PhD student in the Philosophy of Religions
Why did you choose to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School?
I was just two quarters shy of graduating from the Harris School of Public Policy (here at the University of Chicago) when I enrolled in my first Divinity School course. By the end of that term, things looked grim: though I had started the quarter with very few doubts, I began to have serious concerns about my intellectual formation. If realizing this didn't exactly feel good (I was, after all, about to complete a masters degree), then why did I return the following term to the very scene of the trouble - to read, of all people, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche? I don't think it's because I'm particularly fond of punishment. No, despite the setbacks, I thought the kind of place that made me this deeply introspective - however late it came along - was worth sticking around in.
If the transition from econometrics to philosophy wasn't exactly torturous those first few months, then this owed to the sort of place the Divinity School was (and is still now): the closest thing I had found to an intellectual space that managed, more or less simultaneously, to unsettle and reassure; to challenge and support the curious student to ask (not dodge) the difficult questions. Just two weeks after graduating from the Harris School, I submitted an application to the MA program. Two years later, I turned in another app. As of this writing (April, 2013), I'll have three years left in PhD life.
If I look back at those decisions today, I can identify at least two reasons why I chose a quicker path toward diminishing eyesight:
(1) The courses I took at Harris gave me a way to scrutinize an economic policy - even craft a good one. But while I could identify a public concern (malnutrition, say) and address it using what I'd picked up at Harris, I had this nagging question: When did the very premise that called for one set of "fixes" or "aides" (as opposed to others? - which?) need to be reconsidered? Could I revisit these presuppositions within the discipline? I wanted to know when and where the job called for an economist, and when, on the other hand, the very tendency to turn to econometrics and economic theory as our stop-gaps became partial, even reductive: merely one way of approaching (and thinking about) the variety of responses that life usually called for. I felt a little silly approaching things with a desire to analyze and (in some cases) correct behavior, or attend to "problems" (primarily) by analyzing empirical content. For one, I wasn't really sure the economist was in a good position to say what people were doing, never mind analyze or understand those doings - especially when it came to practices that weren't obviously (or unproblematically) identifiable in terms of how and what people consumed. I quickly realized the Divinity School was the sort of environment that would allow me to attend to the complexities better.
(2) As obvious as it sounds to write this now, I learned that the question "How should we live?" wasn't so straightforward as it seemed once. Approaches to the question could differ from the economist's by degree (say, the business professional's), and sometimes by kind (depending on the department, a philosopher's; and - perhaps less arguably - a theologian). I don't think I was prepared to understand the bearing these (and other, subtler) distinctions had upon one's choice of approach, or what I risked by remaining ignorant of them. The range of courses offered at the Divinity School offered me a good way out.
What is your area of study and what is the focus of your current research?
I'm a PhD student in the Philosophy of Religions. Like many here, current research begins with an old interest. Mine happens to date back to middle school. The soccer team I was on (I attended the International Community School in Addis Ababa) played against other schools around the city every "autumn" quarter. We were a scrawny bunch, but it was our diversity (at least half of our team hailed from a different country) that we were usually dissed for. Sometimes, this became a talking point on our post-match bus ride: Could we take the things we heard as criticism? and what should we do about it? What they said to us, particularly in the ears of your scrawny middle schooler, hurt. What wasn't as clear to me was if they had a reason for being upset. It didn't seem clear to begin defending something like "our diversity," either - not, at least, without first understanding whether or not there was something else that was bothering these dudes.
I usually frame it in different terms today, but the basic idea is more or less intact. Put in philosophy-speak: if conceptual content grows out of our use of language in the world, then what happens when someone hailing from some recognizably different environment (someone whose concepts have evolved out of their acting and judging in another context) tries to say something about how things ought to go in our lives? It isn't just about making peace, of course - though that seemed, especially back in Middle School, to be a nice enough goal, too. No, it's about squaring up to the inclination to say that folks who seem to be different from "us" arecriticizing the way we live simply by voicing what sounds, to our ears, like discontent. It pushes us, I think, to think harder about what counts as a difference, what real critiques look like, and what sort of criteria we might need to look at before we say "outside" commentaries function in ways that ought to unsettle the things we do.
I am a man of color, an East African, and a Muslim. As the son of a mother and father who grew up fighting for women's rights, the rights of ethnic minorities in East Africa, and the rights of Africans in general, I believe that no group is isolated from critique. As a Muslim living in a post-9/11 world, though, I also believe this: not everything that sounds like a sentence about "one's people" (or identity) ought to count as critical, either. By looking at the sorts of beliefs we hold, the things we do, the claims we tend to buy into, and the norms these might depend on, my current research tries to push us to think harder (and better) about inter-racial/gender/ethnic/religious/national dialogue. East Africa, and Islam in East (and Northern) Africa, in particular, are my present foci. Where appropriate, I'd like to challenge us to think differently about both.
What are or have been the highlights of your academic work so far?
My acceptance into the PhD program nicely summarizes one of the things I greatly value about the Divinity School: the diversity of its student and faculty bodies. Before enrolling in the MA program, I had never taken a course resembling anything in religious studies. I had, besides this, only one philosophy class under my belt - from back in college, where I was, of all things, a business major. My experience shows, I think, how much this School values hard work and an open mind, and the chances that it will take to bring in scholars who aren't afraid to think outside their comfort zones. If I count this as a "highlight" of my academic work, I do so for the following reason: it's an indication that my work, because (and not "in spite of" the fact that) it comes from a different perspective, can (and already has) contributed to a scholarly discussion about religion.
How do you like living in Chicago?
Chicago's great: both as a destination and a place to settle down. I don't know of many cities (and I've lived in and travelled to quite a few) where I have access to great museums (U of C students get a free pass to The Art Institute of Chicago), a rich musical tradition (check out the Green Mill or the Violet Hour), diverse cuisine, a 15+ mile lakefront, cinema (Musicbox and Gene Siskel are my favorites), theater...One could go on. If you come here, and get yourself outside Hyde Park and about the town, you'll be immensely rewarded. I've lived here for six years and it's still exciting.
What do you plan to do after you have completed your degree from the Divinity School?
Like my mother and father, a side of me is drawn to politics back home (Ethiopia and Somalia). Another part of me has become increasingly skeptical that a free and honest engagement with politics is possible in East Africa today. Ideally, I would work as a professor - teach, do my independent research - and find my way to contribute to the socio-political discussions talking place in Sub-Saharan Africa (on development, politics, the arts). A lot of the philosophical discussion I come across seems to pass over that part of the world. I'd like to help change that.