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Street cred

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on October 10th, 2016

I’m offering a new course this term called “Pious Forgeries.” A GW Honors seminar, it explores a wide range of fabricated objects and texts from antiquity through the present-day, all of which pivot on the issues of faith and religious authority.

Manishtushu cruciform monument

Grants and privileges bestowed on the Shamash Temple by the Akkadian king Manishtushu (2269 B.C. – 2255 B.C.), a known forgery written many centuries later/British Museum

What makes this seminar particularly exciting is not just its subject matter, but the opportunity to share teaching responsibilities with one of my most distinguished colleagues, Christopher Rollston, a leading epigrapher who, over the years, has had a hand in unmasking any number of ancient texts as forgeries.

An exercise in both collegiality and interdisciplinarity, “Pious Forgeries” makes good on GW’s commitment to breaking down the boundaries that exist between the disciplines.

Imagine, then, my surprise when just the other day another eminent colleague expressed surprise of his own at my involvement with the course. Apparently, it was one thing for Professor Rollston, a scholar of the ancient world, to offer it, quite another for me, an avowed modernist, to do so. “I hope you won’t be insulted by my question,” said my colleague, “but I don’t understand what you’re doing here.”

I was more bemused than offended, at least at first, and furnished him with explanations. Tumbling forth, they included my research into fabricated versions of the Ten Commandments, a subject that figures prominently in my forthcoming book, Set in Stone, as well as my longstanding fascination with a fabricated Scythian gold crown, once the darling of the Louvre, that figures prominently in my next book project, and, and and…

My questioner seemed satisfied, or at least quieted, by my response and there the matter rested. But the more I thought about our exchange, the more troubled I became. There’s something off-putting, even unsettling, about the assumption that fueled his question: that of standing, of credentials, and with it, the policing of disciplinary boundaries.

I think the academy would be in much better shape were those who champion free and open inquiry to seek out and collaborate with colleagues beyond their immediate fields. What a wonderful opportunity it is to be exposed to new ideas, as well as different notions of, instruction. Co-teaching something on the order of “Pious Forgeries” should be seen as a gift rather than a breach, a stepping-on- toes, of academic protocol. Besides, it’s one way to avoid growing stale and dull.

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