Op-Ed: Students support Professor Abowd’s class, contract

We, students in Professor Thomas Abowd’s “Colonizing Palestine” class, have come together to write a series of testimonials in support of Professor Abowd and his class. We felt compelled to write this letter in response to the multiple threats, including direct racist and Islamophobic attacks Professor Abowd has received as a result of teaching this course, and the current lack of transparency regarding the renewal of Professor Abowd’s contract at Tufts University.

A statement released by the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD) on Aug. 21, 2018 recognized the malicious attacks on Professor Abowd and his course, stating, “We know that teaching about colonialism and racism often produces backlash. We see, unfortunately, more and more that valid criticism of Israel is being portrayed as antisemitic as an attempt to shut down debate. We know there is an obvious difference between criticism of a state and racism against a group of people.”

Amid these attacks, Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins issued the following statement: “Tufts is committed to the free exchange of ideas. The university’s courses represent a broad spectrum of ideas and topics that enable students to become familiar with a variety of perspectives on important and complex issues facing our global society.”

A group of over 200 scholars in the organization California Scholars for Academic Freedom said the following in a statement: “California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond, wish to express our serious concern at the threat to the full renewal of Professor Thomas Abowd’s contract at Tufts University.”

As students of Professor Abowd, we are concerned that Professor Abowd’s contract is under threat. Despite his promotion to senior lecturer in June 2018, which normally is associated with a five-year contract renewal, Professor Abowd’s contract renewal beyond the current school year is at risk.

We believe academic freedom is the bedrock of Tufts. Academic freedom is critical in sharing and retaining erased and underrepresented narratives and histories. We support Professor Abowd, his contract renewal and the upcoming resolution in Tufts Community Union Senate fighting for a fair, safe and harassment-free campus for all. Below are our reasons and experiences for this stance.

Emily: Professor Abowd’s “Colonizing Palestine” class is the best course I have taken at Tufts. In my three years here, I have never had a professor who made as much of an effort to incorporate sources from such a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds as Professor Abowd did. Over the course of the semester, we watched films and documentaries by both Israeli and Palestinian directors, and read novels, poetry and historical texts by Israeli and Palestinian writers and scholars. Not only did Professor Abowd thoroughly explain the subject matter through lectures, but he constantly encouraged us as a class to freely discuss our thoughts and opinions about each topic. Professor Abowd also went out of his way to provide extra office hours so that students always had the opportunity to thoroughly discuss an assignment or a topic covered in class. Taking “Colonizing Palestine” gave me the opportunity to learn about a critically important history in the most open and fair learning environment I have been a part of at Tufts. It is extremely important to me that Tufts upholds the principles of academic freedom by supporting Professor Abowd and his contributions to the university.

Ava: Growing up the topic which most mystified and intrigued me was always the subject of Israel and Palestine. Everyone from my family to my teachers became on edge upon my questions, assuring me it was simply too complicated to explain. But “Colonizing Palestine” answered all my questions and, even more usefully, created new ones for me to consider. The class and the final project I created for it helped me understand my family history in ways I doubt any other class or professor could. Besides learning some basic facts and dates, reading excellent analyses by academics of diverse backgrounds, watching gorgeous films and reading heart-wrenching poetry, I also learned the true value of oral storytelling. Practicing what he preached, Abowd encouraged me to investigate the ways this particular conflict shaped my identity and family relationships. As both an Arab and a Jew, I doubted that I would see my experiences or feelings reflected in the syllabus. Yet I’ve never felt as seen and understood in all the ambiguities of my identity. I was so pleasantly surprised when we spent time discussing other ways to occupy the in-between: from the non-Zionist feminist Israeli scholar Tikva Hoenig-Parnass to Mizrahi intellectual Ella Shohat to exile-turned-acclaimed-writer Edward Said, I learned about many perspectives which wonderfully complicated my worldview. I’ve also never had a professor make my thoughts feel as valuable as he did, or create such a welcoming environment for questions.

