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The Compassionate Classroom: Teaching Middle East Studies in the Covid Era

Session IV-01, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the Committee for Undergraduate Middle East Studies (CUMES), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
Since Spring 2020, the pedagogical landscape has shifted under our feet. Many of us learned new skills and programs, embarking on paths unimagined a few months prior. This shift coincided with equally significant changes to how many academics viewed themselves and their roles, as the public debate about education became increasingly acrimonious. Yet many of us incorporated new and different pedagogies, changed our courses significantly or took on new research that informed our classes despite the added pressures or perhaps, because of them. This roundtable asks the question: How have we, the field of Middle East Studies, which is so well-positioned to do so, created a compassionate classroom in this era? Hannah L. Schacter, et. al. outlined the tenets of a compassionate classroom for a story on Inside Higher Ed: acknowledging stress and learning barriers, providing resources, and being mindful of your own stress that you bring with you to the classroom. Their suggestions, that dropping the lowest grade, offering flex passes, providing for assignment choice and multiple attempts were the answer to helping students feel comfortable and reach their potential. Ultimately, they argued for empathy, inclusivity, and understanding; in many ways, the basis of our interdisciplinary field. Drawing on many fields, specialties, areas of interest and disciplines, this roundtable will present practices that help bring compassion and inclusivity to our pedagogical practice.
  • Compassion, Emotion, and the Classroom as Community. The pandemic has rightfully encouraged the examination and adoption of a range of general ‘compassionate’ practices applicable across disciplines and fields. But the pandemic has also pushed me to consider the ways in which our fields and course subject matter produce and/or are produced by affective states, and how then to create a field-specific compassionate classroom. This presentation will discuss one in a series of experimental classroom interventions I designed and employed in a MES course at the University of British Columbia. In tandem with other interventions that open space for emotional expression, class time is arranged to provide specific occasions for emotive reflection, expression and conversation based on what I term ‘emotive short reads’ produced by MES scholars, activists and/or ordinary citizens. Parameters and guidelines are communicated to students, but, as I will demonstrate, opening spaces for emotional expression within the MES classroom carries significant risk. The instructor willingly relinquishes control over the classroom as well as their ability to dictate acceptable means of expression and discussion on sometimes controversial and distressing subjects. The class can then be faced with spells of vital humor and joy but also discomfiting silence, sadness, and even anger. I claim, however, that by loosening our grips and allowing for such moments, instructors and students can begin to challenge the strictures of the formal academic classroom and help each other lay bare the affective dimensions of studying, teaching, and working in MES. Compassion consequently becomes more than something to be shown by instructors to students. Instead, through sharing, critical listening, and a commitment to community, compassion can be woven into our courses as a reciprocal endeavor in these hard times.
  • "Lessons from Turkey: Our Learning Lives Became Enriched During COVID" On January 4, 2021, Turkey’s prestigious Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and my alma mater, became a scene of protests. Faculty and students demonstrated against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of Mr. Melih Bulu to the position of rector. University students and faculty staged daily protests on the green lawns of the campus against the executive order, which overturned faculty governance. Six months of protests resulted in Mr. Bulu being removed from his position as appointed rector. When my upper-division synchronous remote class, “Political Prisoners: Voicing Dissent in Modern Turkey”, began the last week of January, hundreds of Boğaziçi University students had been placed under possible criminal investigation. The twelve enrolled students majoring in Political Science, History, Linguistics, and Criminal Justice had rudimentary knowledge about the region. I had worked with five of the students the previous semester when many of us – students and faculty alike - were still tweaking how synchronous remote teaching could be a platform for critical engagement. “Human existence involves surprise, questioning and risk,” Paulo Freire reminds us, and “because of this, it involves actions and change.” Our collective work that semester fostered a democratic pedagogy in practice, which was juxtaposed with the anti-democratic nature of the state under study. When most students and teachers were constrained by the digital platform, it was the platform itself, which allowed for a liberatory practice. First, the importance of studying the past to best understand the present and how emotions help to make the connection was a critical part of setting tone informed by a praxis of transparency. Second, the synchronous remote modality of the course, due to the COVID pandemic, was central to the success of the class; we would not have been able to engage with a panel of student activists, Turkish politicians, and academics without the democratizing effect of webinars. Our experience, in other words, suggests the value, rather than inconvenience, of remote teaching as a modality, which the pandemic prompted.
