Graduate school began for me with a summer language class. My first day was Monday, July 8, 1996, eighteen years ago today, and after struggling all morning with the peculiarities of unfamiliar syntax, I returned to my room to find a message that my teacher, mentor, and friend Marilyn Robinson Waldman had died that morning. Her absence remains even today a hole in my intellectual growth; I know that the course of my graduate education and my subsequent development as a scholar would have been markedly different with Marilyn Waldman as a conversation partner.
Recalling an exemplary teacher
Revisiting Steven Wasserstrom’s poignant recollections in his remembrance of Waldman in the History of Religions journal (Vol. 37.1, August 1997) reminds me that my experience of her as a caring and concerned mentor as well as a demanding but good-humored teacher was not unusual. He relates the special attention he had enjoyed as her student nearly two decades earlier, and he adds, “Little did I realize that this was not only typical of her generosity, but it was only a tiny fraction of the comparable acts she routinely performed. As those who know her well can attest, she seemed to do everything well, right down to the subtly deployed spiciness of her bottomless supply of jokes.”
Wasserstrom’s tribute goes on to emphasize her most significant trait: “Marilyn Robinson Waldman was an exemplary intellectual.” She distinguished herself not only in her area of scholarly expertise as a historian of early Islam, but also in “her vast activities as a public intellectual, on behalf of interreligious dialogue, multicultural perspectives in liberal education, and understanding religion in global terms,” long before these views enjoyed their current vogue in the academy. During the twenty-five years of her professional career, according to Wasserstrom, “Marilyn made nearly five hundred public presentations to clubs, church groups, public schools, colleges, universities, the military, and radio and television audiences.” She was, he concludes, “a spontaneously creative, openly thinking, deeply engaged intellectual,” a model of scholarly relevance whose passion and generosity we might all aspire to.
Why I never teach outdoors
I had the good fortune of knowing Marilyn Waldman as a student in her classes when I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. Most memorable was the course “Comparison as a Social Act,” a very different sort of learning experience that she offered in the winter quarter of 1995. All these years later I still recall clearly the last meeting of that class; it was an unseasonably warm March day when the handful of students enrolled in the course sat with Professor Waldman in a circle on the lawn in front of the Ohio Union. After each of us had shared our personal reflections about what we had learned in the course, she ended by thanking us for the wonderful experience of learning together, for indulging her innovative pedagogical experiments in the course, and especially for redeeming her faith in teaching. I remember feeling very uplifted and grateful for having participated in what I realized was an unusual course with a highly revered teacher.
None of us knew it then, but it turned out to be the very last time Marilyn Waldman ever taught. She was not able to return to the classroom, and sixteen months later she passed away at the young age of 53. As I explain now to my own students who wonder why I never teach outdoors, it is in her honor and to her memory that I have not participated in any class outdoors since that late winter day when the Ohio sun shone brightly for us all.
Prophecy and Power
In the final year of her life Marilyn Waldman labored to finish a book that she had worked on for nearly a decade. She left a draft of the work for others to bring to publication, a process that took sixteen years and several different editorial efforts to complete. I waited patiently for her posthumous book to appear, hoping to pick up again our conversations on comparative methodology and the social uses of comparison. Finally in 2012, Bruce B. Lawrence, the esteemed Islamicist from Duke University, finished the editorial task with the publication of Prophecy and Power: Muhammad and the Qur’an in the Light of Comparison by Marilyn Robinson Waldman (published by Equinox Publishing).
Making her final work available to readers was a long time coming with an intriguing tale of its own which I hope will someday be told. In reading the finished book, I am grateful to be reminded of insights that Marilyn R. Waldman first brought to me so long ago.
Marilyn, you have once again redeemed my enthusiasm for learning. ♨