Dustin Byrd's Story
Dustin Byrd, assistant professor of humanities
Dustin Byrd has been a professor at Olivet College since 2008, teaching in both the Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies departments. Educated in the areas of contemporary Islamic thought, Arabic language, critical theory and continental philosophy, Prof. Byrd has been published in a number of journals and books. Most recently, his work was included in the book, “Reclaiming the Sane Society: Essays on Erich Fromm’s Thought.” To read his contribution, click here.[Link below]
Prof. Byrd is co-director of this year’s Future of Religion conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia. We sat down with him to discuss this experience, along with his efforts to introduce his students to a global classroom.
Tell us about your role with the Future of Religion conference.
I’ll spend much of my time attending conference sessions and connecting with researchers and professors in the fields of religion, philosophy, sociology, history, etc., and representing Olivet College on an international stage. This is my second time at this conference, as I was there in 2010 to present on philosopher Theodor Adorno.
Are you presenting again this year?
Yes; my paper is titled, “Witnessing and Confessing Islam in a Post-Secular Society.” My research looks at the philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ attempts to understand the nature of religious citizens, especially Muslims, living within a secular society. This theme, of Muslims in Europe, is central to my doctorate dissertation. Following this conference, I’m traveling to Rome to present at a conference hosted by Loyola University.
I actually plan to return to Rome with students next spring during our Intensive Learning Term for a class I’ve titled “Pope, Saints and Sinners: Medieval Christianity in Italy.”
How do your international experiences benefit your students?
As you said, these conferences are international in nature, so scholars from all over the world will hear my work. Although it can be intimidating, their feedback helps me rethink, reformulate and strengthen my arguments. Ultimately, I integrate this feedback into my classroom discussions at Olivet. It’s important for scholars to constantly be contributing and learning from their peers. This is especially true for me, considering my students are going into these same fields.
Why is it important for our students to travel while in college?
My mentor, Dr. Rudolf J. Seibert, taught me that a week of traveling is worth a semester of class work. Experiencing other cultures first-hand, attempting to learn some of the language, eating their foods and entering into discourses with others whose backgrounds are very different than your own is enriching. You learn that the American way of being in the world is not normative; I’ve come to understand that the way we see the world can be very limited and myopic. It’s not that it’s wrong, just limited. When you experience another country or culture, you look at your own country in a different way, a more honest way. Furthermore, you learn to question official dogmas, i.e. “common sense,” and begin to be more self-reflective by probing your own unarticulated biases and assumptions.
What do you enjoy most about travel experiences with our students?
I’m always amazed at how the topics we’ve covered in the classroom come alive when standing in the place in which it happened. For instance, in my last travel class, we went to Greece and Italy. My students, most of whom were quite indifferent to religion, were deeply impressed by the cathedrals, monasteries and pilgrimage sites we visited. For many, it was the first time seeing authentic religiosity. I remember a student saying to me, “I’m not religious, but once I walked in I could feel the sacredness and the history… something is different in there.” Watching them come alive through their experiences with world history is one of the best aspects of teaching abroad.
What do you find most inspiring about your interactions with our students during these types of opportunities?
My students who take these trips abroad are incredibly brave; many of them are first generation college students whom have rarely ever travelled outside of Michigan, let alone the country. Yet I’m inspired by the way they open themselves up to new experiences; they take seriously the material we’re studying, and return home better and worldlier people. For instance, on my 2011 Holocaust trip to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, we visited three concentration camps. For the most part, they had been sheltered from war, violence and death; those things are sources of entertainment in our movies, video games and music, and remain abstract to them. It took three concentration camps for the magnitude of the Holocaust to sink in. By the time we arrived at Dachau, after already seeing Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were beginning to understand the reality of mass murder and the potential for violence that lurks in uncompromising ideology. We talked about how we can direct our social lives, political lives and lives as students and faculty toward what the philosopher Theodor Adorno called “new categorical imperative;” that Auschwitz shall never happen again.
The students took this trip to heart and were deeply affected by it. That is inspiration for me and continues to be a source of unending motivation for these travel classes.