  • “‘Always Remember to Never Forget’ and Other Ways to Connect Historical Events to Modern Issues” For as long as I have been teaching, (more than a decade and less than a century) I have sought to connect modern issues of social justice to historical curriculum. Since the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd (and Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and...), however, this has come into greater focus for both myself and my students. But how do we connect these moments to the historical examples and realities of Middle East history classes in meaningful ways? I will discuss two ways in which I have incorporated contemporary resources into class discussions to create opportunities for students to express their real-life concerns and connect them to academic examples.
  • Curricular Design in Uncertain Times: Engaging Students through Multisensory Learning in Middle East Studies Classrooms. How do we create a compassionate Middle East studies classroom in the COVID-19 era – one that fosters students’ well-being in times of distress? In this presentation, I will discuss efforts to build students’ confidence through curricular design, via assignments that cultivate new skills and forms of expertise while building community through collaborative learning. I will quickly survey a few new assignments that I have developed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, within online and in-person undergraduate seminars, and then focus on one kind of assignment: that which imparts experiential and embodied learning. The idea is to engage students in hands-on activities which force them to physically move (liberating them, however briefly, from computers, phones, and other devices) while triggering multiple senses. In a class on food history in the Islamic Middle East, for example, I have required students to follow a recipe from one of the Middle Eastern cookbooks in our university library’s collection. Students have had to “share” their food in a “virtual buffet” and describe what they learned (and what worked or flopped!) in an oral report with pictures. In a research seminar for first-year students, I formed students into small teams, gave them specific topics in Middle Eastern and North African studies (e.g., Egyptian education, or Syrian music), and sent them on a scavenger hunt in the university’s main library. Their goal was to use the library catalogue to identify tangible books (not e-books!), to find them in the stacks, and then to check them out and bring them back to class within a set time. Assignments like these can make learning into a more joyful, collaborative, and purposeful enterprise while teaching new skills, ranging from food preparation to library research, and reinforcing ideas through multisensory experiences. Such assignments can also help students to feel a greater sense of agency and optimism in unsettled times, while deepening their appreciation for Middle Eastern studies.
  • Middle East Studies, since the 1970s has embodied the idea of the theory of empathy and since then the field has argued in favor of an insiders understanding of culture beliefs practices and traditions rather than an understanding based in stereotypes prejudice or a notion of eternal, homogenizing truths. As pedagogy increasingly become part of the discussion, we often privilege content over form. The Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) and the recent book by Omnia El Shakri Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East are two pivotal contributions to pedagogy on the Middle East. They present topical and approach-based contributions to teaching. While this is useful, it is also somewhat idiosyncratic and they often do not offer specific ways to operationalize these ideas in compassionate ways. As we think about the compassionate classroom it is important to think not only about the continent but also about the form that our pedagogy takes. Compassion is critical in this period when students and faculty are more stressed and frazzled and at greater numbers than ever and when attention spans for both are equally fragmented. My presentation wants to discuss the idea of mindfulness in the Middle East studies classroom. Drawing on my experience teaching both a survey of Middle East history 1800 to present and a upper a senior level special topics course on gender and sexuality in the Middle East I will talk about how grounding the course and various mindfulness practices—incorporating discussions of intentionality not only into skills-based learning, but also into description of various topics—can help to increase understanding without exoticizing the Middle East. Creating space for compassion for the students to learn helps to create space for compassion of the subjects they learn