Lenfest 2015 Winner: Souleymane Bachir Diagne

March 09, 2015

For Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a professor of French and philosophy, teaching is about finding the right balance in the classroom. He evaluates how much time to spend presenting information versus leading a lively discussion with students, and his syllabus includes specific questions about each reading.

“When students read the texts for my class, this gives them an angle, a perspective through which their reading is done, and it makes it easier to spark a robust discussion,” says Diagne.

Diagne has taught at Columbia since 2008, including courses on the history of early modern philosophy, philosophy and Sufism in the Islamic world, African philosophy and literature, 20th century French philosophy, and Contemporary Civilization in the Core Curriculum.

Born in French-colonized Senegal in 1955, Diagne received his academic training in France, then taught at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, and later at Northwestern University.

To him, a good student is someone who can connect what happens in the classroom to what is learned elsewhere, and who understands that learning is a process of continuous self-transformation rather than an accumulation of information.

The most important attribute of a good teacher, meanwhile, is enthusiasm. “Your students will sense that you care and will be receptive and engaged – you will even appear entertaining on arduous topics taught at 9 a.m.”

Diagne has had mentors throughout his career, but he credits one in particular – the late Jacques Derrida, a world-renowned French philosopher – for influencing his teaching approach.

“Derrida trained us for a particular philosophical exercise, which is to prepare a lecture on a given topic for six hours and deliver it in 40 minutes or so,” said Diagne. “It was a very French exercise known as ‘la leçon.’”

After students made their presentation, Derrida would deconstruct their arguments and show how they could have improved them. “This presupposes great attention to the very intention of the student,” he says, an approach Diagne tries to reproduce in his own teaching.

Diagne has published numerous articles and books in both French and English. His Bergson postcolonial, a study of the philosopher Henri Bergson, was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011.

Other works include L’encre des savants: Reflexions sur la philosophie en Afrique and Comment Philosopher en Islam, both published in 2013, as well as African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude and Islam and Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal.

—by Sabina Lee