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  • Briana Jackson

Failings of the modern Egyptology curriculum

I love the movie musical Yentl because it's about a woman who did whatever she needed to do just to be able to study what she loved--there's a whole song about finally having the chance to read books! The songs had quite an impact on my life since high school, and I even quoted one of the lyrics in my valedictorian speech at high school graduation: "If you can fly, then soar. With all there is, why settle for just a piece of sky?" Pardon me while I wipe away my tears. Honestly, I still thrive on that lyric.


In that same song is the lyric, "The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know." It seems this, for me, becomes truer and truer with each passing week, and I find myself swimming in the anxiety of not knowing enough. Part of this comes from looking at my peers and all the glorious things they are accomplishing, things that are different from what I'm doing. Or, I find new things that I think I should have learned and now I feel compelled to learn them with all the zero time I have, and it led me to consider the problems in the current formats of learning Egyptology.


My undergraduate education was in French and Classical civilization. In the latter discipline I studied Latin and ancient Greek languages, took a handful of art & archaeology of ancient XYZ courses, and mostly focused on religious themes in Greek literature. My graduate studies which led me to calling myself an Egyptologist focus on the art and archaeology of ancient Egypt, BUT... I'm at an art history school, not a program devoted to Egyptology as one finds at UC Berkeley or the University of Chicago. My curriculum required well-roundedness in art history, which, to be completely honest, I was really not thrilled about. I never studied art history and I had no idea what art history even was. My school mostly supports contemporary art, which my antiquities-and-literature-oriented brain can't understand no matter how hard I try. Taking course in art history and learning art history jargon left me totally lost, mostly because I wasn't interested in the subject and just wanted to study Egyptology. The problem was that there was only one professor in the field and he was on sabbatical in my first year. That was pretty much the extent of the Egyptian art and archaeology curriculum: Renaissance art onward = art history; everything else is ancient. Indeed, the school lumps ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art into one field, which is simply wrong. That's a curriculum that is allowing modern and contemporary and Renaissance art students to dip their toe in ancient art, not a curriculum that supports the primary study of antiquity.


I learned that another school at NYU was offering courses in Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs, so I had to take those language courses in addition to my required courses in my school. Therefore, I was taking twice the amount of courses that my non-ancient Egyptian art colleagues were taking. So while other Egyptology students at other universities were learning everything about every aspect of Egypt, I was taking classes in Chinese, Renaissance, and Islamic art (this one is kind of pertinent). I felt like I was mostly teaching myself Egyptology, and at $40,000 in tuition a year, I was not happy about it. But, for me, the way the dice rolled, this was the only path that was open to me. I'm still pleased with my outcomes, but I do think there was something, or many things, severely lacking in my studies.


I have found that a lot of curricula for Egyptology students falls short of ideal whether they can take a million courses about ancient Egypt, or just a few. I had grown increasingly anxious about the fact that my knowledge of modern Egypt is virtually nil, and I would argue this is the case of most Egyptology students. In the wider curriculum, modern Egyptian history, sociology, and Arabic languages are not included, and I find this extremely detrimental. As Egyptologists, we are encouraged to actually go to Egypt for research and fieldwork, but we are basically left to our own devices when navigating modern Egypt. How many Egyptology students can tell you the political details of 20th century (AD) Egypt? How many can read and write basic sentences in Arabic?


Lately, more than my anxieties about, for example, never having learned hieratic or Late Egyptian even though I study the Amarna Period (feel free to clutch your pearls), I am anxious about never having formally studied Arabic or modern Egyptian history. When, between required courses, research assistantships, teaching positions, and side-courses in hieroglyphs was I meant to find time to learn practical information about the Egypt in which I would be traveling and living? I wanted to take at least one class in Egyptian Arabic, but NYU requires two years (4 courses) of Modern Standard Arabic before you are able to study a colloquial Arabic dialect. And that costs more money, even if auditing. Hiring a tutor also costs money.


Because that was impossible for me, and because I am determined to learn Egyptian Arabic, I decided to work on teaching myself. I cannot learn by ear as a number of Egyptologists are able to do. I can only learn things visually, so I not only learn to listen and speak Arabic, but it is imperative that I read and write it. According to Amy Adams in Arrival, learning a language through writing is faster! I bought a lot of books that have listening and writing components, and I've been progressing very slowly -- unfortunately I took a hiatus while writing my dissertation, so I think I lost a lot of my progress. But, I am resuming and thinking more about how to go about learning better methods.


A few years ago I was struck by how another Egyptologist perceived modern Egyptians and presented this to the class they were teaching -- it was not positive. I had to do some damage control and correct everything that person said. That is when it occurred to me how little non-Egyptian Egyptologists know about modern Egypt, myself included. My knowledge of modern Egyptian history was non-existent. It actually, I hate to admit, never occurred to me to learn modern Egyptian history. How can that be? I have made the decision to fix this immediately, and I collected some books on the subject recommended to me from a Middle Eastern history professor as well as my own internet scouring. Moreover, last year a book on Egyptian Modern Art was published, and I added that to my pile -- seeing as how I'm an art historian sort of person. It seems irresponsible of me not to know about Egyptian Modern Art while having advanced degrees in ancient Egyptian art.


I think all of these things should be part and parcel to a curriculum about ancient Egypt, especially since scholars are finally seeing the damage of persistent colonialism in the disciple of Egyptology. I think if we are serious about decolonizing, then curricula should include at least an overview, at least one class, about modern history of Egypt, as well as require Arabic. For instance, a person who wants to focus their research on the Old Kingdom has no need of learning Demotic, or gaining expert-level knowledge of Ptolemaic Egypt. But they would certainly benefit from learning Arabic and possessing a survey knowledge of modern and contemporary Egypt.


At present, the only power I have to make this sort of change is taking the responsibility of self-teaching. But for the future, I hope room is made in university curricula for learning about the Egypt we are visiting, working in, living in, and not just the Egypt with the terminal time period of ca. 400 AD.



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