On May 20 – 22 I was invited to the 6th Annual Islamic Graduate Student Conference hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This was my first experience of having a paper accepted to an academic conference and being able to present. I wanted to remember the event and also be able to share with my colleagues and friends, so I filmed my experience and made a short web series. For graduate students, especially at GSU, I wanted to be able to show them what they can look forward to and expect.
I enjoyed the UCSB campus, it sits right on a beach. The students travel mainly by bicycle and skateboard. As you will see from the videos, it was an overwhelming amount of bikes. I was very nervous once I walked in the conference and saw the other students. I saw people talking and didn’t know who knew each other. After our first break I was able to meet a few students and we had good conversations about our backgrounds and the type of work we were interested in producing. My presentation was the last of the conference so I was able to see each before I went. All in all it was a wonderful conference and I learned from the other presenters. I would definitely suggest graduate students to submit to calls for papers at conferences. Speaking in front of academics can be scary, but it is definitely something that will happen in the future if we are the next scholars. I hope you enjoy the videos.
After a year long process of filming, research and editing, myself and video protégé Sydney Adams, we finished a series featuring faculty members that received a CETL Scholarship. Eight professors give details of their work and why they were awarded the grant. The professors are exploring various ways to impact students through mediums such podcasts, software such as voice thread, captivate, the use of surveys, providing hybrid courses as well as getting feedback from students on the role they believe a university should play in their adult development. Each project is at different stages, some just starting out and others nearly complete.
The filming process consisted of the faculty members being filmed on a green screen backdrop as well as in their classrooms, offices or workspace. In order to get clear footage of the work that was online, we screen recorded as they navigated their files and used various software. The most difficult part of the editing process for this project was compiling any additional pictures or backend work, but it really ran smooth because all the professors had a digital form of their work. Our hope is that these videos can be of some benefit to the professors and CETL in promoting faculty research and the CETL Grant. Please enjoy the videos.
Graduation came May 6, 2016 for the Religious Studies students. It has been a wonderful ride. Coming out of high school in 1998, I had been accepted to the business school of the University of Southern California, the veterinarian school of the University of Georgia and I was highly recruited from every Ivy League school in the United States, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton as well as tech schools like MIT and GaTech. I still have a large picture frame on the wall in my house will the recruitment and acceptance letters. Coming from an African American family with a strong cohort of males, a father, 3 brothers, 2 living grandfathers, 5 uncles and over 15 male first cousins, I would be the second to eventually graduate with a Bachelors degree, the first being my oldest brother, a basketball star. The advice I was given from my family members when choosing a university was to choose whatever made me feel most comfortable and above all things, I better come back “Black.” I appreciated all the attention coming from the schools, I averaged 7 recruitment letters every day the mail came during my junior and senior years of high school. There is a long story behind choosing Georgia State University over the others but I’ll give the short version.
I originally came from Los Angeles and I was use to diversity, Georgia State reminded me of L.A. When I moved to Georgia I attended Redan High School where the demographics were 99.9% African American. Though I appreciated and enjoyed the experience, I recognized the similarities of the conversations and lack of awareness of other faiths and cultural holidays. Diversity was a major concern in choosing a University.
2. I had a high school sweetheart that had already made the decision to attend Spelman College and I wanted to be close 🙂
3. I was deeply involved and loved the African American Muslim community in Atlanta. At one point I was co-president of the youth group at the Atlanta Masjid and enjoyed the large number of African American Muslims.
4. Lastly, and what I hesitate to say but I know was the tipping of the scale for my young mind, the color of the school. I was a young African American male that was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, for those that do not know, that means I’m color coded. I never was involved in gangs, the neighborhood kids that I grew up around knew that I was Muslim and that was a form of protection in the African American community. But the vast majority of Black and Hispanic males that I knew around my neighborhood were gang members. I grew up in Blue neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, Black and Hispanic males have heightened awareness of the colors that we wear and look for all the details of streets and neighborhoods that we are entering to know if what we are wearing is going to draw unwanted attention from gang members of opposite colors. Believe me, my brothers and I had plenty of confrontations when we moved to new neighborhoods, but once they knew we were Muslim, we didn’t have problems after that. I moved to Georgia when I was in the 10th grade, so by the time I graduated high school, much of Los Angeles color codes were already apart of who I was. I felt more comfortable wearing all colors except red, and blue was always my favorite color.
