Balabanlilar: ‘Resist the culture of single-minded professional training’

Drawing on a historical analogy that evoked the life and times of Genghis Khan and the Mughal emperor Babur, Lisa Balabanlilar made a passionate argument for the importance and timeliness of a liberal arts education during the April 25 Teaching Awards Ceremony in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

Lisa Balabanlilar, associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies in the History Department, gave the 2017 Brown Lecture on Teaching Excellence. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

As the recipient of last year’s George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching – Rice’s highest teaching award – Balabanlilar presented the 2017 Brown Lecture on Teaching Excellence.

Balabanlilar was introduced by Lora Wildenthal, associate dean of humanities and professor of history.

“It is a wonderful pleasure to introduce my good friend and colleague, Lisa Balabanlilar, to this big slice of the Rice community,” Wildenthal said. “I realize, however, that many of you know her very well already.”

Balabanlilar, associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies in the History Department,  also won a George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2014 and a Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize in 2010. The Brown Awards and the Brown Prize are given based upon surveys of Rice alumni who graduated two, three and five years ago.

“In this current climate, not just politically but culturally, it is really important for those of us who have a voice to use it,” Balabanlilar said. “The world has never needed graduates of liberal arts colleges more than it does today, but the pressures are on our students, and on us as their faculty, to focus more narrowly on their professional careers. In many cases, they’ve already been trained to think (of) their educations solely as the vehicle that moves them on to their next success.”

Balabanlilar lamented the Advanced Placement learning culture taking place in high schools. “We at Rice, we know, we teach these AP kids,” she said. “They’ve gone through four years of high school work that is test-driven, data-driven, goal-oriented learning. It’s a transactional kind of learning.”

Lora Wildenthal, associate dean of humanities and professor of history, introduced Balabanlilar.

She underscored the importance of Rice faculty to engage students beyond the textbook and tests. “This is the raw material for us,” Balabanlilar said. “We know they’re going to face an uncertain and a very interesting future, not necessarily negative. Our students are going to need to respond creatively, we know that. They need to be innovative; they need to be responsive — not just to adapt but to do it with enthusiasm — to constantly changing circumstances. Here’s my manifesto: Our classrooms at Rice should continue to be places that resist the culture of single-minded professional training.

“In an era that requires many of us to ‘March for Science,’ … this is a challenge for us to face, calling for a reinvesting in the true liberal-arts education, one which encourages our students and ourselves … to aspire to a complex and fully realized life that is compelling and arduous, a life of social responsibility, of global curiosity, of joy, of creativity and intellectualism for all of us.”

‘Career success versus the broadly creative life’

To illustrate the pitfalls of single-mindedness, Balabanlilar offered two models of “extremely successful people by the standards of their age, yet offering completely, utterly different approaches to the question of this relentlessly, narrowly focused career success versus the broadly creative life.”

Balabanlilar first discussed Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongol ruler who built the largest land-based contiguous empire in the history of the world. Armed with a vengeful, single-minded focus, he conquered and destroyed countless communities as he grew his empire, she said.

“This is a life lived narrowly,” Balabanlilar said. “Fueled by ambition, but with no mitigating pursuit of anything greater than oneself. There is very little here of calm reflection, no thoughtful pursuit of knowledge, no appreciation of the arts or humanity.”

Balabanlilar contrasted this model with the life of Emperor Muhammad Zahiruddin Babur, the 16th-century monarch who was known to spend his time in the pleasure gardens of Kabul before heading south to India in 1525 to found the Mughal Empire. Babur built a dynasty that lasted for 300 years and exhausted vast riches to create gardens throughout the subcontinent. Those Mughal gardens, as they are now known, grace ancient capitals from Delhi to Srinagar with their elegant vistas and strict architectural symmetry, Balabanlilar said.

Josh Eyler, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, welcomed the audience to the ceremony held in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

“While he was building his empire, Babur became a well-known poet,” she said. “He produced two volumes of poetry in Persian and Turkish.”

