In the Classroom

Gazing at, through, and within the Arab World

CLASP Fellow Issam Khoury, Education Above All Program Manager at Al Quds Bard College, describes how he creates community through writing and discussion.

17 students, 8 nationalities, located in four different time zones, all studying one incredibly diverse region of the world. The challenges and opportunities of teaching an OSUN course on the Arab world are both immense and as I reflect on the experience I’ve had this semester, and as a result of participating in the CLASP Fellowship Program, I am pleased to share my reflections.

It’s almost become passé to talk about online teaching. The world was forced into this modality out of necessity two years ago, and the language of hybrid and blended learning punctuates the pages of universities the world over. While this is not my first time teaching online, I am confident that it is my best. Creating a community among diverse cultures in disparate locations has been both rewarding and the result of much effort both on my part and on the part of the students in class. Due in large part to the lessons I’ve learned as part of the CLASP Fellows Program hosted at Bard College, and through the very rich interactions I’ve had with my fellow Fellows (a little bit of alliteration goes a long way), my own teaching practice has become richer, more intentional, and even more student-centered.

Before I delve into my teaching practice (with its successes and areas of improvement), I feel compelled to discuss how I designed my syllabus. There is no “right” way to design a syllabus on the Arab world (the very term I use is contested, but my subjectivity as a Palestinian finds itself rooted in a pan-Arab identity, as is my pan-Arabness rooted in the hope of Palestinian liberation), and thus I spent months figuring out “how” to teach on this topic to students from around the globe. I opted to start with the philosophical approach that I was going to teach the region authentically – to approach the Arab world as we in the region talk about it, think about it, and live it. I eschewed both an Orientalist and a post-9/11 apologist approach to studying the region. Step 1. Check. With that in mind, using backward design, I came up with concrete learning objectives and outcomes for the course that would then determine what I would teach, and how I would structure my syllabus (I could write three more pieces just on this process which was a mentally agonizing labor of love). Syllabus designed (with an EXTENSIVE reading list (but more on that later). Step 2. Check.

Now, to the classroom experience, which has, thus far, been extremely rewarding. Instead of going through this semester chronologically, I’d like to approach this as things that I do, have learned, and have changed as part of my own self-reflective process.

In being authentic to myself and to the culture in which I am located, I spend some time at the beginning of each class just greeting and asking about each student. That sense of connection is not only reflective of the best of Palestinian culture, but it is crucially important in creating bonds in an online environment.

Second, teaching online, especially with the tools I have learned through the Fellows program, has forced me to be more intentional with how I structure my class, and how I engage students in the classroom. I start each class with five minutes of a free write – what a beautiful practice; it’s almost meditative and allows one to clear the mind. By the time class starts, I sense a palpable coming together of the class, with all of us ready to fully immerse ourselves in the readings.

Once the class starts, the idea of writing and sharing has become central to my classroom, and I use different kinds of writing exercises. One of my Fellows in the program (thank you, Dale!) introduced me to Mentimeter, which allows me to combine writing and student engagement at the same time. I often use Mentimeter to get feedback from students in real times on such complicated questions regarding the region. This writing allows me to spark much debate and discussion. Simultaneously, I use some very specific techniques, including Pair & Share and Focused Free Writes, as another means to engage students in complexity. Discussing ideas, trying to make sense of complexity, and navigating through the Arab world becomes more rewarding when students are given the space to express through writing, and in a safe space.

Being responsive to students and hearing from them is of paramount importance to me. i conducted an anonymous mid-term evaluation of the course, asking the students what they like so far, what they would like to see changed, and for suggestions for the rest of the semester. I designed the syllabus for an upper-level undergraduate course, but it seems I put too many readings. Ambitious in my desire to cover with the students as much as possible, I had six readings a week (even as I write this, I laugh at my optimism). I almost uniformly heard from the students that the readings were too much. Thus, I have divided the readings for each class into groups and ask them to present in the class, and continue to use a combination of writing and discussion exercises to approach the material.

The idea of a safe space, of creating community, and creating engagement on these topics is certainly more challenging in a virtual space. It requires a level of intentionality to engage through a screen, but I feel thankful for the lessons I have learned (and continue to learn) through the CLASP Fellows Program in bettering my teaching practice.

Course Description:

The Arab World is too often over-generalized and misunderstood by both politicians and policy makers in the West, as well as by its own residents and nationals. Seen solely through the lens(es) of dictatorships, oil, conflict, mass immigration and/or dualistic notions of political and/or religious identities (Sunni/Shia, Muslim/Other, pro-American/anti-American, etc), or contrasts to the so-called only democracy in the Middle East, these generalized notions do nothing to further understanding of or about the region or the complexities that define people in the region.

The course will be structured around the theme of “the gaze”. In the first section, we will explore philosophical and historical approaches to “gazing at” the Middle East. How has the Middle East been understood by non-Arabs, and how did this define an understanding of the Arab self?

In the second section, we will “gaze through” the region, paying particular attention in this section to the Arab Gulf States, a region of the Middle East that has, in the span of twenty short years, made a name for itself as the epicenter of commerce and industry. More recently, and specifically in the last ten years, since the rise of the so-called Arab Spring, the Gulf States have attempted to assert themselves politically by influencing regional politics, and creating intra-regional alliances. Far beyond the simplistic paradigm of oil, in this section, we will explore underlying currents that have come to characterize the Arab Gulf States.

And in the final section, we will attempt to “gaze within” the Arab World, and explore issues in Arab society even those that are deemed “sensitive” or “taboo.”. What are the undercurrents in these societies that continue to remain undiscussed? What of the role of gender, sexuality, and subaltern identities? What role are youth playing in the region? How have shifting dynamics (political and social) affected how its people see themselves? And how do Arabs push back against the status quo?

This course aims to provide you with multiple perspectives from both the social sciences and the humanities with which to understand the Arab world today. Our hope is that this course will both spark your intellectual curiosity about the Middle East; and equip you with the analytical skills necessary for you to critically engage with material about or from the region on your own.

Of course, with such overarching goals, the course does not claim or aim to be a comprehensive look at the region, but instead will serve as a launching pad from which you can then explore in further detail particular subjects and topics that are of interest to you. This course will enable you to analyze trends and topics that are relevant to the region and encourage you to engage with these multiple issues.

In order to achieve the objectives of this course, the class will be conducted as a seminar, with heavy emphasis given to readings, participation, and writing. You are not merely a passenger on a train, but are an active participant in the learning process, actively seeking engagement with ideas, challenging the views of your peers and instructor, and struggling to make sense of complexity. There are no “right” answers, and thus, the classroom serves as a “safe space” in which any idea can be explored, discussed, debated, and debunked.