Even though I was recruited from the top schools in the country, because the decision was totally up to me, the only schools that really had a chance were the ones with blue colors. If given the same choice today, I know I would definitely have weighed my options based on criteria that really matters (not to say color doesn’t, Tiger Woods wears red on Sunday golf tournaments), but I’m not sure if I would have made another decision. Georgia State has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life and I really love the school and all the opportunities that have come through attending. I also am not one to flock to the groups that everyone says is the best, I tend to choose a team that works best for me and make it the best. For example, in sports, when everyone said I should play for a well known traveling basketball team, I chose to play for a coach I knew and recruited some good players that I knew from around the city. In 2 state tournaments, we knocked the team out that people had suggested I should have played for. After that, many of the top players wanted to play for our team. That is how I have always looked at myself and what I’d like to do for Georgia State.
So now that school is finished, I am planning to use the skills that I have learned to start a nonprofit film production organization that serves faith-based schools. I am currently in the process of writing grants to secure funding and in the meantime filming documentaries and training my oldest daughter how to renovate and sell houses. I promised my kids that once each reaches the 9th grade I would purchase them a house that needed a great deal of renovation work in order for them to go through each step until completion. I oldest reached the 9th grade and with the help of my siblings, we bought her a house at the end of March 2016. I’m just happy that I didn’t have to adjust my plans or renege on my promise. I will keep everyone updated on how it all goes. The sky is not the limit!
On Thursday, March 24, 2016, the Alliance theater held a small private meeting with Muslims and Jews to discuss the play Disgraced. The play was featured at the Alliance from January 27 to February 14, 2016. Per The Alliance website:
Disgraced tells the story of Amir Kapoor, a successful lawyer who is rapidly moving up the corporate ladder while distancing himself from his Muslim roots. When Amir and his wife Emily host a dinner party, friendly conversation quickly explodes into something far deeper and more dangerous. A turbulent thrill ride, Disgraced examines an American identity far more complicated than any melting pot.
Overall the group, later coined a “Think Tank,” agreed that Disgraced was a human story. The issues that revolved around identity could have any person within a society and any religion. The playwright is brilliant in adding layers, such as ethnicity and religion through the characters. There were two characters that were cousins, one identifying as a practicing Muslim and the other (the main character) struggling with his religious identity. There was a Jewish man who had an ideological confrontation with the main character. The other two characters were women, one white (married to the main character) and the other black (married to the Jewish character. The religion of the women were left ambiguous but each were well versed in religious dialogue.
The roundtable discussion opened on one side of the table and went around in a circle. Each person gave their viewpoint of how they interpreted the play as well as their overall feelings about it. It was a passionate room but very respectful of each others opinions. Muslims in general had problems with the statements about Islam within the plays dialogue. There were things said that all agreed were not true about the text in the Islamic holy book, the Quran. Also, the religious questions or problems within the play were never answered or cleaned up. With the climate of America and around parts of the world in regards to Muslims, a play the Disgraced can leave audience members that are not familiar with Islam and Muslim practices with invalid and misguided information about the religion. Again, everyone agreed with the human side of the story, but the religious aspects is where the passion of the conversation came in to play.
Surprisingly to me, form the Jewish seats at the table, there was passionate pushback about the Jewish character in the play. One man said, “I don’t want to you to leave thinking that he represents what a Jew is either.” The Jewish man was considered “secularized.” The moral and ethical principles of both faiths were in question throughout the play.
At one point in the discussion, the community engagement manager of the Alliance, Michael Winn, interjected that “this is exactly what the playwright wanted.” The fact that we could all be sitting there having a passionate discussion as people different faiths but finding a human bond based on what we saw from a play is remarkable. Winn stated that the Alliance had never had as many people staying after the show to have further discussion. This was a characteristic of the play in its shows around the world. The Alliance housed crowds of over 300 just to discuss the play afterwards.
I personally left the talk feeling happy that I invited and could contribute to the conversation. I also enjoyed listening to what the rest of the table had to say. It was good company and with people that have a more in common than different. I would be eager to join another discussion about a play with this kind of group.
Ameer Muhammad, Georgia State University, Documentary Filmmaker
This past Friday, February 12, 2016, the Multicultural Center at Georgia State University took a group of 35 students to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Prior to announcing the event to students they did not know that a current GSU professor of religious studies (Dr. Abbas Barzegar) and a current graduate student of religious studies (Ameer Muhammad) had an exhibit on the 3rd floor of the Center. Once I saw signs around campus about the event I immediately went to the Multicultural Center to let them know about the exhibit. They were very excited and asked me to join the group to give a presentation of the exhibit.
