What Do Professors Do All Day?

By now more than a few of my professors have told me that ultimately I myself will be an academic; such a future is evidently inevitable. In order best to embrace my destiny, I’m spending the summer working as a Summer Research Assistant for Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Jamel Velji, who specializes in Islamic apocalyptic. As such, I’m pretending to be a professor, getting a behind-the-scenes look at what takes up Prof. Velji’s time outside of the 6 hours a week spent teaching classes. So, what do professors do outside of the classroom?

1. They read.

Above we see the cover to a recent major publication in the field of Islamic Studies, Messianic Beliefs & Imperial Politics in Medieval Islam: The ‘Abbasid Caliphate in the Early Ninth Century by Hayrettin Yucesoy. This is just one of many texts I’ve read (or, more accurately, skimmed) in order to determine if it would be appropriate reading for a 300-level seminar that professor Velji will be teaching next semester called Mahdis and their Movements. The Encyclopaedia of Islam defines “al-Mahdi” (which in English is “the rightly guided one”) as “the restorer of religion and justice who, according to a widely held Muslim belief, will rule before the end of the world”; the course centers on a number of historical personages who have claimed or applied the title of Mahdi.

The course will have six case studies: the ‘Abbasid movement (Iraq and surrounding area, mid-8th century CE), the Fatimid movement (Egypt, early 10th-century), the Almohad movement (Morocco and Spain, early 12th century), Ibn al-Arabi (not himself a Mahdi claimant, but a prominent Sufi writer who used a lot of messianic imagery, 12th-13th centuries), the Mahdi of Sudan (late 19th century), and the Ahmadiyya movement (late 19th century-present). My responsibility has been to compile bibliographies for the case studies - a task that entails reading many, many sources on each one in order to determine which texts are appropriate for our purposes. Ultimately, I’m ending up with about 3-4 pages of single-spaced bibliography on each movement. All of this reading has been my primary effort from the start of my internship in early June until I finish in the next few days.

2. They write.

I can’t provide a picture for this, or really any details, but I do know that Professor Velji is working on a manuscript about Fatimid apocalyptic. I know this because he’s been promising me a chapter for quite a while now – a chapter that he has been working on for more than a year. I should see it soon, but for now all I know is that Prof. Velji suspects that I’ll find it entirely incomprehensible. After I’ve read his chapter and discussed it with him I’ll hopefully have a better sense of what goes into an academic book.

3. They design.

The next big project for Mahdis and their Movements (once the bibliographies are done) is one of syllabus construction, for which I’m extremely excited. As Professor Velji has explained to me, designing a syllabus is not simply throwing a bunch of books and articles together. Rather, a syllabus has a teleology (a fancy word meaning that it leads to an end goal): every text should build on the ones before it in a way that the course will ultimately lead to a conclusion of some sort. To try to explain this better, here’s an image:

Here we have an interesting artifact: a postage stamp from the contemporary Republic of Sudan depicting the Mahdi. It provides fertile ground for interpretation, giving a window into the Mahdi’s legacy in the Sudan of today. It’s probably worth including in the syllabus. But you wouldn’t just want it by itself; instead, you include materials with which to contextualize and compare it: a journal article on the role of the Ansar (the Mahdi’s followers) in contemporary Sudanese politics, a book on the communal treasury during the Mahdist period, a coin with messianic text and imagery from the Abbasid caliphate, etc. While each student will reach his or her own conclusions about the materials presented in class, professors design syllabi to guide their students in a certain direction.

4. They research.

A sort of side project that I have going at the moment is assisting Prof. Velji in collecting images of the end of the world. Above is one such image, a diagram of the Day of Judgment found in a manuscript copy of Ibn al-Arabi’s Futuhat al-Makiyya (Meccan Revelations). I wish I knew Arabic so I could see what people (or animals, angels, jinn, etc.) are in each circle, but instead I simply have to take translators’ work at face value. (While knowing Arabic would be extremely helpful in this internship, there are surprisingly many works available in English.)

