Interview with Abdul Jabbar (’69)

Selections include works by Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Lu Hsun, Rabindranath Tagore, Saadat Hasan Manto, Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Alifa Rifaat, Amrita Pritam, and Waseem Barelvi. “

1. At what point in your 36 years of teaching did you begin to think about writing this textbook? Did you perceive a specific lack in the classroom that you wanted to address?

From the very beginning of my teaching career, I wanted my students to treat composition and literature classes as an enjoyable intellectual experience rather than an unpleasant hurdle. I wanted my students’ freshman and sophomore years to be a memorable time during which they picked up life-long learning skills of critical thinking, reasoning, analysis, enjoyment of literature, and, in the process, acquired a reasonable mastery of language resources to make their own expression of ideas engaging.

Over the years, I continued using several textbooks as my allies in this cause and achieved some of my goals. However, I noticed the wide divergence in the levels of preparation among my students. Some of them, would need repetition of instruction in some areas, whereas those with a higher level of preparation would tend to be bored with that repetition. In addressing the needs of those at the bottom, I felt I was neglecting the needs of those who needed more challenging assignments. I found an overwhelming majority of my students fearful of taking composition and literature classes. They were often unsure of what was expected of them, especially when they wrote about literary works. In situations when they knew what was expected of them, they did not feel they had the necessary skills to complete their assignments. When asked to write an analysis or interpretation, they wrote little more than a summary or paraphrase. They had a very vague understanding of the concept of style and how it shapes literary creations.

To meet these needs of my students and to truly empower them, I started writing this book after about ten years of teaching. I completed the first very rough draft quickly because I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I addressed the very basic as well as the more sophisticated needs of my students. I was freed of the onerous and uninspiring burden of repetition of basic concepts.

2. What was the most difficult part of the process? Could you talk about brainstorming, organizing information, finding a publisher, getting rights, etc.?

Year after year I continued using my manuscript to generate copious handouts to help my students. Applying my research on composition and literary studies to my students’ performance and needs, I continued adding new points whenever I could. Finding some students’ outstanding papers very helpful to the struggling students when shared in class, I also started collecting them for possible inclusion in my book whenever, if ever, it was published. Every now and then, students whose essays I had selected and who had given me permission to publish their work would ask me about the progress of my book. Their reminders kept me reminded of my unfinished work. As we all know so well, writing the first draft of a manuscript is not the same as preparing it for publication. I did not feel the need to publish the book mainly because the manuscript was meeting my teaching needs and fulfilling my students’ learning needs. However, as my teaching career started winding down toward the possibility of retirement, I began to feel a pleasant obligation to share the fruits of my labor with my colleagues anywhere and everywhere and showcase the achievements of my students with the intention of inspiring other students to emulate and even surpass them. I knew that I would like to publish my book, but with a full-time teaching position, finding the time became my major problem. I would use holidays for concentrated work at a stretch that is crucial to any writing and would take every other opportunity to jot down ideas for future use.

Constantly putting myself in the position of students who would be using my book and professors who would be teaching it, I realized that organizing the material in a clear and inviting form was a challenge. After a lot of reflection and as a result of feedback from my colleagues and students, I finally hit upon the idea of a three-part structure. Part One introduces students to the elements of literature: topics, themes, character, plot, and style. Part Two teaches reading and writing strategies applicable to all genres with the help of advice and sample essays. In the book’s third and last part, students apply to specific genres (the short story, novel, drama, and poetry) what they have learned in Parts One and Two. In Part Three, the goal to be achieved is stated at the beginning of each chapter. Background information is given on the genre being studied in the chapter, followed by a clearly worded assignment, step-by-step instructions, and sample essays, many of them by my students. Exercises at the end of each chapter serve as a reminder of what students should have learned.

The last challenge was finding a publisher. All publishers to whom I sent my proposal and sample chapters had very encouraging words about the book’s quality and content but found the permissions cost quite prohibitive. I continued taking out expensive literary selections and had to settle for some online readings to reduce the cost. I chose Montezuma Publishers because they gave me the lowest rate per book and moved toward publication very quickly. They also handled all matters relating to copyright permissions expeditiously.

3. Do you think your years in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at City College of San Francisco influenced the way you chose materials or emphases?

My experience of teaching interdisciplinary courses did influence my reading selections and my areas of focus to some extent. Besides designing and teaching numerous English courses, I created and taught a few courses that are interdisciplinary in nature. One of them is on Asian Humanities and the other on American Cultures in Literature and Film. When teaching the first course, I came across several literary masterpieces from outside the Western canon. Some of those outstanding literary works found their way into my book. The selections include works by Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Lu Hsun, Rabindranath Tagore, Saadat Hasan Manto, Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Alifa Rifaat, Amrita Pritam, and Waseem Barelvi.

My other interdisciplinary course covers the experiences and contributions of major American cultural groups. A topic central to it is how to reconcile the present with the past and embrace diversity. Given the nature of our ethnic and cultural diversity, this focus is imperative to our greater national integration. Literary selections in my unpublished American Cultures reader invite students to look at some of the key selected works as microcosms of events in the U.S. history. They are invited to explore how today’s Americans are trying to rectify the divisive practices of some of our ancestors to arrive at a reconciliation with past history.

