: Why can't you do that without reading? Why can’t you live many lives by following various Instagram accounts, for instance?

SM: Instagram is a performance made for a spectator, but you cannot live the life it presents; you can at best daydream yourself into it. Daydreaming is not even dreaming; what you dream is very personal.  Daydreaming is superimposing images of what you see onto yourself. Through reading, you experience an inner life. When you read, you are in the water, and you do not know how or where the waves will take you. A spectator is simply watching. No reading leaves you unchanged; for instance, I had to stop my readings in existentialist literature because I was really going underwater.

All my passion comes from my family of serious readers, who were always engaged in serious discussions on a range of issues, as well as from having been nurtured by excellent educators at school and university.

When we ask our students to read, something does happen, for we are asking them to get into the water. With screen time, on the other hand, you are consuming. You are not in the water, but the visuals are acting on your subconscious. With reading, you are questioning, listening, and engaging your mind, and your critical perceptions are brought in. To remain in the water, you need to swim. With watching, you can pretend you are not affected; there is an illusion of passivity, and you are not at all conscious of the cost of this passivity. To watch George Floyd being killed on a screen may seem like something you can switch off, but there is a psychological cost of watching a murder in rapt fascination until a man you know will die eventually dies. How can you disconnect from that? I refused to watch this footage as well as the New Zealand mosque massacre. When I received the circulating links by email, I immediately deleted them. I could not watch these atrocities; they would have become a part of me. There is a terrible cost coming to us today from all the watching that is being done.

YM: Are you saying that our students are safer reading about atrocities than they are watching them?

SM: While you are reading, you cannot be passive; you must react and eventually swim in order not to drown. When we read, we are conscious and dialoguing. Without training in reading, our students are left in a very dangerous place. We need to cultivate their desire to read and their desire to experience the world through reading. Then they can grow with that and learn to read the visual as a text. Reading becomes their armor and their way to maturity. They do not have to go through all of life’s events themselves.

I believe that a lot of mental health issues are happening because of a lack of reading; people are experiencing traumatic experiences firsthand themselves. They experience the horrors themselves; they experience human aloneness with the memories they are accumulating, and they are breaking down. I argue that the mental health issues we are having today can be traced to this overpowering exposure to visual content and a concomitant decrease of reading.

ISIS, the terrorist state, produced and circulated such powerful visual footage, but their writings were so B rated that they would never have passed muster with a reader! Visuals are so compelling to so many, though, that there is even a market for visualized perversion; people watch snuff videos on the dark web where women and children are raped and killed. If one read rather than experienced the visuals of all extremist ideologies, they would be found to be rather ineffective.

When we were developing the Freshman Writing Program in around 2003, we had a robust discussion and debate around whether to have writing or reading as our focus. At the time, I developed a reading course that was rejected, and I was told that reading was not necessary for good writing. The course was titled “Reading with Difficulty” and it was about how to grapple with difficult texts. In 2013, when the Mellon grant allowed us to develop the CORE/RHET courses, it brought reading back into focus.

YM: The incredibly popular freshman seminar course that you wrote that so many of us have taught, CORE 1010: Heroes and Demons is about good and evil. When I taught it, my modules followed the types of good and evil, the last being institutional good and evil, where I have used the Common Read book for 2020, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and discussed racism as institutional evil with my students. What of institutional good and evil, Sanaa?

You are good when you are fully awake in your speech,

Yet you are not evil when you sleep while your tongue staggers without purpose.

And even stumbling speech may strengthen a weak tongue.

SM: This is an opportune moment to help our students to cope with life. This may be the only place that they can get such preparation. They entrust themselves to us and we are teaching them a way of being, to value collegiality, engagement, a respect for knowledge bearers, integrity, and all these things that are covered with courses and credits but that are not dominated by the market. Institutional good is in allowing these things to flourish, and institutional evil is when an institution loses touch with its mission, thereby preventing these things from thriving, and missing this opportunity.

This opportunity is implicit in everything that we call academic, engaging in discourses with like-minded people who adhere to standards where knowledge is produced and disseminated without tangible reward. No system other than academia functions like this. It is completely irrational and uneconomic, and yet it is done for the love of giving and sharing. Where else can our students experience such a sharing space? I personally advocate a pass/fail system that removes barriers to joining majors and allowing students to do things just because they love them or are curious about them. When you commercialize and say that everything has a market value, this betrays that mission. There is an intrinsic value to an education that lies not in what it produces but in what it is.

YM: You are one of the department's go-to instructors for special students and an educator with a following of old students who rely on you for mentorship beyond their university years. What of empathy and student support, Sanaa?