I must admit I’m not entirely certain what the ultimate purpose of this image repository is (I think I asked Prof. Velji but I don’t remember his answer); despite the above image being from Ibn al-Arabi’s hand, it’s not directly related to the Mahdis and their Movements course. Nonetheless I have no doubts that it will in some way prove integral to Prof. Velji’s research as well as to that of other academics who access it.

5. They tweak.

The last project I have going right now stems from another one of Prof. Velji’s courses, called The End of the World as We Know It. To quote the description on the course guide, this class, which Prof. Velji has taught a number of times before (though I have yet to take it), “will explore the genre of apocalypse, looking for common themes that characterize this form of literature. Our primary source readings will be drawn from the Bible and non-canonical documents from the early Jewish and Christian traditions. We will use an analytical perspective to explore the social functions of apocalyptic, and ask why this form has been so persistent and influential.”

Even though the model is successful, Prof. Velji wants to tweak it with a new question: what is apocalyptic? I can provide the standard definition: an “apocalypse” (a word which comes from the Greek αποκαλυψις apokalypsis, meaning “uncovering”) is, according to the book The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature by Professor John J. Collins of Yale Divinity School,  “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” This definition was made for texts like the Hebrew Bible Book of Daniel, Revelation in the New Testament, and a number of apocryphal texts such as I Enoch, IV Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Peter. The word “apocalypse” has, however, come to connote meanings better denoted by the term “eschatological”, itself from the Greek εσχατον+λογος eschaton+logos, or “study of the end”.

This idea of apocalypse as eschatology is what brings us to the above image from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead as seen in the Papyrus of Hunefer, in which the dead person’s heart is weighed against an ostrich feather that represents truth. Ancient Egyptian ideas of death and the afterlife, as well as those of time, history, order, divinity, and other notions central to the ways in which the end of the world is conceived, differ starkly from those found in Abrahamic traditions. Can Egyptian perceptions of what we might call the eschaton qualify under a definition of “apocalypse” tailor-made for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? To facilitate the addition of such a question to the course is the reason I’m putting together a bibliography on Egyptian (possibly-)apocalyptic.

6. They learn.

Obviously you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that I’m learning a ton from this research assistantship. But what seemed to come almost out of nowhere for me is the fact that this experience is just as educational for Prof. Velji. Of course he’s an expert in his field, but given the level of specialization in today’s academic environment, the field in question is Fatimid and Isma’ili (a branch of Shi’a Islam, of which the Fatimids were part) apocalypticism. Most of the other case studies we’re looking at are practically new to him or have escaped his memory after years spent not studying them; for instance, there’s a classic text on the ‘Abbasid movement - Black Banners from the East by Moshe Sharon – that he remembers loving in graduate school but hasn’t looked at since.

More important in this topic, though, is the way that professors use classes as educational opportunities for themselves. As Prof. Velji has explained to me, a class – particularly a high-level research seminar like Mahdis and their Movements – serves for a professor in the humanities in the same manner as a laboratory serves for scientists. Remember the syllabus teleologies I mentioned earlier? That’s like a professor’s hypothesis – his or her interpretation of the material at hand. As the class progresses, professors use in-class discussions to test their conceptions, garner new ideas, and reconsider their interpretations – probably the primary reason why syllabi can sometimes change midway through a course. When the semester is over, professors take what they learned back to their offices, and more often than not the class will have a profound impact on the professor’s research and writing.


As I mentioned in the beginning, there’s one central aspect of a professor’s work that I won’t be able to experience in this assistantship – teaching. By the time the fall semester rolls around and this course is taught, I’ll go back to being a student. I won’t be taking Mahdis and their Movements, but for every course I do take, I’ll come in with at least an idea of what went on behind the scenes in creating that course, and I’ll have a heightened awareness of what’s going through the professor’s mind and what he or she is getting out of the class. I can’t give a full judgment on this point until I have the opportunity to experience teaching, but I’m really enjoying this research assistantship to the point where it seems that my apparent destiny is a welcome one.

That’s all for now. Part of the deal is that I have to blog at least twice before the summer is over, so to those of you with judgment poor enough actually to read all the way through this long-winded ramble, I apologize in advance for the next one.

- Jeremy Steinberg ’16

1 Comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the ramble – and the visuals!


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