On Friday, the students walked from the campus and broke into two groups for a two hour tour of the Center. I was able to give two presentations that went very well with the students and the tour guides. One of the tour guides told me that after hearing my presentation, she learned a new ways of talking about the exhibit to future visitors. Some of the students took down notes and watched even watched part of the 30 minute looping documentary. We also had a Student Innovation Fellow (SIF) (Sydney Adams) taking pictures and filming.
The exhibit will be on display through the month of February. This is an excellent time to take family and friends. Thank You all for your support!
On Wednesday, January 27, 2016, the male students of the African American Male Initiative (AAMI) met a difficult deadline and presented a 20+ minute documentary to fellow students of Booker T. Washington high school in Atlanta, Georgia. The students were led by Tene Davis, Cedrick Dortch, and Jason Moore of the Crim Center of Georgia State University. The young men were began the process of filmmaking at the beginning of the fall semester 2015. They learned quickly that the process of making a film was not as easy as it appeared. The students broke up into groups whereby some operated the cameras, others conducted interviews, a few did research, all participated in the editing process, and some even performed original music. The work was not easy or simple. The young men met 3 to 4 times a week after school as well Saturday mornings. Overtime they met, they began and ended their meetings with a missions statement that helped to bond them all. As the winter break came upon them, they realized that it would take extra hours to complete the film by the January 27 deadline.
I met with the Crim Center team in November of 2015 and agreed to come on as a consultant for the project. I instructed the students to break the film down into themes and to allow each theme to
stand alone as a movie by itself. In my few meetings I observed the young men growing as filmmakers and bonding together to complete every task. I was not able to meet with them after the start of the new y
ear so when I showed up for the premiere I really did not know what to expect.Walking into the auditorium was a wonde
rful surprise. The red carpet was in front of the door, the young men were dressed in either shirt and tie or in uniforms. They greeted every guest at the door and made everyone feel like it was a premiere that was worth while. Once the film began, I was truly taken aback by the quality and professionalism. The intro of the film was very strong and compelling. I had advised them to break the film into themes and they came up with a way to express
the various sections as a student driven film that connected with the past, present and a direction for the future. The film had complete control over the audience. People laughed at the funny parts, they learned about Booker T. Washington, and they also learned of all the legendary leaders that had attended the school. After the film, the students conducted a panel discussion and gave insightful responses to audience questions.
I am really proud to have been introduced to the Crim Center by the SIF program (Brennan Collins), as well as consult with the young men of AAMI. The Booker T. Washington documentary was a complete success and I can see this film being played in film festivals a
nd on television in the near future. I think that the hands on strategy proved to work for the young males and I hope that more programs like this can be developed for more high school students in the future.
People ask me all the time what led me to pursue a religious studies masters degree. Even for me I had never anticipated going that route. It happened from being exposed to different disciplines in college, and when the opportunity came up, I jumped at it.
I am the college student that changed majors half way in. I first pursued a computer science degree. I enjoyed the challenge of my classes but I remember sitting in class day dreaming how my life would look in the future and it just didn’t fit. I left school for some years and came back fully focused on a new pursuit… Film! I was very confident in my creative talent and wanted to connect it with theory and technique. After going through my first production class I knew I wanted to specialize in documentary films, I really enjoyed the unscripted. Film students at Georgia State have to take a minor and I chose psychology. I found that in my film theory classes psychology was an essential part of understanding the camera. I enjoyed psychology so much that I added it as another major and graduated with both film and psychology degrees.
After college I was focused on filming international films and I had several opportunities from several countries. One of my lead advisors at GSU was Dr. Abbas Barzegar, an assistant professor through the religious studies department. He spoke with me about pursuing a religious studies master’s degree and asked me to seriously consider it. Though my heart was set on leaving the country, after perusing the religious studies website, I saw the need to acquire specific skills that would make me a better filmmaker. Having made independent films, I had realized how often people spoke about or through the lens of their faith when being interviewed. If could acquire the necessary tools to ask the right questions based on the understanding of that interviewee, I could get more authentic answers to the subject matter of the film. It was a no brainer. I held off my plans for a few years and embraced the religious studies department and it has been a match made in heaven. The department knew I was coming in as a filmmaker and they have given me every opportunity to use a camera they is available. I spoke with the department chair Dr. Kathryn McClymond about a film I was doing on veterans and she added some of the interviews to the syllabus of her War, Peace, and Religion class, whereby the graduate students gained experience in conducting oral history interviews. The department also has hosted a film screening of a film I shot it Turkey on the Syrian refugees (spoken about in an older blog post) and I was given the opportunity to speak about religion and documentary to fellow graduate students and undergrads (video above).
Now you know why I chose religious studies, I hope this helps you to pursue your dreams!
