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Faculty Spotlight: Rami Gabriel

By Jon Graef (MA ‘11)

Rami Gabriel was finishing a PhD program in psychology in California when one of his friends told him about an assistant professor job opening at Columbia College Chicago. The application for the job was due the next night, so Gabriel stayed up all night to complete it. At the time of his callback interview, Gabriel was on vacation in Japan. He boarded the next flight, and, in his words, “was up for the next couple of days trying to get to Chicago.” Gabriel eventually made his way to Chicago, and now has taught at Columbia for five years. He recently took time to talk about arts, sciences, and playing music.

What’s it like being in a scientific field at an artistic school? How do you engage with students at what’s primarily known as an arts college?

My courses are structured in a certain way. For example, I teach a course called psychology of consciousness. What it’s about is a field that’s heavily scientific, but what I try to do with all my classes is show that each topic, whether it’s consciousness or self and identity, has multiple approaches. So there is the scientific approach, and I give them that approach in the beginning. And then I start to open it up, and start showing them that even these scientific or biological things have sources in cultural and social implications and influences.

So I try to show them that, yeah, science has done so much great stuff, but when I show them that stuff, sometimes it’s overwhelming for them. When I start to show it through context, there’s a lot of ways that science can be taught at this school. It’s one of many great approaches to reality, but it’s not the only approach. Once they start seeing that, they get more interested in it, and less scared of it, I find.

What other classes do you teach besides psychology of consciousness?

I’m teaching a course called Sex, Death, and the Unconscious: Freud, And His Legacy on 20th Century Arts. So this is a good example of how I can mix two sides. The first five weeks are all Freud—doing primary source reading of Freud himself, finding out what he meant by sex, death, and the unconscious. And the rest of the class I focus on each type in art. So I’ll do sex in film that was influenced by, or is part of the legacy of, Freud; I do poetry, literature, animation, popular culture. I show how psychologists of the twentieth century strongly influenced the pop culture of the twentieth century.

A colleague of yours mentioned you do a lot with music. Can you talk more about that?

I’m a professional musician, and have been for about eight years now. I’ve played in a variety of formats. I play classical Arabic music and Egyptian and Lebanese music. I play with a group that mixes Arabic music and jazz called Swing Hakim. I play the Middle Eastern lute, and I play the guitar. I’ve been in Chicago for about five years, and I’ve met a lot of great musicians.

What do you like about Columbia?

The department is great. Everyone is so open and, as a scholar, I’ve been interested in many fields, not just psychology. I get to mix psychology, art, and philosophy. I get to talk about topics across disciplines. It’s great.

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