Amira: “Colonizing Palestine” was the first class I have taken at Tufts, as a senior, which allowed me to read and understand erased and unrecognized narratives through the array of memoirs, films and other forms of Palestinian literature included in the syllabus. We also read historical accounts from Zionists forces who themselves admit to the ‘colonization’ project of Palestine, which is regularly used in early Zionist writings, without controversy as all historians of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are aware of, including Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. The content of the course was so vast, including many different perspectives, including the pairing of reading Tom Segev’s “1949: The First Israelis” contrasted with Edward Said’s “After the Last Sky.” This course allowed me to explore a range of perspectives and dig deep into a complicated history in a nuanced way that always left a lot of room for discussion and debate during class periods. Professor Abowd clearly invested much academic integrity and passion into the curriculum of this course, and it is incredibly disturbing to see how the university is threatening his position. Academic freedom is incredibly important to the basic foundation of a university, and it concerns me deeply the attacks Professor Abowd has received for doing his job as a professor.

Krithi Ram-Junarkar: Professor Abowd was one of the best parts of my first semester at Tufts. He always made clear that he was supporting me, and helped me to grow more confident in the way I think and express myself. Professor Abowd encouraged me to challenge myself with readings and essays I may not have read and written before his class. Beyond the way his teaching personally benefitted me, he made our classroom a space in which we could feel safe, but also a space in which we could step out of our comfort zones. The learning environment he created in his classroom was nurturing and collaborative, engaging and informative. He welcomed different opinions and interpretations of our readings and other course materials, and helped me develop my critical thinking and argumentative skills. I strongly believe that Professor Abowd is a valuable member of the Tufts faculty, and the Colonialism and Diaspora studies department would not be the same without him.

Leo: I can safely say that Professor Abowd is one of the best professors I’ve had the privilege of taking a class with at Tufts. In my three years here, he has been one of the few outstanding professors to deeply care about the education of his students. In class, Professor Abowd is engaging, challenging and [thought]-provoking. He approaches each topic with a fresh and nuanced perspective, [incorporating] texts and media from a variety of sources to give students a broad understanding of the topic. Outside of class, Professor Abowd is kind and understanding. He has shown time and time again that his objective is providing his students with a rewarding experience. As such, he fosters an environment where all his students are able to succeed. For example, when I was struggling with coursework due to extraneous reasons, some professors suggested I drop their class. However, Professor Abowd was the only one who offered me support and worked with me to ensure that my academic life was not affected by my personal circumstances. Regardless of anyone’s political beliefs, Professor Abowd goes above and beyond for his students, and that is a quality not every professor at Tufts possesses.

Nina Chukwura: “Colonizing Palestine” with Professor Abowd is one of the best courses I have taken at Tufts, and I feel very privileged to have been in this class. Professor Abowd very obviously cares deeply about the topic of Palestine and has a vested academic interest in it. “Colonizing Palestine” was a very emotionally moving class for me, it was one that elevated the voices of Palestinians, whose stories are all too often forgotten and overlooked today. For this reason, it is a class of great importance. Every class, through stimulating discussions and debates, Professor Abowd challenged me to think critically about the material he was presenting — material which included media and texts from various sources. Furthermore, I have not encountered another professor at Tufts that was as dedicated to my academic success or as considerate as Professor Abowd was. He constantly made sure that I knew he was available, and during our one-on-one meetings, it was abundantly clear that he cared about what I wrote and what I thought. Professor Abowd very intentionally created a classroom atmosphere where each and every student could freely speak their opinion without consequence; I felt valuable, supported and heard in Professor Abowd’s classroom, and as a student of color at a predominantly white institution this is something that I seldom feel. I know that I grew immensely — both academically and socially — from being a student in “Colonizing Palestine,” and having the privilege to learn from Professor Abowd. I think that Professor Abowd is an remarkable professor and one that Tufts is incredibly lucky to have and I wholeheartedly support him.