Both my American Cultures course and my book seek to inculcate in students the need to acquire a global consciousness and an awareness of our responsibility and potential to promote peace and alleviate human suffering. In the process of teaching the skills of critical thinking, independent reasoning, and structured writing, I have noticed that a humanistic slant both in selections of literary works as well as in their interpretations goes a long way in eliciting a deeper-than-usual student engagement with the texts.

4. What is the most important skill a student should take away from a composition class?

The most important skill is self-editing. Good writing is the result of several rewritings and revisions. Effective self-editing is the result of knowing that good writing style (appropriate diction, sentence variation, clarity, brevity, unity, coherence, figurative language, analogy, understatement, verbal irony, paradox, etc.) is the result of constant study and practice and that good writers do not rely on accidentally hitting on a felicitous phrase.

Self-editing calls for two kinds of revision. One is compulsory, involving word choice, organization, sentence structure variations, focus, etc. The other kind of revision is more demanding but is the hallmark of successful writers. It requires using, when appropriate, a few out of the numerous elements of style that characterize successful writers, such as use of simile, metaphor, analogy, allusion, verbal irony, understatement, paradox, and sophisticated syntax variations. After repeatedly observing the use of such devices in the literature, students can start practicing them in their own writing when they are revising their initial drafts. According to this approach, the first draft is just for expression of ideas, the second for clarity, coherence, and brevity, with all subsequent revisions aimed at making one’s writing truly engaging and pleasurable for the reader.

Initially, students resist this self-editing skill that requires a deliberate effort at style improvement but soon begin to enjoy this experimentation with creative uses of language.

5. A number of reviewers suggest there is something unique about your book. To what are they referring?

It is quite an experience to see one’s book through the eyes of others. I feel fortunate to be the recipient of so many flattering reviews. Here is a list of features that make my book unique.

1. It empowers students by making them more self-reliant and less dependent on others through step-by-step instructions that one reviewer calls “by far the best rubric I have ever seen for writing a critical essay – brilliant, succinct, essential, and clear.” One of the ways that I used to empower students was by making them responsible for some of the literary selections for their sample essays. The only requirement they were guided by was that the works they chose should be either existing or potential masterpieces.
2. In the area of style appreciation and expanding one’s own range of style, my book does what no other existing textbook has done. It offers a system whereby students can advance themselves from being mere admirers to practitioners of good writing. In this way, using systematic guidance, students can make their own writing vibrant and compelling.
My book offers a complete and systematic program to teach the skill of literary interpretation, including style analysis. The book’s level of complexity increases gradually and systematically. After giving information on the basic concepts of topic and theme, the book moves to the heart of interpretation, that is, how to recognize and formulate themes in literary works and how to perceive thematic functions of an author’s style, including characterization and plot construction.
4. To make writing enjoyable for both student authors and readers, I have devised some assignments under this heading: “Approaching Serious Literary Classics with a Sense of Humor.” Students are encouraged to either write a humorous essay on a literary classic or use some of the humor-making devices of parody, hyperbole, understatement, irony, sarcasm, paradox, etc., when writing about serious works of literature. Such assignments encourage students to write humorous, satiric pieces, using a literary classic of their choice as the point of focus. Some students, for example, have created highly entertaining and well-crafted humorous essays, using Camus’ The Stranger to satirize trends that trivialize classical themes.
5. Inclusion of students’ outstanding essays as samples of good writing and advice on film appreciation as an ally of literature are among other unique features of my book.

6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

I cherish the memory of my years of study at Case Western Reserve University. Two incidents at Case Western Reserve University left a lasting impression on my mind and might have influenced me in my attaching so much importance to empowering my students. The first incident happened in a class on Victorian literature taught by Prof. Arthur Adrian. We had an in-class test on Charles Dickens. I did not feel fully prepared for the test and had doubts about my performance. On the day Prof. Adrian was going to return the tests, I pointed out to a classmate (Frank Kooistra) the areas where I could have done better. Prof. Adrian prefaced his lecture with his overall dissatisfaction with the class performance but said that there was one exception. He selected my answers to read to the class as exemplary. That was my first semester of studies in the U.S. You can imagine how much of a boost this experience gave me and empowered me to excel in my studies.

The second incident relates to a comment that Prof. Thomas McFarland made on one of my papers on Coleridge. He said that with a few minor revisions, my paper could be published. Positive feedback of this nature from my professors inculcated in me the importance of making the deserving students feel empowered. I feel I have carried that memory into my teaching as well as in my writing of this book.


Abdul Jabbar entered the graduate program in English at Case Western Reserve University as a Fulbright scholar. After receiving his Ph.D. in English in 1969, he taught English for 36 years on a full-time basis at City College of San Francisco, including a visiting professorship at University of California, Berkeley. He chaired the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at City College of San Francisco for six years. Recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities awards, he has several publications to his credit. For humanitarian work, he chairs the Board of Central Asia Institute, a U.S. charity organization that promotes literacy, especially for women, by opening close to 200 schools in the remote and neglected regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Currently, he teaches at City College as an emeritus professor. At the invitation of the High Institute of Languages, Gabes, Tunisia, Jabbar gave a series of seminars on “critical thinking through literature” in March, 2012. The Institute used Abdul’s book as the foundational text for the seminars.