April 26, 2010

In ‘Last Lecture,’ Prof. Brann Discusses Power of Journeys

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Professor Ross Brann delivered his “last lecture” on Monday, urging students to never stop journeying and finding ways to breakdown barriers that they may have in their life. The “Last Lecture” series asks professors to speak to the community as if it would be their final address.

On Monday evening, students and faculty gathered in Phillips Hall to hear Prof. Ross Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and dean of the Alice Cook House, deliver a lecture for the National Mortar Board Society’s “Last Lecture” series. Brann focused on the idea of a “journey,” and the power it has to  break down social barriers and transform those who are willing to embark on one.Brann began teaching at Cornell in 1986 and has served as the chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies for 14 years. In addition to authoring numerous books and essays and receiving awards and fellowships, Brann is currently in his fifth year as the Alice Cook house professor and dean and is the faculty co-chair of the West Campus House System.The bi-annual Last Lecture Series, hosted by the Cornell chapter of the National Mortar Board Society, invites the University’s most esteemed figures to speak as if it were their last opportunity to address the community.Brann began his lecture, titled “A Mediterranean Journey,” by discussing the importance of the idea of a journey in various genres of Arabic, Mediterranean and medieval literature.“The trump of the journey is so strong that many of us employ it often … The trump of the journey can be applied to your four years at Cornell or to my life trajectory,” he said.Briefly discussing his own journey with the audience, Brann recounted his childhood growing up in San Francisco during the sixties.“I lived in a family that seemed to embody all of the social change and promise of the sixties. [In fact,] a lot of the time our lives seemed to be based on realizing all of the sociopolitical ideas of the sixties,” he said.Brann stressed how his family –– which he called “unconventional” –– embraced the opportunity to learn from each family member. While studying at the University of California, Berkeley, Brann began to think he might never want to leave the environment of the college campus.“Studying at UC Berkeley led me to an adult life in which I would never, ever have to leave the incomparable environment of the college campus, where we afford singular importance to ideas and debate,” he said.The bulk of Brann’s lecture, however, focused on the travelogues of people who set out from Iberia and the western frontier of Islamdom and Christendom and traveled to places such as North Africa during the late classical period of Islam, specifically focusing on the journey of Abu I-Husayn Muhammad Ibn Jubayr from Spain to Mecca.He explained, “These intrepid souls composed accounts of their experiences and discoveries in letter, lyrics, travelogues and imaginative narratives, framing their narratives in the literary traditions that they wrote.”From these journeys and accounts, Brann said that one can see the way that travel expands a person’s horizons –– everything from the familiar and the conventional to the unusual, the misunderstood and the unknown can be transformed, he said.“The history of travel suggests that individual and collective identities … arise from relations to others,” he said.Brann cited Jubayr’s account of a wedding ceremony in Lebanon during his journey that left the traveler in awe. “Curiosity can and does take hold, and sometimes what we see can be alluring and disturbing at the same time. This is something [that] we share cross cultures,” he said.Brann said that all travelogues, including those that he discussed, have the ability to challenge sociopolitical and religious standards.“They undermine and dissolve the various boundaries and divisions created by religious orthodoxy, and [they] mirror the travelers experience,” Brann said. “One’s own identity and sense of culture and appreciation for cultures is enhanced by opening your eyes to the possibility of this kind of experience and can be embraced immensely by knowledge of others.”Brann encouraged the audience to use their time at Cornell to break down the social barriers they encounter, similar to how people did in their travels and how he did throughout his childhood and life spent learning and teaching in universities.“Here at Cornell, and in your life, take advantage of every opportunity you have to break down social barriers you encounter … You will find your life enhanced and your outlook transformed,” he said.Jack Cau ’10, who serves as the Mortar Board Society’s last lecture chair and introduced Brann to the audience, said that Brann has left a remarkable stamp on the community.“[His] contributions to the Cornell community extend far beyond academia,” Cau said.

Original Author: Michelle Honor