Friday, May 25, 2012

My Love Affair With World History

Last semester, I took a deep breath, and enrolled in World History.  A core requirement, I had failed this class after trying, twice, back in 1989 and again in 1990.  Now, 22 years later, I endeavored to give it another try. I had no choice, really- it's a required class, but the University has a three try limit!  Given my previous experience, I was convinced that four months of history would likely kill me.  I was so wrong.  Not that any of it came easily- I worked desperately hard in this class.  I needed to overcome the failure that had haunted me for more than two decades.  Mind you, I went into it accepting the fact that an A would be out of reach; simply passing this class would be hard enough.  Imagine my surprise when the first quiz came back marked "90."  It was a Scantron, electronically graded, so I grumbled that reading it right side up as "60" made more sense.  The girl next to me had to clarify. "No. Wow. You made a 90. See?  You only missed one."  What.  Oh.  But what about the exams?  Dr. Roberts' teaching assistant already said "don't worry. I don't give 100's."  I scoffed.  No worries, hot shot. Just give me my C and we'll call it a day.

There were only 3 exams in this class.  Two, plus the final.  On a study guide for each exam we were given a list of ten items, and 5 essay topics.  On exam day, the ten items are narrowed to five, and we pick three to write identifications for, essay answer, one page minimum that includes dates, names and historical significance of each.  The essay topic is one we get to choose ahead of time, and for the exam it is full essay: thesis statement, intro, body, points, and concluding thesis.  All handwritten, no notes allowed, including prominent dates, names, historical significance, all in under an hour.  The first exam I made a 91.  Shocked, but happy. Shocked again that I was looking forward to exam #2. For the second one, I knew more of what he was looking for, and scored a 93. Considering a 100 was for some reason "unreachable," I salivated at the thought of my next conquest:  the final.  Same test format, only for the final, we were to be given two hours to finish.  Two. Glorious. Hours.  My adrenaline spiked when the study guide for exam #3 was posted.  I've been waiting for you, Mistress. Bring it on.

Carrying a full 12 hour load, the two weeks of finals was busy, and I did my best in all my other classes.  In the back of my mind the whole time, though, was history.  I ached to get the other nonsense taken care of so I could turn my focus where it really wanted to be. My other finals done, and A's in all my other classes, I had four days to dedicate to history. Four uninterrupted days. I stopped writing only to quickly eat, and feverishly sleep.  Each morning at about 4am my eyes would slam open, my brain commanding me to get the hell up!  We have work to do!  You'll never make it at this rate!  Read it again! Make a list! WRITE!  I didn't shower... for. four. days.  24 hours before the exam, I was close, but had not yet reached the point of confidence.  I made myself retire early the night before, so that I could read again in the morning before the 8 am final.  

I sleep with music playing, classical usually- it helps me stop the ruminating thoughts in my head should I awake during the night.  The playlist is a random shuffle of everything I have tagged "classical" and I never set an alarm.  But the morning of the final, at exactly 3:00 am, something strange was waking me.  Is that what I think it is?  I stilled myself to listen closer to the iPhone laying on my bedside: it was a classical piano arrangement of Europe's 1980's mega hit "The Final Countdown."  I sat straight up in bed, laughing out loud, and with a renewed burst of hope, headed downstairs to begin my final review.  Looking at my notes with rested eyes, and after a hearty laugh, I realized I had it.  I went over the timeline of names and dates again, and read through the essay I planned to use, and enjoyed my coffee in the dimly lit corner of the house where I had spent so many hours preparing.  This is it.  And I'm ready. What a relief.  All I needed was a 91 on the final exam to make an A in this class, something I never thought I'd be contemplating. I even took a shower.

Friday May 11, 2012 9:40 am
I've done it.  I feel confident in all of my writing; there are two dates I need to check when I get home, but even if I missed those two points, overall it went well. I feel flushed with excitement.  I am one of the last few students in the room when I finish.  One hour and forty minutes of straight, hard writing.  It was exhilarating. As I sit up and shake out my cramping hands, I catch the teaching assistant, Jack, looking up at me.  I give him a huge smile and a goofy thumbs up.  He looks at me as if I've lost my mind, and gives a reluctant and sarcastic two thumbs back.  Bite me, Grumpy.  This is worth at least a 91.  I stroll up to the front where he and Dr. Roberts are standing and hand in my exam booklet.  "That was awesome.  Thank you."   Whew.  But what about those two dates.  Hell, I can't wait till I get home, and I stop in the stairwell.  I drag out my notes and there it is:  I actually got those right.  What!

Friday May 11, 2012 11:00 am
I know it will take forever to get all those exams graded, it always does.  But since we won't be meeting for any more classes, I wonder if I'll ever see how I did on mine.  When grades officially post, they're just the letter; I'd never know how I really did without seeing it graded.  I email Jack about getting it back, and he says Dr. Roberts will have to be contacted in the Fall if I want it returned.  I shoot a quick email to Dr. Roberts, saying that I definitely would like to have it back in the Fall, and to please hang on to it for me.  Here was his reply:

Hi Stacy,
You aced the exam, thus cementing your A for the course. Excellent job! Jack will be dropping the exams off to me early next week, so you can grab it this fall at your leisure. We are required to hold onto final exams for a 1 year period. Hope you'll take another class with me. Enjoy your summer.

Walter Roberts, UNT Military History Center Fellow
Continuing Lecturer and Graduate Adviser
Department of History
University of North Texas

Already Graded?  That was quick!  And.. Aced.  That could mean one of two things: I made an A, aced.. or ACED.  Fingers shaking, mouth dry, I wrote back: 

Thank you, sir!  Are we using the same definition of "aced!?" I am so happy!  I put in many hours of work into that A, and learned a tremendous amount.  It was a pleasure taking your class this semester!

