Literature, art and the Abrahamic religions

  • Instructor of English Karen Leland Libby in Jerusalem with the Temple Mount in the background.

  • Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm (center with microphone) speaking Greek Orthodox Church of the Samaritan at Jacob’s Well.

Since joining the Interlochen Arts Academy faculty in 2006, Instructor of English, Karen Leland Libby, has taught a number of courses, including: British Literature, Middle Eastern Literature, English as a Language, Academic Writing, Writing About the Arts and Creating Children's Literature. This past fall, Libby was awarded a semester long-sabbatical with the intent of developing her breadth and depth of knowledge on Middle Eastern Literature.

Libby’s proposal included several self-initiated learning opportunities as well as a a month-long educational trip to the Middle East. Each of these initiatives were engineered to impact Libby’s curriculum in her Middle Eastern Literature course.

Libby’s Middle Eastern Literature course is designed to help contextualize contemporary Middle Eastern art, faith (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) and culture through a lens that addresses the long-standing regional conflicts, achievements and the intermingling of the countless rich cultures that coalesce in this compact region of the world.

In the class, students study various regional texts, including: short stories, graphic novels, poetry, film and novels. Moving east to west geographically throughout the semester, students begin their studies in Afghanistan, working toward Iran and Iraq and ending in Israel and Palestine. The course also includes guest speakers and an annual field trip to Dearborn, Michigan and the surrounding Detroit communities. Dearborn, Michigan’s population consists of the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. During this trip, students visit area mosques, synagogues and churches in an effort to give the class first-hand perspective of the varying cultures found in the Middle East.

Three successive class trips to Dearborn, including a visit to The Islamic Center of America, were made by possible through the help of Ali Ahmed (IAA 14-17)—a former student of Libby’s, Dearborn native and Academy graduate.

During Libby’s fall 2017 sabbatical, she participated in three part MOOC (a massive, online, open course) through Harvard University on Religious Literacy (Judaism, Islam and Christianity). She also continued her language studies of Italian and Arabic, and read new literature from Middle Eastern authors throughout the fall.

In late September 2017, Libby participated in The Holy Land in the Arts program at St. George’s College, in which she traveled to Israel for a month to study art history under the tutelage of Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, Senior Curator for the Met Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Boehm took Libby and fellow participants to locations where she had collected art for the 2016 MET exhibit “Every People Under Heaven: Jerusalem 1000-1400,” including archaeological and sacred sites throughout Israel and Palestine.

Libby documented this cultural and artistic immersion via a travel blog, and through several writing projects which were completed upon her return.

Since returning to campus, Libby’s sabbatical initiatives have continued to inform her professional and in-class development. Recently, she joined the spring 2018 cohort of the Bridge Program, part of the Stevens Initiative. The Aspen Institute Stevens Initiative is an educational memorial project started by the sister of Ambassador Chris Stevens. This program will allow her students to engage online in collaborative projects with students from Arabic and Hebrew speaking classrooms in the Middle East.

Looking ahead to the 2018-19 Interlochen Arts Academy year, Libby is continuing her own education and planning new ways to translate and integrate her sabbatical efforts into hands-on classroom learning. Libby is currently working toward a Certificate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.