Dr. Kris Acheson-Clair is the director of undergraduate students in Applied Linguistics & ESL at Georgia State University. Dr. A.C., as her students call her, is a recipient of the university teaching fellowship through the Center of Instructional Effectiveness (CIE) at GSU. Her research uses a survey called the B.E.V.I., which stands for the Beliefs Events Values Inventory. It is a survey that teachers use to see what students beliefs and values are and how they change overtime and/or events. Study abroad programs also use the survey to see how students have changed through their experience in other countries. Dr. A.C. administers the survey to incoming freshman as well outgoing seniors. The plan is to have a longitudinal study of how Georgia State students Beliefs and values have changed over there university experience.
The test has about 185 questions and demographics. The questions can ask anything from a students relationship to their parents, religious beliefs, experience around different ethnicities, etc. The students responses are measured on 17 different scales. Some of the scale Dr. A.C. is interest in are: Socio-cultural openness (how comfortable the student is interacting with people different from themselves; Global awareness (how knowledgeable the student is about different parts of the world); Emotional attunement (how connected the student is to other people and how aware and empathetic they are to others emotions. The students get and individualized report of what their responses reveal as well as information on the class group results. They are able to compare their results with their group (all freshman or all seniors. Dr. A.C. says the students really get to see how they fit in with their peers.
Through the Global Education Initiative, a pilot study that Dr. A.C. was a part of, she administered the survey and that Georgia State students score high in resiliency. The survey measured how positive or negative students beliefs were about their upbringing and early experiences in life. Many of Georgia State Students come from lower socio economic backgrounds were they report more negative experiences than typical college students. When “bad things” happen to people there are also associated results that show up on other scales like identity crisis, or not connecting well with others. But Georgia State Students despite reporting negative experiences, score high on emotional attunement and socio cultural openness scales. She sees the results as “really positive.” She is currently surveying the freshman learning community in the fall and in spring she will survey the outgoing seniors and compare the results.
This summer I had the pleasure of being apart of an 18-member group of students and professors that traveled to Turkey for a study abroad trip that has really impacted my life. Our goal was to study Turkish politics and the Syrian refugee conflict. The three weeks we were there, we engulfed ourselves with learning from NGO’s, think tanks, institutions and meeting directly with Syrians that had been displaced due to the war in their country. There are many stories that I can share, but for this sake of time in this blog, I will just share 2.
One of the biggest surprises to me was my apparent celebrity status in Turkey. I identify as African American, and much to my surprise, that automatically made me a rarity for the Turkish people. Myself and a another women on the trip that originally is from the Caribbean, found ourselves being followed and asked to take pictures with random strangers throughout the cities we visited. The areas that it happened the most were around the historical sites. We would be walking with our group, if we stopped and stepped to the outer edges of the pack, people would start snapping pictures with their cel phones or coming up to us asking if we would take a picture. For the first few times we thought they were asking us to take a picture for them, but once we agreed they would hand the phone off to a friend and jump in the picture with us. When one of our group members asked them why, they responded that they don’t see black people. At times it was a little uncomfortable but for me, I thought it was an opportunity to share and bring a smile to someone day. Every time we agreed to take pictures, the people were so happy you couldn’t help but to smile for them. They weren’t doing it out of racism but rather out of rarity. One of our group members that was white said that she had the same experience while visiting Ethiopia. The lesson I took from it all was that, when you are put in an elevated position for doing absolutely nothing, the least you can do is have fun with it 🙂
When we were in the city of Gazientep, which is only 40 miles from the Syrian border, we met a doctor that treats Syrian cancer patients. I found his story so remarkable and truly unconventional. This doctor began a practice in Damascus, Syria, and had offices in the major cities in Syria. When the war had taken its toll on the country, he opened and office in Gazientep. The really interesting thing is that he treats Syrian patients that still live in Syria. How he is able to do this is through the relationships he had built prior to the war. He remained non-political and non-discriminatory. As a result, people in Syria have a relationship with him from all sides of the war. So he travels back into Syria to get his patients, brings them to Turkey, treats them an average of two weeks, then takes them back to Syria. And this had been going on throughout the war. He said his only bad experience was when he traveled through an area controlled by ISIS. He was captured and put in a jail. The ISIS people found out who he was, and after five days of being detained, they freed him. Needless to say, he has never gone back in that area. I am still trying to wrap my mind around someone being able to freely travel through opposing sides of a war to treat patients.
Lastly, I filmed a documentary on the entire experience and I am sending that film off to Sundance Film Festival in less than a week. Wish me luck!!!