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Demystifying the Middle East in the Undergraduate Classroom through Virtual Exchanges

Panel IV-13, sponsored byCommittee For Undergraduate Middle East Studies (CUMES), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel will bring together educators who use Virtual Exchanges to teach about the Middle East in undergraduate classrooms where many students have no personal familiarity with the subject. These students encounter the subject as outsiders, presenting teachers with the challenge of overcoming the “othering” tendencies inherent in such an endeavor, especially when popular culture often reiterates orientalist stereotypes or emphasizes difference rather than presenting the region and its people as relatable. Whether feared or romanticized, the tendency for the Middle East to be viewed as essentially different from that which is familiar can be pervasive and difficult to overcome in the classroom. Virtual Exchange (VE) has proven an effective tool in teaching intercultural dialogue and cultural competency in a variety of disciplines and subject areas. By connecting students in one cultural setting with students abroad in online platforms, VE can be structured in a variety of ways to provide opportunities for cross-cultural conversations or collaborations. For educators who teach about the Middle East, it provides unique opportunities to make the region and its people fundamentally relatable by connecting college students outside the region to their peers at colleges in the Middle East. The goal of this panel is to share practical and innovative strategies to use VE to demystify the Middle East and its people for undergraduate students using personal interactions online. Our panelists come from a variety of disciplines (History, Anthropology, Political Science, and Language) and work in different types of institutions with a variety of classroom demographics, each of which presents unique opportunities and challenges. These panelists employ diverse approaches to VE in the classroom to demystify the region and establish the relatability of its people among students who often have no other personal connection to the Middle East. Each panelist will present an overview of the VE activities they employ with their students, the pedagogical basis for these activities, the best practices that have produced positive outcomes, and lessons learned from trial and error. The presentations will be given with an understanding that different classrooms and institutions require different approaches. The Q&A time following presentations will be structured as an open dialogue in which the audience is invited to share their own VE experiences, ask questions, and share lessons learned and resources.
Political Science
  • Demystifying the Middle East is an important component of developing cultural competency—the ability to interact with, develop positive relationships with, and collaborate with people of diverse cultural backgrounds. We at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri have pioneered a new approach to infusing cultural competency training in our courses and demystifying the Middle East for our students through a unique partnership with the University of Mosul (UOM), Iraq. Using an adapted COIL framework (Collaborative Online International Learning), this partnership brings UOM students into Lindenwood classrooms virtually to work with Lindenwood students studying in various disciplines across its four colleges. Lindenwood professors design collaborative online projects in consultation with Middle East experts in our College of Arts and Humanities and faculty from UOM. In these collaborations, student volunteers from UOM apply to participate in selected Lindenwood course activities where students navigate cultural differences, time zones, and new technology to work together translating texts, designing bilingual advertisements, developing business plans, or discussing philosophy and ethics. Our partnership with the University of Mosul is structured to offer maximum flexibility for Lindenwood faculty designing Virtual Exchange collaborations and a variety of options for UOM students seeking experience in English language communication and cultural exchange. Drawing from this experience, the paper presented will explore the use of innovative partnership structures to maximize the benefits of Virtual Exchange for students and faculty at participating institutions.
  • Co-Authors: Melinda McClimans, Suncem Kocer
    Social and political instability in Turkey has been the subject of international news stories regularly since the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013. People who have never had the opportunity to travel to Turkey themselves are likely to have an impression of the country and its people as violent or dangerous. General stereotypes about the Middle East and Islam that have been circulating for a long time only serve to reinforce such impressions. As a college teacher of Turkish studies courses, I consider it part of my job to challenge those impressions and provide my students with opportunities to experience other aspects of Turkish culture and society. However, the university I work for has not approved undergraduate travel to Turkey since 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the difficulty of visiting the region. In response, along with a colleague in international affairs, I created a Virtual Education Abroad in Istanbul program. The program leverages immersive opportunities such as virtual reality visits to important sites in Istanbul, online conversations and collaborations with students at a university in Turkey, and workshops and demonstrations with Turkish scholars and artists in cooking, music, dance, language, and more. Using readings, videos, and diverse online sources, students make additional forays into Turkish history, geography, and other areas of interest. A central component of demystifying the Middle East in the classroom is intercultural competence, which involves encouraging students to see themselves as cultural beings (Ferri 2016). Certain elements in education abroad, such as time spent interacting with locals and cross-cultural collaboration, have been shown to maximize that kind of learning (Root and Ngampornchai 2012). At the same time, scholars have identified the potential of online learning to increase access to a diverse student body (Fermín González 2019). Bringing this scholarship together, my colleague and I propose that virtual education can offer the benefits of education abroad to in-class situations, especially if it utilizes the principles and methods of collaborative online international learning (COIL). In this presentation, we will share our Virtual Education Abroad in Istanbul course and show how high impact COIL practices, such as the use of ePortfolios, can lead to gains in intercultural competence. We will share lessons learned, as well as remaining questions such as how to simulate an in-person experience virtually, and whether that should be the objective.