The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

SM: I taught one of the first visually impaired students enrolled at AUC, so I had to teach myself about accessibility and course design for inclusion before there was institutional support for it. I pursued and shared what I knew in a seminar held within the framework of the 2008 AUC Research Conference on the old campus on teaching students with disabilities in higher education. Ann Lesch, our then Dean, UACT, and the Social Sciences faculty were all in attendance, and the Office of Students with Disabilities (OSD) was one of the outcomes of this initiative. I continued to work with the AUC Library and the new OSD to ensure access to the audio files from the digital Library of Congress, a sadly underutilized library resource for students with a wide range of physical and sensory impairments. This would open a whole world of accessible reading and research. It was a dream of mine to fully develop this support structure, and I hope that others will continue to strive for it.    

YM: The prophet answers questions about laws… What of advocacy, Sanaa?

And what is it to acknowledge the laws but to stoop down and trace their shadows upon the earth?

SM: This is what my work at the Senate and on the Policies and Procedures Committee is about; it is important to work on ways to address systemic issues. Policies give frameworks through which we can think through issues. I personally think this is what an academic institution stands for, a sense of fairness and giving everything its rightful due: the students, the profession, and the work.

YM: Edward Said discusses the role of the intellectual; does that resonate with what you are doing?

SM: Intellectuals are fine if they have skin in the game. If you have no stake in the matter, engagement is a luxury that I do not value much. I engage in issues where I have skin in the game, not that I stand to win in them, but that I stand to lose. Everything I have done in my advocacy work I have done at a risk and at great personal cost to myself.

YM: The prophet is asked about reason and freedom. What of reason, teaching argumentation, and critical thinking skills, Sanaa?

In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.

And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?

SM: This last year has brought into focus the importance of emotional intelligence and understanding the context of what is happening. With all the conspiracy theories, fake news, and alternative realities, it has become clear that you can operate in a world without any anchor. We need to rethink the learning outcomes we have set for transferring the skill of argumentation as a way to win in speaking to others. What is actually needed is emotional maturity, a sense of reality that is anchored in reason and an understanding of context. The virtual world ‘reality’ is confusing, as there is no point of reference outside of the issue itself; everything is so subjective and enmeshed in confirmation bias. I cannot help students determine if anything is true or not. I do not think that critical thinking today covers what they need to learn.

I think that in teaching argument and logic, we need to engage students in entertaining the long-term consequences of the positions they hold. I would not call it a rational or critical approach; I would say it is an openness to thinking about the long-term costs of what they do today. For instance, cheating may be seen by some students as a legitimate solution to real problems, but this is descriptive of short-term thinking through which anything goes. They do not think of the long-term implications of cheating. Teaching, therefore, becomes less about finding activities for them to do today, but to reset the compass with the hours ticking away as we engage with them in all our courses. We should also consider developing a cross-disciplinary course with philosophy on argumentation, formal logic, and logical fallacies because it is so important.         

YM: Faculty well-being in times of change is an important issue. What of work, Sanaa?

I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream,

assigned to you when that dream was born,

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life.

SM: My well-being has been in teaching and being with others. This has been part of my constitution, and I do not know now that I will be leaving this source of energy, what the future will hold. I hope to continue to provide support and advice to my colleagues, though.

YM: Gibran's protagonist is asked about friendship, and his response gives us some of the most memorable lines on the subject. What of collegiality, Sanaa?

And a youth said, Speak to us of Friendship.

And he answered, saying: Your friend is your needs answered.

SM: Many colleagues come to mind, but let me speak about Doris Jones. We first shared an office in the Falaki building, and we found that we had very similar lives; we both had five children and our life experiences corresponded in so many ways. We collaborated on so much and had great chemistry. It is part of the fortune of our department that it encourages so many of these collaborations that allow us to develop so many things together. So much of Doris went into my course design, my teaching, and my dealings with students. Doris raised my sensitivity to the students' need for respect and showed me that sincere respect was a transformative thing to give them.

On the old campus, we did not have separate offices, and that helped us to maintain a sense of collaboration and being together; we spent so much time together, holding conversations and commenting on the day's teaching. So much was exchanged and given and shared. On the new campus, we needed to work harder against the architecture that improved our material condition and gave us more privacy, on the one hand, but increased fragmentation, on the other. We were much more in sync as a department before the move, without the existence of detailed policies, when the norm was to discuss collectively and reach consensus together. Today, there are exclusive spaces and committees where decisions are made, often confidentially, for reasons that are legitimate but that increase separateness as well.    

It is impossible to create a shared mindset without shared spaces.

My nostalgia is that I came from a place with a more unified architecture that allowed for more natural multi-section streamlining and grassroots collaboration. Offices were shared and to go anywhere in the department, one had to pass by all our departmental offices. I am not suggesting recreating the past; I know that can never happen. What I am saying is that we need to be conscious of what we lost and how it was lost and to understand that it takes more work to deliberately nourish a sense of wholeness.

