History is a tricky business.
For most of us, our high school curricula proved woefully inadequate and left us with gaps in our knowledge the size of the Grand Canyon.
Luckily for Vassar students, the History Department is filled with passionate professors who are able to educate us in various forms of narratives. Professor Rashid’s enthusiasm for his subject was evident in the following interview conducted through email.
He currently teaches four classes, which present four exciting opportunities for students to expand their knowledge of Africana Studies and International Studies.
The Miscellany News: How long have you been teaching here, and what drew you to Vassar?
Ismail Rashid: Almost 20 years. I was very impressed with faculty, students and the richness of the curriculum when I came for the on-campus interview.
The Misc: Did you always want to be a history professor?
Rashid: I did not necessarily aspire to be a history professor, but I certainly wanted to be a college professor from a very early age. My high school teacher, who brought alive the French and European revolutions of the 19th century, and my undergraduate African history professor, who exposed me to the exciting debates in the field, inspired me to be a historian.
The Misc: What did you train in?
Rashid: Mostly in classical civilizations culture, race relations and African and African Diaspora history.
The Misc: What classes do you teach at Vassar, and what do they involve?
Rashid: “Afrs/Hist 175: Mandela: Race, Resistance and Renaissance in South Africa,” an exploration of 20th century South Africa history through the life of one its most iconic figures; “Afrs/Hist 272: Modern African History,” which looks at the emergence of contemporary African societies through the crucible of colonialism; “Afrs/Hist 374: African Diaspora and Pan-Africanism,” an intellectual history seminar which examines the interconnections between peoples of African descent in the US, Caribbean and Africa; “IS 106: Perspectives on International Studies,” an introductory exploration of the concepts, institutions and major themes in the field.
The Misc: What are your main academic interests?
Rashid: I am very much focused on social history protest and contestations of power from below; conflict, public health and politics; post-conflict societies and peacebuilding.
The Misc: What are you reading at the moment?
Rashid: It’s April, so it’s student papers and papers for the seventh TANA Forum in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia that I’m currently attending. From where I am sitting I can see Lake Tana, one of the sources of the Nile.
The Misc: Is Vassar unique? How would you describe it to somebody who’d never been here before?
Rashid: Yes. My typical description of [Vassar] is: “a bucolic campus with a vibrant mix of very smart, conscientious and creative students and fabulous collection of distinguished and high-achieving colleagues.” Or simply, yes! It used to be a famous female-only college, and it has been a famous, multi-gendered institution for the past five decades.
The Misc: What do you think about typical high school history curriculums in the U.S.?
Rashid: It is [a] mixed bag. Some schools do a fine job of exposing students to the complexities of world and American histories, doing research and developing a historical imagination. And others hardly provide students with a decent, multifaceted spectrum of U.S. history. It is difficult to recall the number of times students have noted that they were not exposed to this kind of history in high school.
The Misc: Do you think that history classes at Vassar provide new narratives?
Rashid: With around 90 different courses covering nearly every continent in the world, history classes do not only teach multiple narratives, but also produce new narratives and perspectives. History faculty regularly revise existing course[s] and create new ones to keep in step with new knowledge, narratives and interpretations. However, every history class has
its own unique magic; as faculty and students [are] in dialogue with a variety of texts, images and media, [they] produce their own individual and collective understandings of the past they are studying.
The Misc: Do you have any new projects or classes on the horizon?
Rashid: I am redesigning my “HIST 271: African Before 1800” class into a VIEW course for 2019-20; I will be focusing on art, religion and power in about four African societies. It will involve visits to the Met (Smithsonian National Museum of Art is my dream).
The Misc: If you could give your students any piece of advice, what would it be?
Rashid: Worry less, and try to enjoy this phase of your life. Keep things in perspective, and cross one bridge at a time.