Anatomy of a Rice Class
CLASS: Your Arabian Nights
DEPARTMENT: First-Year Writing-Intensive Seminar
DESCRIPTION: “The Arabian Nights” is one of the best known, yet least understood, literary masterpieces. It has been passed down orally and in writing, performance and film; in multiple languages; and with different collections of stories. Students consider these stories through literary, creative and historical lenses.
During her 30-year career, Paula Sanders, a professor of history, has taught countless Rice students about the Islamic world. This is her third time teaching FWIS 125, but each iteration of the class is unique. Shaped by the interests and conversations of students, the syllabus can go through many modifications — just like “The Arabian Nights.”
The inspiration for the class came from Sanders’ personal research into the reconstruction of medieval cities in the 19th century, when a generalized fascination with the “mystical Orient” made European travelers want to see the Cairo of “The Arabian Nights,” a city reimagined with mythical proportions. “I thought it would be really interesting to teach a course that asked students to think about how cultural creations change over time, and what makes a cultural creation or an iteration of it meaningful to different audiences at different times,” Sanders said.
The class has studied literary and cinematic adaptations — including Disney’s “Aladdin” — and focused on how these narratives have spread far beyond their original context to become a cross-cultural phenomenon. Some of the readings include versions of the tales authentically dated to the 15th century, along with a few of the orphan tales (including the stories of Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin) that aren’t found in any Arabic manuscript before the 18th century.
While part of her objective is to expose her students to “The Arabian Nights,” Sanders’ focus lies primarily on helping her students become critical thinkers, question their underlying assumptions and engage the world in an analytical way. Fueled by her ever-present table of snacks at the front of the classroom (that day consisting of Oreos, popcorn and Doritos®), Sanders challenges her students to converse about the surprising parallels between “The Arabian Nights” and memes — versatile and compact visual representations of culture. “In a sense, [Husain] Haddawy was an international meme lord,” quipped Kamil Cook, a Brown College freshman, in reference to the translator of the version the class has focused on.
“My philosophy on teaching is the same as my philosophy on gardening,” Sanders said. “As a gardener, the most important thing you do is create the right conditions for the plants. And that’s what I try to do as a teacher: create the right conditions for my students to thrive.”