Daneyal Akhtar
Class of 09; History Major

Research Mentor:
Dr. Robert Goldenberg, History
Prof. Goldenberg didn’t really micromanage anything which was to my benefit. I made my own syllabus. I did my own things. At first, I was thinking to myself, "man, he’s not telling me anything to do. . . what am I going to do? I don’t know what to do." He left it in my hands. I did fumble in the beginning. But I ended strong. And I learned a lot from that experience.

Interview:

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Researcher of the Month

About Daneyal

DaneyalAkhtarWith the onset of the Summer Olympics, our thoughts turn to Hellenistic ideals of human achievement. Meanwhile, Daneyal Akhtar, our Researcher of the Month, has been contemplating those same ideals—chief among them the concept of a "sound mind/sound body"— for some time as he pursues his scholarly research project with Prof. Goldenberg on: "Education in the Civilizations of Greece, Rome and Medieval Islam." Armed with URECA funding support this past summer which has enabled complete immersion in the project (with a 60+ page paper thus far as an outcome), Daneyal is now ready to take up the charge of researching and writing his senior honors thesis in History. He also plans to travel in Greece in the mid-winter break, to buttress his scholarly research activities and gather insight from viewing archaeological/architectural and cultural data...firsthand! Reflecting on the opportunity that came his way to do independent research, and to work with Prof. Goldenberg, Daneyal comments:

Prof. Goldenberg really taught me a lot of things about myself and the world around me that I would never have learned had I not engaged in this project. Not just about history but about life. In the end, that’s what the study of history is. Some people say biology is the study of life and that's fine. But I always felt that epithet better represents history.


Daneyal was born in Flushing (Queens) and lived there until the age of 13 when he moved to Nassau County and later attended Herricks High School. Daneyal reports that during his high school years, his main interests consisted of playing poker with his friends, and contemplating what was for dinner. This would change when he entered Stony Brook as a freshman in 2005 and expanded his interests to include the study of history (particularly ancient history), and developed a strong bond to Chemistry (for which he served as a Teaching Assistant in spring semester of his junior year). Daneyal has volunteered at Stony Brook Hospital, and the New York Ear and Eye Infirmary; is a member of the Muslim Student Association; and has worked with Habitat for Humanity (joining a student coordinated relief mission or victims of hurricane Katrina through the Alternative Spring Break Outreach program).

Daneyal plans to undertake the study of Medicine (and eventually focus on ophthalmology) in approximately two years' time, using the year after graduation to pursue further historical studies and to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca (part of the Islamic tradition known as the Hajj). His hobbies include wrestling, ju jitsu and oratory. This past April, Daneyal was one of 12 presenters at the History Symposium (the largest group ever in the history of the symposium!)— an annual departmental conference which takes place during the URECA Celebration and showcases the work of undergraduates working in the field of history. Daneyal looks forward to presenting for a second time at the symposium next spring in April 09, with his senior thesis in hand. Below are some excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.


The Interview

Karen: Tell me about your project.
Daneyal: The project ―which will also be developed in my senior honors thesis ― is a historical research paper on education in the classical Greece, Roman and Islamic worlds. We’re looking at the educational practices using the cities of Athens and Sparta; Rome; and Baghdad as the focal points, and at how each of the civilizations educated its citizens, taking into account socio-economic factors such as wealth and legal standing, as well as the culture/social makeup of each of these places. . . I'm interested too in the impact that a military education had on its participants. . . After that, I’ll give my own interpretation as to what education is in these civilizations, and how we can learn from it.

How did you get started in this topic?
I took some classes with Prof. Goldenberg, starting in my sophomore year, including a class on ancient religion. I wrote a paper on the concept of justice in ancient Greece, using Homer’s Iliad as my main primary source. And I became interested by the Greek definition of education. In fall 07, I took another course, Ancient Greece. My interest was piqued by the material. And I really liked the way Prof. Goldenberg taught. I often went to discuss issues that I had with the readings, some questions I had.  I was never looking for research actually until one day Prof Goldenberg said: “What do you think about doing research? You should try it.”  After that, I signed up for independent study with Prof. Goldenberg and it took off from there.

So what does scholarly research in the field of history involve?
Research is very much unique to the individual. For me as a student of ancient history, I think that you need a different set of skills than with studying modern history, due to the lack of source material. What I do is: I have a question, an inquiry. I have something I want to learn. For example, if I wanted to study what did the average boy in Sparta learn, I might ask: "What was his day like?” Since we don’t have that much material in the way of actual diaries or anything describing it explicitly, we look to primary sources to make inferences. You also have to know also what other scholars and what your predecessors have said. That way, you don’t reinvent the wheel and you can benefit from their analysis. Also, a student of history has to master the language. . . I really didn’t feel like I was doing research until the day I went through a Greek English lexicon. That was a defining moment!

A new approach that I’m trying out is to look beyond literature, and look a little bit more into the archaeological data. Take pottery for example. We can look at the illustrations on Greek vases, and try to draw some conclusions from them. I'm planning a visit to the New York Public Library soon to look for some material that we don’t have here in our databases. For example, there’s a Roman book suggested to me by my professor—a compilation of many inscriptions called the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.  That’s a fantastic book. It’s a collection of inscriptions on stone that the Romans had. I want to see if I can find some inscriptions that will give me further insights into education.