  • The Middle East is a foreign, unknown, and often scary “Other” for students in my international politics courses at a regional comprehensive university in the southern USA. Over the years I have experimented with virtual exchange as one way of encouraging students to learn the humanity and diversity of students in the Middle East. In this panel, I share several ways that I have used virtual exchange, as well as the opportunities and limitations posed by the different avenues. Three way that I will share here include 1) a build your own adventure approach of connecting with others in the region through existing contacts and networks; 2) working with established international programs like Soliya’s dialogue program, and 3) building sustained partnerships with other universities in the region. After discussing the differing structures of the three different types of virtual exchange mentioned, I overview the opportunities for engagement and learning available for students through each.
  • Virtual Exchange VE, commonly known as Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), is a global learning initiative supported by the Division of Academic Affairs and the Center for Teaching and Learning. This teaching method facilitates students' global awareness and cross-cultural communication through interactive online practices. This paper suggests strategies to integrate linguistic and cultural knowledge in higher education classrooms through Virtual Exchange pedagogy. The paper highlights include explaining several VE projects and their learning objectives. The projects are mainly designed to build solid employability skills, as suggested by the National Association of Colleges and Employers NACE and Global Competencies as well. In addition, the research offers valuable insight to educators working on second language acquisition, social justice, or cultural anthropology, focusing on the Arabic language and culture to teach through VE pedagogy. At CUNY, some VE projects are delivered through ​Global Scholars Achieving Career Success (GSACS), supported by the Stevens Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government administered by the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. GSACS is a collaborative multi-campus program that foregrounds U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (U.N. SDGs) and career readiness competencies in class-to-class virtual exchanges between students from five colleges at the City University of New York (CUNY) and four universities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Faculty facilitators from CUNY and MENA institutions work in bi-national teams to develop and implement discipline-specific or interdisciplinary virtual exchange modules for their students in credit-bearing courses. GSACS modules enable students to investigate the world through the lens of a U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) while engaging in collaborative, experiential learning assignments. This paper discusses practical applications of VE interdisciplinary projects conducted collaboratively with the American University, The Suez University, and a domestic project that was done in collaboration with The University of Oklahoma. The paper includes some suggestions to design effective VE module plans to enrich students' knowledge ahoy the Arabic language and culture, compare and contrast some controversial issues in the U.S. and the Middle East, and enhance students' ability to have a better understanding of the concept of othering and appreciate and accept people who are different in race, language, and religion.
  • For students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the Middle East is a far and distant and potentially exotic or dangerous region. Many of them have engaged with the region tangentially, perhaps through a relative who was deployed there or through a classmate. For other students, the region is a blank slate, with only Disney’s Aladdin (1992 & 2019) as a reference point. An anthropology course called Exploring Cross Cultural Diversities offers a way for students to encounter the Middle East for the first time. For students at the American University in Cairo, the anthropology course Arab Society is a general education requirement for a liberal arts degree. Students often struggle to engage with the course, when they feel they are already experts in the topic–many of them being raised within an Arab society. Both of these course are often taken as an elective to fulfill a regional or global competency and focus on teaching cultural relativism as well as learning more about everyday life in the region. Often it is a struggle to engage students without any stakes. Virtual exchanges (VE) provide an opportunity for Gen Z to feel more confident in their global citizenship, facilitate interactions that benefit both classes, which raise the stakes for learning when faced with explaining and rethinking multiple cultures. This paper discusses a VE between the UNL anthropology course Exploring Cross Cultural Diversities – Middle East and North Africa, and the AUC course Arab Society and how VE can be useful in developing cross-cultural understanding and facilitating discussions which deepen connection to course and raises the stakes for learning. This paper uses the classroom exchange between UNL and AUC as a case study to discuss how virtual exchange builds skills in global citizenship, intercultural communication, and practice in cultural relativism through. I will discuss techniques for icebreakers and introductions, materials that are accessible to both students, and how we navigated contentious topics like settler colonialism, LGBTQIA issues, the West’s perception of the MENA region, and current events that have impact in both countries, and problem solving in the online discussions. The goal of this paper is to give MENA educators working techniques for virtual exchanges in cultural and history based classes.