A Nobel Laureate Teaches Curiosity and Culture at NYU Abu Dhabi
Professor Wole Soyinka brings his experience as an artist, playwright, activist, novelist, and musician to everything he does—including teaching at NYU
At NYU, you can learn from visionary leaders, passionate activists, distinguished writers, and famous scholars. And Professor Wole Soyinka is all of the above. Professor Soyinka, a Nobel laureate, is a renowned artist, poet, academic, essayist, musician, philosopher, and human rights activist. Now, he can add NYU Abu Dhabi arts professor of theatre to his résumé.
“As children, we’re curious, and we develop in an environment in which others indulge that curiosity,” Professor Soyinka shares. “I was very much like that as a child. So, I think that’s why I’m attracted to nurturing people younger than myself. My students’ curiosity triggers my own. Indeed, it expands my scope of imagination, alternative views, and new ideas.”
Snapshot of a Nobel Laureate
Professor Soyinka brings an extraordinary array of lived experiences to his professorship. Born in Nigeria, he studied at Government College in Ibadan before completing his doctorate at the University of Leeds. In the years that followed, he served as a dramaturg for London’s Royal Court Theatre and even founded his own theatre group. Additionally, he taught drama and literature at several universities. Then, Nigeria’s civil war interrupted his prolific career. He published an impassioned call for a cease-fire, leading to his arrest and imprisonment for 22 months. In 1986, he became the first Black African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “large and richly varied literary production.” In total, the Nobel laureate has published more than 50 works, including novels, plays, memoirs, essays, and poetry.
The Winding Road to NYU
Professor Soyinka’s relationship with NYU Abu Dhabi dates back to a poetry festival he attended many years ago. There, he met the Emir of Dubai, a poet, and the two discussed the UAE’s growing role as a cultural hub. “There was that sense of an artistic, creative community that seemed to run all the way from the top to the bottom. So, for me, NYU Abu Dhabi became an expression of that creativity,” he explains. “Plus, I have a sense of international community from being in the theatre profession. You’re engaged and absorbed into other communities all over the world, however briefly. And NYU Abu Dhabi has a strong sense of international community, which attracted me.”
After that, Professor Soyinka explored a number of opportunities with NYU. The Nobel Laureate visited as a writer in residence in 2019 and taught a master class in early 2020. Next, he planned to come to the University as a visiting lecturer. However, the pandemic struck, abruptly halting his plans. Soon after, NYU returned with a new offer: Why not join the NYU Abu Dhabi faculty full-time? “My immediate reaction was, ‘Who are these mavericks?’” he laughs. “But, I came, and it’s been fun. It’s been quite stimulating.”
Creativity and Curiosity for All
At NYU Abu Dhabi, Professor Soyinka strives to instill a sense of curiosity in his students. For example, he taught Culture and Citizenship, an introductory exploration of how works of art contribute to national identity. But no matter what the Nobel laureate is teaching, he aims to give students the space to grow, experiment, and determine their own way forward. “I do what I can to provide reasons for students to make discoveries. Furthermore, I try to make them understand that it’s not really the text that matters to them. Rather, it’s the world that that text opens up,” he explains.
Ultimately, he aims to use the coursework to expand students’ horizons and expose them to the possibilities “of thinking, of thought, of production, of relationships. They’re all interlinked.” He concludes, “I look at the number of elections, events, and performances [at NYU], and this is an environment built for intellectualism and creativity.”