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‘Palestinian Poetics’ course gets renewed attention

By David Scharfenberg
Friday September 20, 2002


Four months after a controversial UC Berkeley course description made national headlines, University of California President Richard Atkinson announced that there would be a new review of how classes are listed. 

The course description for “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance,” an English course taught by pro-Palestinian activist and graduate student Snehal Shingavi, warned in May that “conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.” 

After discovering the wording, university officials said the phrase violated the faculty code of conduct, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of political beliefs. Shingavi deleted it from the description shortly after it first appeared on the campus web site. 

Atkinson expressed his “personal displeasure” with the class listing Thursday and said he has directed the Academic Senate, which represents faculty throughout the nine-campus UC system, to review the case and assess the procedures for creation and review of course descriptions. 

A task force composed of the Board of Regents, faculty and administrators will review the Senate’s findings and conduct its own study. 

Oren Lazar, an Israeli student in the course, said Shingavi has presented a biased history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“I don’t object to learning about Palestinian poetry,” he said. “I have a serious objection to it being taught by someone with such a biased viewpoint.” 

Lazar said that four weeks into the 17-student course Shingavi has made use of only one historian, Edward W. Said, who has decidedly pro-Palestinian slant. 

Shingavi could not be reached for comment but English Department Chair Janet Adelman defended the class, arguing that it is ultimately about poetry, not historic truth. 

“If this were a course in the truth claims of the stories of the Palestinian perspective and the Israeli perspective, it would be inappropriate to present just one point of view,” Adelman said. “But that is not the subject of the course.” 

Adelman argued that the Said texts explain the historical vantage of the poets at the heart of the course and are therefore a legitimate resource. 

The university has put several oversight measures in place to ensure the integrity of the course. On the first day of class, Adelman told students they could come to her if they felt they were being graded on nonacademic grounds. 

The university has also placed a neutral observer, English professor Steven Goldsmith, in the classroom. 

Goldsmith declined to comment, but Adelman said he has been happy with Shingavi’s conduct of the course. 

Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, an independent Jewish cultural center on campus, said he has been generally pleased with university oversight of the course. 

“Given all of the turmoil and the publicity around the class, I’m glad that the university chose to put a professor in the class,” Weisberg said. 

The final course description, however, “left something to be desired,” he said. Although it excluded the line about “conservative thinkers,” which drew national condemnation, it left some inflammatory language in place. 

“This is a course of Palestinian resistance poetry,” the listing begins. “It takes as its point of departure the Palestinian literature that has developed since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which has displaced, maimed, and killed many Palestinian people.”