In addition, I was very fortunate that I had a chance to go recently to the U.K. and to the British Museum. That’s another way to study history. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for travel. You have to go and see it. I’m now making plans/arrangements to travel to Greece, next mid-winter break.

Do you think getting involved in research — research on education— has enhanced your own education?
Three things I’ll never look at the same: sleep, food, and footnotes! But really, I benefited in 2 ways. I benefited both from the content and from doing it itself. Just studying these civilizations, important civilizations that made huge contributions to the world, teaches you a lot about human nature and society…also, studying ancient history introduces you to ideas that are just so different than your own, because they’re taking place in a time removed, where the culture and technology are so different.

But there are also so many practical applications to doing such a research endeavor. You’ll definitely become more responsible, more aware of your time. Now I can read newspapers and books so much more quickly and precisely, and I can extract important things because of this project. Just doing the project, doing the writing, the researching, and learning time management has been important and valuable. And the research had a profound effect on me. Prof. Goldenberg didn’t really micromanage anything which was to my benefit. I made my own syllabus. I did my own things. At first, I was thinking to myself, "man, he’s not telling me anything to do. . . what am I going to do? I don’t know what to do." He left it in my hands. I did fumble in the beginning. But I ended strong. And I learned a lot from that experience.

Have you already begun the writing process?
For my independent study course which I recently completed, I just wrote 66 pages… I’d never written more that 15 pages for a class before. And I could have gone on even more! I asked big questionsquestions that were very vague (to my own demise!)like...what is Greek education? What did education mean to the Greeks? You start with these big questions and you think, at first, that you’re going to answer everything. Now that I look back at the questions I posed, I see you have to have a Ph.D. to answer these kinds of broad inquiries. As a result, I've learned to be reasonable with myself. You learn how to manage your time so that you can come up with that reasonable amount of work that you place on yourself. Now I’m narrowing my topic more, choosing a theme, focusing on military education and its effects on its students...I'm currently still in the reading phase of my project, still defining my aims. I've found also as I went along that I'm not 100% sticking to my original abstract or questions. That's the nature of research . . . that you find different things, and you make alterations in the road as you go along.

Sounds like you learned quite a bit from undertaking this project. And from Prof. Goldenberg.
From him, I’ve learned a lot, one of the chief things being the value of experience. That and how to write. He would just know things, like a sage. He reads through drafts. And he has this fantastic ability for cutting down. . . You write something and you think it’s brilliant (at first). You give it to your professor and it’ll come back with all these cuts: “You don’t need this word, you don’t need that…” He’s impressed that on me. I look at my own writing, and now I can see I don’t need that word, or I'll ask, "what the point of this paragraph?" There are a lot of practical skills I’ve learned from Prof. Goldenberg.

Your independent research, I believe, ended up being the basis of a presentation for the History Symposium last spring—part of the URECA Celebration.
Yes, Prof Goldenberg alerted me around February about the History Symposium in April, and urged me to take part in it. At that point, I hadn’t finished a paper. But, I thought, “Why not?” I’d seen the URECA research day and walked by the SAC when they were holding this conference in other years. I would see all these posters, and I wouldn’t really know what’s the deal, what’s going on.
Now after going through the experience. I can say it was a fantastic experience! There were students doing modern history, counterfactual history (what if this happens?)—everything from mercenary cartels in South Africa to gay literature in NY to a student who made her own medieval costume. Not only did it make me want to compete and excel on that level—such a high level of scholarly work—but it made me appreciate my studies more, appreciate the university more. There were all these students who had worked so hard. They weren’t expecting any sort of great return. They were doing it because they loved it.

Was it intimidating presenting at the conference?
Oh, yeah. When I came up to present, I was so nervous because I didn’t want to say anything wrong. I wanted to cover all the angles. You have to be ultra precise with your words, with the time limits for talks (15 minutes per student). But overall, it was such a good learning experience for me, and it was also a humbling experience. What I learned is that, A) not everyone is out to get you. Just present what you have...you can’t fill in all the gaps, of course. See if questions clear it up. The other thing I learned, is: B) You have to speak loudly, avery practical lesson! I learned it that hard way: Speak loudly, speak clearly. . . I’m really looking forward to next year’s conference now, and to vindicating mysel. I want to make up for my performance this past year; I know I can improve and I’ve got to really work on that.

What advice would you give to students about research?
One thing I can say is, you have to be true to yourself. I felt the pressure when I came in as a pre med student where the competition is so high. Also as a student at Stony Brook University. . . when I chose History as a major [rather than a science major], I faced a lot of criticism, a lot of pressure not only from my family but from my friends and from other people. . . But I said, I have to do it my way. I had to pursue the things which I liked, the things which I was attracted to. If I had to give any advice, I’d say, don’t worry about what other people are telling you. Don’t worry about what you think is the easiest way to get into a research program. There are no shortcuts. Pick something you really like, pick something that has personal meaning to you and go and find it. There are a lot of professors here, a variety of professors and a breadth of classes. You’re going to find a professor who reflects some of the things that you’re feeling, or teaches some of the things you’re interested in. If you can just make that connection, that’s it. Even, in my own case, I didn’t have to even think about getting into research. . . My professor saw it in me. I was very grateful to him for that. He really made the path easy for me by selecting me, seeing that potential in me. So you should just be the best student you can be, pick something you like, don’t be fake and go for it!