#seniorseminar - An interview with Wesley Grayson (FSU 2023)

Wed, 05/08/24
Wesley Grayson

I'm Wesley Grayson, I graduated from FSU last fall and am planning on going to graduate school in New York this coming fall. I originally came to FSU as a Biology major and was on the pre-medical track for two semesters. My father is a doctor, and my family was keen for me to have a STEM career. But I always loved history, and a friend of mine inspired me to dig deeper, to not just treat history as a hobby. I had a blast with the History program at FSU. I have taken a wide range of classes; I love learning about a wide variety of cultures. I am most interested in Islamic history.

What made you choose this senior seminar class? 

I liked the title, “Crimes of the powerful and civil resistance.” I had just taken a class on terrorism through a historical perspective, which in many cases cited it as a response to oppression, so I thought there was a connection. But honestly, it was also the only senior seminar that fit my schedule.

What is your project about? 

The title of my project is “The Violent vs. Peaceful Sikhs: Undermining Western Frameworks.” I have an affinity for Islamic history, and I really like the Mughal empire (1526-1858). I discovered the Sikh religion through independent research while at college. It develops during the time of the Mughal empire in India. During the first few weeks of class, we had to find examples of groups that were oppressed and used some form of violent or non-violent resistance. I thought about the history of the Sikh community, which is fraught with external oppression and violent response and decided to dig deeper. As I researched, I discovered that Western scholarship overtime developed a violence binary dividing the Sikh faith into essentially two distinct religions.

When studying the historiography, we see a narrative of the “real” original Sikhism, which was inherently peaceful, taking a dramatic turn towards violence and thus creating a “new” violent and militant Sikhism. This is often described with no linear continuity or connection between the two. I argue that this is not true, and that when we look at the theological and philosophical underpinnings, then we see that there was always the potential for struggle and violence as a means of resistance. Sikhism, from its founding, includes an evolving and ever-present concept of struggle, whether internal to a person or external to the community.

What sources did you use for your project?

Thinking about how to access primary sources made it a bit daunting in the beginning, until I realized that there were accounts by European travelers who visited the Mughal empire and court at this time. I relied on those as well as translated Mughal histories and, of course, the sacred text of the Sikhs, the Guru Grant Sahib.

I had a really hard time figuring out how to do citations from the Sikh holy text in the Chicago format. There are very clear instructions on how to cite the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran, but I could not find anything for the Guru Grant Sahib. I also was not sure which translation of the holy book would be the best to use. This was only a temporary setback though, and I did manage to establish proper citation and proper translations for primary sources I needed.

My secondary sources were comprised of writings from different scholars ranging from the early 19th century to today. Some notable scholars that I utilized were Major-General Sir John Malcom (1769-1833), W.H. McLeod (1932-2009), and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (1950-).

How easy was it to get started with your project?

It felt easy at first, but then I suddenly asked myself, how do you do intellectual or philosophical history? And I felt outside my depth. To understand the philosophical concepts, I had to go through a lot of very densely written books by scholars from and on South Asia. While it turned out to be very rewarding, it felt daunting at first.

What was the biggest surprise? 

I think the biggest surprise came when I was studying Sikh philosophy. I had the realization that the concept of struggle or battle could be used to refer to an internal or external, spiritual or temporal process. And that the distinction was blurry, so that an internal battle could become an external one very quickly. I had this ‘Aha’ moment in my research and thinking phase, and then I realized that the fighting against worldly oppression was an extension of the internal battle against egoism. Essentially, original Sikh scripture and philosophy never barred the use of violence in cases regarding response to oppression. The later formalized militarization and overt acts of violence against the Mughal Empire were in line with and not opposed to the original doctrines of the faith.

How difficult was it to stay on top of a project like this?

I typically divide my work into blocks, and with something as long as this paper, I had to. First, I had to figure out my topic, then I took time researching, and afterwards I wrote my paper. I worked my way through more than 30 books, taking a few days to go through each and writing down all the information I needed. When it came to writing, I created an outline, and then worked on one section at a time. If I needed more material, I did some more research.

Dr. Stoltzfus’s check points really helped me keep pace with this project. Throughout the semester we had to submit a paper proposal, a historiography section, a rough draft, and then lastly the final draft.

Was it challenging to give a presentation on your topic to the class? 

I would not say it was a challenge. Speaking publicly can be anxiety inducing, and I do not love it, but I have got used to it throughout my college career. I took the key points from my research and shared them with the class. It was quite simple looking back.  

What advice would you give to other students?

Know your limits. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Be aware that this is a time intensive class and balancing it with the rest of your life can be hard, especially if you want to give it your all.

Work out the implications of the topic you choose, because the amount of research and writing can change drastically from topic to topic. There were moments when I was writing this paper, when I thought I should have done something a bit more American centric just because access to sources would have been easier. There were language barriers, translation issues, and the general fact that the older the topic you are researching, the fewer sources you will have.

The other thing I would say is ‘Have fun.’ Have fun finding a topic you are passionate about, have fun doing the research, and have fun putting it all together. While there were times that I was frustrated because of the aforementioned issues, I was passionate and intrigued by my topic. Because of that passion I did have fun and, in the end, found the whole process very rewarding.