BEGINNINGS: Intention and Method (1975) is Edward Said’s second book. His first, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), discussed the idea of becoming a writer — a project rather than a career. In the former, Said explored the beginnings of masterpieces of Modernism and works of theory. In this article, I am deriving benefit from Said’s Beginnings in configuring the significance of studying a course/subject at university.
Every semester is a new beginning for a university student. And every course one registers for on campus to make up the required credit hours to graduate is the beginning of new knowledge. Here one has to go through the rigours of the course — attend lectures, take notes, write papers, embark on projects, sit exams and, of course, read the required texts. Engaging with the required readings precedes the other rituals. These are the beginnings, I suppose, when we take up a course offered by the university — within faculties, departments and programmes, and taught by a professor (used here in the generic sense). It is not simply a process, and never to be conceived as a bureaucratic arrangement in the routinisation of the schedule on a weekly and a semester cycle.
It is fraught with new vocabularies — beginning and starting out, origins and originality, initiation, inauguration, point of departure, revolution, authority, etc — tacit to the student and most probably to the professor too, where the routine predominates. This process is similar to the beginnings of writing. Both refer to a kind of action, it frames the mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness.
How will the course begin? — is there any epistemological trait that the professor wants to imbue the student with, what kind of orientation is there to begin with, and how will it end? Every first week of the semester (or it should be) is the presence of a beginning to the student.
Central to this beginning is the text, a vocabulary lost (almost), being replaced by “Reference” (Rujukan) and just perhaps, a faint echo of “Required Readings”, over much of the last two decades. Thus in course outlines, “References” seem to be etched in stone. I have seen this in many universities in Malaysia, which I gather is the standard word.
And so there will be a list of “References” —sometimes divided into primary and secondary, or just a single list of books, neither “primary” nor “secondary”, for particular courses offered. Over the years, I have often suggested to the universities/faculties/departments/programmes, in my capacity of assessor/reviewer of curricula, to substitute “References” with words such as ‘Readings” or “Texts”. I have written elsewhere on this, and at different times reminded us that words change the world.
But “References” remain, as if decreed from heaven, dictated by the idea of authority. The regulatory authorities have determined the template for information on courses so much so that it is said to be unalterable. I sense our academics fear the authorities, either within the university or external to it, to make any form of alteration to the course outlines — substantive or otherwise. There is much obsession with what the regulatory body says and determines as “standards”. The sense of individual autonomy is lost in the academic career. Technologically, this is made worse by the structure of the system. Such a climate does not augur well for our universities.
Back to the text. And so I have encountered that putting the word “text” resonates a condescending attitude, in the likes of what an academic has described as a “school textbook”. Does our academic body comprehend what is a text and what purpose it serves? A text serves as a beginning of something — in this case, knowledge and learning — some initial exposure to the corpus of a subject. A course title is not only one, but represents a substantive body of knowledge delivered with a certain rigour at a certain level, in this case, within a university setting. We have to return to the text.
In Beginnings, Said illustrated that the concept of text carries with it an idea, if not an unequivocal achievement, of distinction, or of prestige. He was talking of the novel. And recently some academicians asked me if a work of fiction can be required reading, a text, if you will, for a social science course. I said “yes”.
The idea of a text — required/compulsory reading for a course — is the preservation and presentation of a document — symbolising, producing and connoting meanings in addition to itself. Said, in the context of Beginnings, explained the text as associated to antiquity, say, to the Homeric poems to classical scholarship — its problems and preservation. In the West the classics and the Bible are the best preserved, the most worked over, the most transmitted, and hence considered “the most original texts of all”. Many institutions, including the university, are devoted to preserving the texts and prolonging them.
In the Islamic tradition, textual traditions occur in different conditions. One of them is the idjaz, a concept describing the uniqueness of the Quran as rendering all other text impotent by comparison. All texts are secondary (to the Quran). There is a hierarchy of disciplines and of books in relation to the Quran. The sciences of jurisprudence (fiqh) and tradition (hadith), and sets of systematic textual custom control the editor’s work.
There is a canon of valid sources. There is also the system of idjaza (licence to transmit) — or ijazah (degree) in Bahasa Melayu. In the “manuscript age” — the period from the seventh up to around the end of the 15th century — every Arabic text generally opens with a list of isnads (asaneed) or witnesses, linking the text to a univocal source through a series of oral transmitters.
We may have to reflect that a text fundamentally is that which is read, the production of which is an event, physically, intellectually and spiritually, which has its own genealogy which cannot begin with its reading. A text is a continuing desire to preserve a corpus, in which we have selected as a reading material for our courses. And there is the primary text/s, and the secondary text/s (or primary reading/s and supplementary reading/s). I am afraid, we have lost this, or have we?
Never mind if we think the reading culture is dead. That is an impression constructed and condescended upon by ourselves as if we have given up on reading and comprehending a text in the university. How can a student pass a course if he/she does not, and is not made to consume a relevant part of the corpus through the lectures delivered in a course? No knowledge is transmitted and therefore no ijazah should be bestowed. And by text here, it includes e-books and other digital materials. The point is these have to be structured as (required) “texts” and not “references”.
And required texts or readings must be made available — in the library and in university bookshops. There must be a support system — from writers/scholars, editors, publishers, distributors and booksellersto the university leadership. One cannot be granted an ijazah (licence to transmit), without having gone through all the required texts (page-by-page/cover-to-cover), for every course, from semester one to the final semester.
And it is unbecoming for academics — at all levels — to complain about the reading habits of university students and society at large. The onus is upon them to make students consume the corpus by acquiring and consuming a text in order to be granted a degree. The top global universities have bookshops selling texts, superlatively much superior to any bookshop in this country. They are run by booksellers, who take it as a profession - not rent-seekers looking for contracts. The booksellers know the importance of texts and how they are to be used. And in some universities, both East and West, it is the bookshop that greets visitors as we enter the campus. So, where do we begin?
**The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org