(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
What aspects of teaching did you miss the most during the long periods of online-only interactions with your students at the height of pandemic? I longed for the ability to let learners experience my subject the feel of history with all their senses, including touch, taste and smell.
As rules regarding social distancing are being relaxed in many countries this year, I am grateful for opportunities not only to talk face-to-face, but also to hand around physical objects again.
Getting a Feel for History
The series of pandemic-related lockdowns in Qatar and elsewhere since 2020 have left me all the more appreciative of the limited time during which my students and I have been allowed to occupy classrooms. I have become ever more determined to make the most of it.
After heavily relying on e-texts during the pandemic, one of my priorities after returning to the classroom was to expose my students again to physical objects.
Fortunately, the city where I am based, Doha, has very rich museums and galleries. Most of my students at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar are fond of collections like those of the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Yet, most of the items on display can only be appreciated through the two senses that also dominate the digital realm: vision and (through audio guides) hearing.
“After heavily relying on e-texts during the pandemic, one of my priorities after returning to the classroom was to expose my students again to physical objects.”
Only on occasion can visitors touch, taste or smell the heritage presented to them: for instance, in the traditional dishes served by the Desert Rose Café at the National Museum of Qatar.
Of course, visits to museums might not always be feasible for every teacher. Even if your school or university is in proximity to great galleries, any organized student trip still requires a level of logistical and bureaucratic effort.
Coins of the Realms
Instead of taking students to objects, I found it often easier to bring the objects to them. Nothing big or particularly precious, of course. Like most scholars, I don’t have my own private museum. Nevertheless, while living in and travelling to different parts of the Arab world, I was able to collect a set of old coins, newspapers, books and jewelry among other items. I have enjoyed bringing them to class to give my students a better feel of history.
A couple of old books alone could serve as sufficient material for a course module. However, even coins, despite being relatively small and mundane, hold valuable lessons.
Coins often display the names of rulers and contain political claims and propaganda in text or image form. Historically, they also spread religious messages, like verses from the Qur’an. The purity of the precious metal used as well as the weight further indicate a past kingdom’s wealth.
“Inscribed in many pieces is a history of cultural as well as economic exchange. The very names of Arab currencies reflect thousands of years of trade between different empires and civilizations.”
Moreover, inscribed in many pieces is a history of cultural as well as economic exchange. The very names of Arab currencies reflect thousands of years of trade between different empires and civilizations. Dinar comes from denarius, a Roman silver coin. Dirham is related to the Greek drachma. Riyal is derived from the Spanish real (meaning royal).
The Maria Theresa thaler, misleadingly also known as al-riyal al-faransi (French real), depicts an eighteenth-century Habsburg ruler who held the titles of Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Bohemia and Hungary among others. Used widely in world trade, this bullion coin was also made into jewelry worn by Muslim women in the Arabian Peninsula. Such objects then also bridge the boundaries between Islamic and Christian or European art.
However, even when one is neither interested in politics nor religion or economics, silvers can be useful. Archaeologists who discover coins buried alongside other objects can use the former to date the latter.
Finally, for art historians and linguists who seek to get better at calligraphy or paleography, reading the short and formulaic texts on copper pieces is an easy entry to, and good practice for, deciphering more complex inscriptions.
If your university has an archeological museum or library with old manuscripts, taking your students there would give them an up-close experience of fragile pieces under expert supervision.
Start Your Own Collection
However, maybe like me, you also want to start your own small collection. At antique shops in probably every Arab country, you should be able to find some old newspapers, coins or books. Many from the twentieth and nineteenth century should not be too expensive. These relatively recent objects in history also have the advantage that the writing on them tends to be more legible than inscriptions on older objects. As such, they are especially useful for introductory classes.
“Sharing food might not only be more memorable in itself than PowerPoint or chalk and talk. Feeling and tasting history can also reinforce the facts delivered through a lecture.”
Of course, once you enter an antique market, especially in a touristic place, you might rightly wonder whether the objects you are looking at are authentic. The old booksellers’ market in Istanbul has been full of fake Ottoman miniatures depicting Islamic science, for example. You certainly do not want to spend a fortune on a forgery. However, exposing students to a range of originals and replicas can also be worthwhile.
Many of my graduates have gone to work for Qatar Museums, an organization that has spent vast sums on the acquisition of artworks from across the world. If my colleagues and I can provide them with some hands-on training in identifying real and counterfeit objects from the past, they might save their employers much money through wise purchase decisions later.
Food for Thought
Of course, old coins or manuscripts might not be your thing. Fortunately, these are only a few out of a wide spectrum of materials you can use to provide your student with a multisensory experience. A traditional meal cooked with a historical recipe probably smells much better anyway.
If that sounds too complicated, you could share a variety of fruits, such as dates, together with information about the environments where they were grown and historical cultivation practices.
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Sharing food might not only be more memorable in itself than PowerPoint or chalk and talk. Tasting and feeling history can also reinforce the facts delivered through a lecture.