In 2016, our colleague Alyssa Young and I led a workshop on collegiality and found that there were a lot of formal structures impeding collegiality, like the necessity to see and report negative issues in peer observations of colleagues, the missed opportunity for learning from these class visits as a conscious strategy, the need to attribute so much to oneself alone to earn credit, and other elements.

It is part of a long-term commitment to the discipline and department to be there for one another in advancing our academic mission and our personal and professional well-being. It should not be about toxic positivity that can inhibit any serious conversations and the early tackling of issues before they become insurmountable. What I value are safe spaces for expressing views, which may not be widely shared, in environments of respect and serious engagement.

YM: What about the possibility of relying on online spaces to create this cohesiveness?

SM: The personas that we create online are entirely different from who we are.

YM: So can my avatar not be friends with your avatar?

SM: Oh yes, they can be friends, but this friendship would be the result of a creative process that reveals so much about its creators. So while it may be fostered, it will not last long! Right now, no one has the time to invest in anything communal, so collaboration needs to be cultivated by an administration that sees value in fostering collegiality and collaborative communal spaces and freeing time and space for it, knowing that the magic does not happen by itself. To begin with, our department would benefit greatly from a bigger, better, more inviting room that fits everybody and in which they can voluntarily congregate, a space proportional to the size of our huge department.

YM: Online teaching can feel like a communicative challenge. The prophet is asked about speech and teaching. What of online teaching, Sanaa?

And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.

SM: When I returned to work in the 90s, it was an opportune time for me to do so because the technology train had not left the station yet. In the 1990s, our students still wrote their papers by hand, and we had a common final writing exam and shuffled the papers randomly so we marked the writing to the exam, not the student we had taught and come to know. We all graded according to internalized departmental expectations. Many of us from that period see the new rubrics as confirmation of what we had already been practicing. Now, word processing has replaced handwritten papers, and computers came to play greater roles in our teaching. At one point, we had to introduce our students to computers and received faculty training on how to make Powerpoint presentations and use WebCT, Blackboard’s predecessor. With online teaching, I feel I have reached the end of a cycle, though. 

YM: How so?

SM: For all the toxic positivity around online learning, a lot has been lost that is unaccounted for, like the compelling presence of the teacher in the classroom, for instance. I already have very little memory of the students I taught online last semester, although they felt very real at the time. This shocks me. I still have vivid memories of my students from last spring, though, because I was with them for a month and a half before we moved online. I regret that this forgetting will repeat itself this semester, where I think that I know them now but I will not have memories of them or they of me after the experience ends, even if they remember some of what we learnt. In a way, this makes it easier for me to get on the boat and exit.

YM: The protagonist is asked about time... How have you seen AUC change over the last 25 years, Sanaa?

But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,

And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.

SM: The difference between the two mottos framed in the old campus and the new campus that I discuss in a previous Rhetoric Today piece is very relevant here. Learning as an organic growth in Lord Tennyson’s line of poetry above the Ewart Hall stage: “Let knowledge grow from more to more, But more of reverence in us dwell,” tells us that there is no right or wrong, and that we learn from whatever happens to us and what we are exposed to, remaining vigilant to the threat of growing arrogant in our attitudes.

The new motto by futurist Alvin Toffler on the new campus website established following the move: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”, which conjures different values and has now been erased from the AUC website. It makes us containers that can trash ‘knowledge’ that becomes useless, a material model of containers that cannot grow, but that can dump. The repeated action of filling and dumping presents a challenge, as Toffler expands and points out, that we will one day be too old to acquire new knowledge, and our hardware will break down and become incompatible with the software and then we will become obsolete.

One motto is about life and bearing fruit, and the other is about being on a continuous treadmill that is unsustainable and will lead you to inevitable obsolescence. The more disturbing thing is that when I share these images and metaphors with my students, they are mostly not disturbed and are willing to continue learning, knowing that this knowledge can become obsolete. This brings me back to reading and visual literacy and what makes visual experiences dangerous. Those who see these images think that they can simply unlearn them, forget them, delete them, and put other materials in their place. They think they are containers, not that things seep into deeper levels. The metaphor that Toffler offers is illusory, because we are not containers and what we learn and see becomes embedded within us on a cellular level, and we do not really unlearn anything, but rather find these things in other contexts and are shocked. But it is just us looking back at us.

Brief were my days among you, and briefer still the words I have spoken.

But should my voice fade in your ears, and my love vanish in your memory, then I will come again,

And with a richer heart and lips more yielding to the spirit will I speak.


Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet is in the public domain and available on LibriVox. Sanaa Makhlouf will continue to reside in Cairo and is available at sanaly@aucegypt.edu.