“History is Better When it’s Alive”: Professor Kevin Blankinship on Public Humanities as Ambassadorship for the Past

“There’s an interplay,” says Kevin Blankinship, assistant professor of Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, “between what feels so different [about the past] and what is similar to us [in the present].” Although connecting the issues and challenges of 2020 to medieval Arabic poetry may seem a tall order for most, Professor Blankinship delights in identifying such connections within the public arena. “In the process of noticing those differences,” he adds, “you also come across things that are very similar in how people express themselves and their thoughts.”

Since earning his PhD in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Chicago and coming to BYU in 2018, Professor Blankinship has already garnered greater awareness for his scholarship by publishing essays, articles, and book reviews in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. Yet the topics of these public-facing pieces are as relevant as the venues themselves. For example, his recent discussion of the poetic talents, humanist sensibilities, and public acclaim of classical Arabic physicians in the essay “Jinn and Tonic: Medieval Islam’s Celebrity Doctors” comes at a time of heightened attention to healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other articles have ranged across equally diverse and relevant territory, from correcting Western misconceptions about human imagery in Islamic art and poetry, highlighting a fellow scholar’s work on Thomas Jefferson and Muslim slaves in the United States, and even the affordances of misspelled foreign language tattoos.

When asked about the relevance that such topics hold in the public sphere, Professor Blankinship reaffirms the public humanities’ ability to inform, correct, and expand current perspectives. “A lot of ideas in my field,” he says, “speak to contemporary challenges, contemporary hopes, and contemporary ambitions. And in these articles, I only pick one of those ideas, but there’s a whole field of them that I come across all the time and that I’d love to share with people. So, it’s a big part of my job to showcase those ideas. How else would they get a hearing?”

Studying and researching classical Arab-Islamic literature certainly generates many opportunities for mining such rich connections. But Professor Blankinship’s work not only forges links between past and present, but also between the sometimes combative traditions of East and West. For him, the process of linking diverse times and cultures is a deeply felt responsibility. “It’s a privilege and also a duty to be an ambassador for Islam, for Arabs and Arabic, and for the Middle East, not just for people in the ‘West,’ but also for people within Middle Eastern populations themselves.” Oftentimes, the subjects of Professor Blankinship’s public humanities projects are as eye-opening to Arabs and Muslims as they are to observers of Arabic culture, language, and heritage. In referring to his article about the celebrity doctor-poets of medieval Islam, Professor Blankinship says, “Often your average person growing up in the Middle East would not have heard about this, but it’s still a part of their heritage. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments about that piece. Many people, specifically Arab or Middle Eastern people, have reached out to me on social media saying things like ‘This is really great! Thanks for bringing this to our attention,’ and that’s been gratifying.”

Interestingly, Arabic language and literature have not always been a part of Professor Blankinship’s life vision. “I’ve always been interested in writing; I’ve always been interested in literature, and old literature, old cultures and civilizations always appealed to me,” he says. But after serving a mission in Recife, Brazil, and with no personal connections to the Middle East, Professor Blankinship wanted to find another avenue for combining his love of literature with his love of antiquity. Speaking of his journey into his area of specialty, he says, “I took Arabic on a whim and here we are fifteen years later.”

Professor Blankinship’s love of Arabic literature and poetry has also emerged in other public-facing forms beyond essays and book reviews. He has published original poetry in venues such as The Society of Classical Poets, Poetica Review, Gingerbread House, and The Ekphrastic Review. In discussing differences between producing scholarly work for a public audience and publishing poetry, Professor Blankinship emphasizes the mutually enriching relationship between critiquing literature and creating it yourself. “Criticism is only half of being an expert on literature or poetry. If I want to understand this stuff I’m going to try and produce it myself too.”

Looking ahead, Professor Blankinship feels that the public humanities will continue to enhance his work, both at BYU and elsewhere. Having already completed a Fulbright-Hays research grant in Morocco, Professor Blankinship recently received funding from the Independent Research Fund Denmark, a well-known grant distributor, which will sponsor him and two other colleagues during an upcoming semester to live and work at the University of Southern Denmark. This opportunity will also allow Professor Blankinship to pursue research on medieval self-commentary in the work of an 11th century Syrian poet, Ma’arri. In all his upcoming endeavors, however, Professor Blankinship maintains the view that literature and art help us to be better humans and better communicators. “History is better when it’s alive,” he states. “It means a lot to me, and I know there must be other people out there who feel the same. If someone can understand what an old poem means, then they can understand what anything else might mean.”

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

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