Babur was also known as a naturalist who was interested in and advanced the study of flora and fauna, Balabanlilar said. The founder of the Mughal Empire was memorialized as a “delicate literati” and become known as the “gardener king,” she said.

“To be blunt, our students would be better taught to follow in the footsteps of a Babur than a Genghis Khan,” she said. “Teach them to build empires, if that’s what they want, but at the same time aid them in developing a broad knowledge of the world, a deep value for humanity, and leave room in their hearts for gardens in which they could share a bottle of wine with dear friends, write poetry or read it, at least, engage in thoughtful reflection, rejecting the single-minded and the ideological.”

The topics Balabanlilar teaches range from the history of India and a comparative history of imperial pleasure gardens to the rise of Mongol power in Central Asia and a comparative cultural history of the major Islamic empires of the 16th and 17th centuries. She is currently working on a biography of the 17th-century Mughal Emperor Jahangir and developing a textbook for the comparative study of imperial pleasure gardens.

 ‘An unusual choice’

The Brown Prize had added another chapter to her already remarkable professional history.

Balabanlilar came to Rice in 2007, fresh from receiving her doctorate as a “nontraditional” older student at Ohio State University. She had gone back to school at age 38 to finish her bachelor’s degree at Portland State University, all while raising her young daughter and working two part-time jobs. She had found her research niche at Ohio State studying the Turco-Mongol Empire on the Indian subcontinent. She accomplished all of this after more than a decade of traveling the world and working as a waitress and cook, including living for five years in Turkey, where she met her husband and owned a restaurant.

“We were searching at that time that we hired her for a historian of South Asia, and Lisa was an unusual choice that we made in a couple of ways,” Wildenthal said. “Because she focuses on the Islamic heritage of India, and that’s not very common in general when people search for historians of South Asia or India for their departments. Her focus is on the premodern periods, where, as this is another unusual aspect, historians often look to a 20th-century specialist or a 21st-century specialist, particularly when focusing on areas outside of Europe. In this case, this is somebody whose work spans from the sixth century to the 20th century.”

Wildenthal read a quote from one of Balabanlilar’s undergraduate students, who said, “She is a true historian. By bringing to her passion for the subject to bear in class, she inspires her students to care about, love and work hard for the sake of history.”

The 2016 teaching awards were presented after Balabanlilar’s lecture.

“The folks that I work with (at the Center for Teaching Excellence), we have the great privilege of being able to work with the wonderful faculty and students here at Rice, but being able to celebrate that teaching at the end of the year is always a highlight for us,” said Josh Eyler, director of the CTE, who welcomed the audience to the ceremony. Eyler thanked the university Faculty Senate’s Committee on Teaching, which voted to make changes to the George R. Brown Teaching Awards ballots to help streamline the process. These changes increased both the response rates and number of total votes, Eyler said, and he thanked alumni relations, CTE, the registrar’s office and Office of Institutional Effectiveness for their work to support this effort.

Paula Sanders, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of history, presented James Brown, professor of economics, with the 2017 George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Rice’s highest teaching award.

Winners of the teaching awards were announced in the April 24 Rice News and can be found here.

Paula Sanders, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of history, presented the awards together with John Hutchinson, dean of undergraduates and professor of chemistry. Sanders read a message from Provost Mary Lynn Miranda, who was unable to attend the ceremony.

“Students make us a university,” Miranda wrote. “Without them we would simply be a think tank, and what a paltry substitute that would be. At Rice, we are blessed with incredible students. They are thoughtful, they are curious, they are creative, they are hardworking, they are genuine and they are kind. Of course, the reason we are blessed with great students is because great students want to work with great faculty. A university rises and falls on the quality of its faculty. That’s true for our research programs and it’s true for our educational programs. Those we are honoring today model the way for the entire faculty on how to engage effectively as educators. And the qualities that you model for our teachers: You are thoughtful, you are curious, you are creative, you are hardworking, you are genuine and you are kind.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.