Teaching online is much more taxing and difficult, says scholar from US

Published May 17, 2020
PARTICIPANTS in the webinar held at Habib University on Friday evening. — White Star
PARTICIPANTS in the webinar held at Habib University on Friday evening. — White Star

KARACHI: It is important how to think critically and rationally at a time when we are bombarded with nonsense, fake science, propaganda, lies and conspiracies.

This was the point eloquently made by eminent scholar Dr Reza Aslan at a webinar on ‘Preserving Legacies and Protecting Futures’ organised by Habib University on Friday evening.

Dr Aslan, who was one of the two main speakers for the event, said these days universities all over the world are confronted with the issue of having to figure out how to teach online (distance learning). Earlier, a lot of professors began to think this was easy. “I could do it in my pajamas, from home.” [But], Dr Aslan lamented, it has been a nightmare. Teaching online has been much more taxing and difficult; it’s a wake-up call to the fundamental difficulties that liberal arts education has been having across the globe. In the US, where he is based and teaches at a liberal arts school, it is hard to teach students who are facing death and destruction and filled with anxiety. It’s not easy to tell them, “Let’s read some literature, let’s talk about culture and art.”

Dr Aslan said it is also a reminder about the significance of all those things: how liberal arts education at a time of existential crisis like this is even more important than we think it is. The notion to teach how to think critically and rationally in a period when we are bombarded with nonsense, fake science, propaganda, lies and conspiracies is important. The idea that we think historically when we are looking at the immediate present and the uncertainty that it brings, and to expand our horizon with a historical perspective to understand what this moment means… those are the kinds of things that can be fostered. “So, as a professor of liberal arts, I realise that there is in the sense nothing more important than to teach kids, young people, how to have broader perspectives, to understand culture, to foster rational thinking and to cultivate the young minds who one day will rid us of these kinds of pandemics.”

Webinar underscores importance of liberal arts

Dr Azra Raza was the second speaker. She peppered her talk with piece of Urdu and English poetry. She said she’s an oncologist who sees 40 patients a week. “The only good news that we can give to cancer patients is that if it can detected early.” She raised the question: can’t we reach that first cell? And argued we should monitor the human body constantly. In the decade of 2020-2030, she claimed, we are going to see a complete change in the way we do healthcare.

She showed the webinar participants a chip which can detect, sitting at home, if anyone has prostate cancer. She called it the ultimately biotechnology. Quoting the economist Adam Smith, she said humans want to be loved and also want to be lovely. It means they want to be loved for the right reasons. And you get to those right reasons through liberal arts. This point led her to stress the importance of history, philosophy and literature.

Dr Raza added through [her favourite] poetry we can learn to become concise while being brave. It is closer to molecular biology. She quoted a couplet to drive her point home:

Arz o sama kahan teri wusat ko pa sakey
Mera hi dil hai woh ke jahan tu sama sakey

[Earth and sky can’t capture your vastness Only my heart can encapsulate it]

Both speakers also shared some fond memories of the late Ali Suleman Habib, who served on the Board of Governors of the Habib University.

Bashir Ali Mohammad and Nargis Soorty from the Resource Development Committee of Habib University also spoke about their late friend and colleague. Joined by his mother Munizae, Imran Habib, Ali Suleman’s eldest son, spoke about his father and his legacy.

Founding Chancellor and patriarch of the Habib family Rafiq M. Habib said that he had known Ali Suleman since his birth and they had worked together for some 40 years. “I have lost my son and my right hand,” he said before offering Fateha for the departed soul.

Wasif Rizvi, president of Habib University, hosted the webinar.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2020

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