Stacy Zimmerman

Sent from my iPad

His reply:

Aced as in 100. Take care!

Walter Roberts, UNT Military History Center Fellow
Continuing Lecturer and Graduate Adviser
Department of History
University of North Texas

aced as in 100. ACED AS IN 100!  Wait. WHAT! But he doesn't give- Oh my. Oh my. Aced. As in 100.  I just pulled a 4.0.

It's been two weeks since that fateful day.  I've reflected a lot on my accomplishment.  I put more hours into that History class than I've ever invested in any other.  Truth be told, when I look back on it, I get emotional.  So this is what it feels like to do well.  This is what it feels like to succeed.  This, this is why I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  School- school is a lot.  It's grueling at times, a cruel and relentless Dominatrix, and I am the Subordinate, taking whatever orders she gives me, painful or not, and exhausting myself to please her. Then my pleasure comes, not easily, but very intensely.  The reward I feel at the end of a semester like this is palpable. And is oh, so addictive. This is why I push myself to the edge.  Because the view from here is breathtaking.

In the last two weeks, I've aced the impossible history final, made the President's Honor Roll with a 4.0 GPA, been accepted into UNT's Honor College, and awarded my first scholarship, a $1,000 USC scholarship for returning students, based on my academic accomplishments.  To say I feel motivated is quite an understatement.  And I'm only getting started.

I'll close by sharing this, as I am rather proud of it.  
Essay question on my final exam in World History:
What factors allowed Islam to spread so quickly from the Arabian Peninsula by 1500 CE? What do you think was the most important impact of Islam on world history prior to 1500 CE and why?

My answer, which earned me a perfect 100, follows.   

Islam emerged from the Arabian Peninsula, an area largely inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribes.  Organized as clans, ancestry and family were vital to protection and survival.  In the harsh desert environment, water was a precious resource; rivalry over a single well could provoke a blood feud for generations.  Without the tribe's protection, no one could endure.  Scattered across the peninsula were countless bands of people, all embroiled in bitter struggles to defend precious grazing lands and trade routes.  In spite of the constant state of conflict and suffering, an element of beauty emerged from the Bedouin.  There was a tremendous respect for the spoken word, and anyone with the gift of eloquent speech was held in the highest regard.  Poets were among the most important people in the tribes.  To the Bedouin, the word had a mystical importance.

In 570 CE a boy named Mohammad was born into the Quraysh tribe.  Orphaned at age six, he became a ward of the tribe, "a child of everybody."  As a result, he learned at a very young age a passionate concern for those who are left out of society.  This would be pivotal to his character, and in his influence on others, as a man.  Muhammad also possessed the gift of poetic speaking.  He was an intelligent, articulate and charismatic man who had a remarkable way with people.  Not only was he a successful trader, he also had a talent for resolving disputes without the use of violence.  So strong were his bonds with people, and honored by so many, he came to be known as al-Amin, "The Trusted One."

In 610 CE, at age 40, Muhammad had an experience that would not only be defining in his life, but would also serve as the foundation of Islamic existence altogether.  He was visited, it is said, by the Angel Gabriel, and given the task of spreading a simple yet radical proclamation: that there is only one God.  As a result, Muhammad took on the role of Prophet in Mecca, delivering God's messages of monotheism and of strong social justice.  He preached against the division of the haves and have-nots, insisting that this should not be, and that all people should share the wealth.  This message was so well-received that it became the new order, the new way of life in Islam.  Everybody was equal: men; women; children.  One God also meant one people, and the end of tribal divisions.  Muhammad's following quickly grew, calling themselves Muslims, "those surrendering to God."  It was because of this universal appeal, coupled with Muhammad's trusted reputation and speaking ability that the new order of Islam was able to steadily establish its roots and spread so quickly.  This evolution was not without conflict; in 622 CE Muhammad, his life in danger, fled from Mecca to Medina, then called Yathrib.  This journey is known as the hijra, and the Islamic era A.H., after hijra, is calculated after this date.

Even after numerous confrontations between Muslims and their opponents, most of which the Muslims were not favored to win, they not only survived, they flourished.  By the 650's the Muslims had conquered the Persian Empire, and by 712 central Asia.  Through the Crusades, in 1187 Salah al-Din recaptured Jerusalem and by 1291 the Crusaders were driven out of west Asia. Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 resulted in the conversion of the Malayans and Indonesians to Islam, and in 1453 the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople.  But these were not merely territorial conquests.  Islamic culture spread in cyclic waves of conquest and conversion, seemingly entrancing all those who were exposed to it.  People of conquered lands were often given the freedom to continue practicing their own religions, and would do so, side by side with Muslims.  Even when faced with opponents fueled by hate and lust for dominant power like the Crusaders or the Mongols, the Muslims prevailed, either coexisting with or converting their conquests to Islam.  The Mongols were so taken with Islamic culture that they became some of its strongest leaders;  the Ottoman Turks brought to Islam a true bureaucratic element that strengthened it further into a formidable political power.  

The tolerant and respectful nature of the Islamic philosophy became the catalyst it needed to spread so prolifically throughout the East; by 1500 the Islamic empire reached from India to the Atlantic Ocean.  The Islamic ideology itself had a greater impact on the world's history- socially, religiously, economically and politically- than any other single contribution.  No other culture before or since has been able to rise against such odds and evolve with the same unrivaled fortitude as that of the Dar al-Islam.  In the prayer that is heard in Islam five times every day, it is said "Come and pray. Come and flourish."  And flourish, they did.


Unknown said...


Stacy Alexander said...

I did not even know you had this blog until now! I signed on as a subscriber....but if you think it is weird for your Mom to be a subscriber, just let me know and I'll unsubscribe. xoxoxo