A Postcolonial Scholar in the Department of English Takes Pride in Student Success

Associate Professor Moustafa Bayoumi

Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor of English, is coeditor of The Edward Said Reader (Vintage, 2002) and teaches postcolonial literature at Brooklyn College. At the 2004 Commencement Exercises, President Christoph M. Kimmich recognized five graduates who had achieved exceptional academic and personal success—four of them were Bayoumi’s students.

Michael Nau, ’03, received a Fulbright Award to study in Jakarta, Indonesia. He will conduct research on prominent liberal Muslim intellectuals and compile a portrait of the highly visible intellectual class that is playing an important role in establishing democracy in Southeast Asia. Carla Alexander, ’04, who helped rear her six sisters while working and attending Brooklyn College, plans to attend graduate school in Philadelphia, where she will focus on postcolonial literature. Schuyler Esprit, ’04, a member of the Honors Academy, received a fellowship from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies at the University of Virginia, where she will study postcolonial literature, especially the writings of the African Diaspora. Sonya A. Donaldson, ’04, a Mellon Mays Fellow, will also attend the University of Virginia on a full scholarship to work toward a doctoral degree in English.

On being a mentor: I mentored these students in the classroom, and I wrote their letters of recommendation, but the initiative to pursue these fellowships and awards was theirs. Their success speaks to this particular class I had at Brooklyn College—they were very bright and ambitious. For me, it’s very important to challenge students and then give them room to develop their own interests.

What is it about postcolonial studies and literature that makes it so important to investigate in our time? First, it is a study of power and power relations, which is ever more important. Second, there’s a strong ethical component—some would say modern society has become unmoored—so it’s interesting to investigate works that have a vigorous articulation of ethical thought. And, third, particularly for my students, there’s a real sense of pleasure in the text; there are the political and ethical components in what we are reading, but these don’t cancel out the pleasures of artistry and culture as rendered by the authors.

Was there ever a moment in the classroom when you realized students were experiencing a kind of self-revelation—that is, having an unexpected and thrilling resonance with the material? No, not really. In my courses, there is a large West Indian population, so there is an immediate understanding. I’ve taught elsewhere, at Columbia University, for example, where it’s just book knowledge. I teach works from all over the world—including Africa, the Caribbean, and India—and I keep the focus on the text rather than on students’ autobiographical experience. When we focus on the text, the discussion gets much deeper.

What does it mean for these students to gain this particular kind of recognition? This is a real vindication against all those people who thought postcolonial studies was just a passing fad. Students are using and approaching these studies in their own productive way. Also, this shows that there is a genuine effort on behalf of the academy to create a generation of scholars to carry on this kind of work.

 

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