Between academic and popular audiences: Peter Dziedzic tells us about his latest achievements

Peter Dziedzic (Cohort VI, USA) is currently a PhD Candidate in Comparative Studies, Literary Studies and the Arts at Harvard University. Last semester he had the opportunity to build and teach his dream class, and he also just came out with a new book.

Q: Tell us about this dream class you taught?

A: The class was titled “Sacred Texts: Rumi’s Masnavi and Persian Sufi Poetry.” It was an introduction to Persian Sufi literature through the works of Rumi, one of the best-selling and most popular poets in the US today. The class began by interrogating the popular translations of Rumi available today and asking – how close are these popular verses to the original Persian poetry? Through introductions to Islamic and Sufi thoughts, we pursued in-depth readings of Rumi’s works, considering the religious, spiritual, ethical, and literary layers that do not come across in contemporary translations. For most students, it was an introduction to Islamic and Sufi thought and literature.

I was surprised by how interested the students were in the material. I was expecting a number of students to take the class to fulfill a program requirement, but many students were personally interested in the material, which was encouraging and inspiring. I think it is a testament to both Rumi’s popularity and how little he is understood in context by readers today.

For a final project, I offered students the opportunity to pursue a creative project. One possibility was to compose a masnavi (a genre of Persian poetry which follows specific formal requirements), to get a taste of the technical skill that went into Rumi’s composition of this long spiritual epic poem. Most of the students opted for this assignment and many thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it helped them appreciate the material more. This was encouraging. I wasn’t sure if this assignment would be successful, but it resonated with the majority of the class.

Q: Was there anything challenging?

A: Of course, teaching on Zoom. It was hard to gauge who was engaged, who was listening, who had questions, etc. I felt I did not connect with my students in the same way I would in person. Despite this, there was still good feedback from the students.

Q: Did you learn something new through the teaching process?

A: It might be a cliché, but after teaching, I firmly believe that teachers learn as much from their students as students learn from teachers. I think to be a good teacher, one must have an attitude of exploring material not for students, but with his/her students. Along the journey, they offer surprising and interesting readings that you wouldn’t discover on your own. Of course, you bring certain knowledge, skills, and methodological considerations to the table, but the students offer remarkable, new insights each time.

Q: How has your experience with the Russell Berrie Fellowship Program helped prepare you for the work you’re doing today?

A: This class was very much an interreligious encounter, since nearly everyone in the class was a non-Muslim engaging a Muslim text and exploring contours and aspects of Islamic thought, literature, and spirituality. The class entailed intimately encountering, learning from—and in a way, respectfully inhabiting—another religious world in order to come away with a new understanding about how millions of people over centuries have benefited from Rumi’s poems. The course also entailed a historical exploration of the interreligious world of Rumi, looking at how Christians and contemporary New Age communities have read and engaged with Rumi’s works. The Russell Berrie Fellowship very much prepared me to lead this extended encounter of “respectful inhabiting” of another religious world in a spirit of intellectual sincerity, academic rigor, and an openness of encounter that characterizes the academic training and experiential learning we were offered as Russell Berrie Fellows through our studies at the Angelicum, our encounters with our program colleagues in Rome, and our trip to Israel.

Q: You’ve also got a new book called Symphonies of Theophanies: Moroccan Meditations that came out April 30, 2021. Could you tell us more about it?

A: This book was written in 2015 when I was a Fulbright scholar in Morocco. During my time there, I became familiar with the Sufi communities in Morocco. Over time, I collected a range of vignettes based on wonderful and interesting experiences—visiting graves of Jewish rabbis and “saints” (tziddiqim), speaking with monks from the Tibhirine community, and meeting various Sufi shaykhs, to name a few—and compiled them into a collection. The book is an exploration of the religious landscape of Morocco, mostly it’s Sufi communities.

Q: What did you learn about yourself through the writing process?

A: I learned that you will always feel a bit strange about your writing from the past. Whether it is a collection of vignettes, an academic article, or a book, you will always grow as a person, scholar, and writer while the work remains frozen in time. A mentor once told me that, “_once you publish something, it is no longer yours, it is now the reader’s._” I am learning to let go of the desire to go back and edit things and accept this piece as part of a specific part of my development as a scholar and person. Taking inspiration from the contemporary Irish poet David Whyte, if at least one of the lines in the book is meaningful to someone, somewhere, the book will have been a success. Despite my primary goal of being an academic, this is not an academic book by any means. I (along with many other scholars, I intuit) try to navigate simultaneously speaking to academic audiences and popular audiences. I want to publish works that are rigorous pieces of scholarship, but I also want to publish works that are accessible and enjoyable. Part of my nervousness is wondering whether I will balance these aspects of a career successfully.

Q: How can people get the book?

A: Readily available through Amazon

We are very proud of Peter, excited to read his new book, and pray that God blesses his continued good work!