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Practical Pedagogies of Engagement: Building Intercultural Understanding Through Concrete Activities

RoundTable IX-7, sponsored byCommittee for Undergraduate Middle East Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
The roundtable addresses concrete ways learning facilitators build intercultural understanding. Paulo Freire suggested an educational vision to engage empathy through understanding and create equity (in situations that lacked it). The roundtable contributions are in conversation with Freire’s notion of “critical hope,” a pedagogical framework which empowers students to think beyond a declensionist, conflict-envisioned region. Part of the work is destablizing stereotypes and empowering students to “get comfortable with discomfort” as many students enter the MES classroom with limited knowledge, exposure, and experience. Creating an engaging learning environment for students to explore, engage, ask questions, and being vulnerable are commitments to the “critical hope” classroom. As Middle East studies educators in the post-9/11 world, the participants operate from a commitment that simply exposing students to “the Other” is insufficient; that merely reinforces the tendency to Other in the students. In departments where there is one Middle East expert, this becomes challenging. The techniques range from large to small-scale interventions. The larger-scale examples are in the use of the flipped classroom and the integration of service learning. These techniques empower the learner and help them build empathy through contact with unfamiliar ideas. On a smaller-scale, participants talk about the role of music and podcasts, role playing and a general guide to approaching sensitive topics. Both scales are meant to be easily adaptable for the roundtable participants to their discipline and classroom. Participants represent a range of academic institutions and disciplines: History, International Affairs, Middle East Studies, and Education, who teach in 4-year public and private institutions. Presented techniques will be applicable to small and large-scale assessments as well as to in-class exercises. The goal of this roundtable is to compile techniques, assignments, and activities that can be shared with the audience. This roundtable is in collaboration with two other sessions, "Demystifying the Middle East in the Classroom through Literature and Film" and "Demystifying the Middle East through Virtual Exchanges."
International Relations/Affairs
  • I make extensive use of music videos in my 20th Century Middle East history class. I teach at a small regional comprehensive university, and very few of my students come into the class with any knowledge of the region. Music, however, is something they are all familiar with. The music itself ranges from classical Arabic, Persian, and Turkish styles through tangos and Turkish Arabesk to Europop, Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop. This range helps introduce my students to the place held by the musicians (and audiences) of the Middle East in a larger global culture. I prefer music videos to simple sound recordings, though, because the visual information adds an important dimension to how the students perceive the music and the musicians. They often have a deeper, more visceral response to an image than they can to a song in a language they don’t know. As with the music, they can experience something that is familiar yet often subtly different. The visual images in music videos also can illustrate differences in wealth, in rural versus urban conditions, in social issues and social concerns, and in various ways of dealing with tradition and modernity. The differences in backgrounds used in different videos, of palaces vs. slums for example, opens a way for and makes discussion of these kinds of ideas more meaningful. I also find music videos a very good way to introduce the cultural complexity of the region. I use songs not only in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew, but in languages such as Kurdish and Lazuri. My students often think of the Middle East as a single, monolithic Other, and to demystify it, it is important to break it apart and show the full range of differences that exist there, the range of languages, cultures, economic conditions, religions, political beliefs, and so on. The range of music that is produced and listened to provides an excellent way to do that.
  • For many students at my regional comprehensive university in the Southern USA, where many students are first generation college students and a good deal have never been outside of the state, the Middle East is foreign and Other. Those few who may have experience in the region often have done so through the military, and thus their knowledge of local perspectives is sometimes framed through enemy images; others may have family in the region, and so their views are similarly shaped In particular ways. I try to break through these various frames of viewing the Middle East through active learning techniques including role plays in my upper division Middle East Politics class. In at least one set of class activities each semester I assign students particular roles—endeavoring to assign roles different than their own current views – and provide some background material for their character. Doing research and stepping into the shoes of a Middle East actor for one-two class period and needing to defend perspectives against other students playing different roles encourages students to re-think and re-frame their assumptions regarding the Middle East. At a minimum, it helps them realize that the region is not monolithic, and that within national groups there is more diversity and nuance in views than they previously believed. In this session, I will share findings from pre and post tests carried out in conjunction with three different active learning sessions.
  • In order to effectively engage students with material they are unfamiliar with it is important to establish classroom norms so that students are comfortable asking questions and taking meaningful risks to engage with the content even when there is a possibility they will be incorrect or uncomfortable. When teaching Middle East History in the U.S. it is particularly important to do so in order to address stereotypes and discuss potentially sensitive topics, which benefit from a strong set of classroom norms to ensure student participation and understanding. I will discuss pedagogical strategies for building classroom norms in order to support students in discussing and learning about several topics including the following: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; misconceptions regarding Islam; and the exotification of Middle Eastern women in Western contexts, among others. These norms can also set a solid foundation for discussing less sensitive topics, as students feel they are in a safe environment in which to learn.
  • My contribution centers the use of podcasts as a pedagogical tool to engage in co-curricular development with students, which emphasizes getting comfortable with the material by exercising student voices. I teach at a comprehensive regional research university and a composite of first generation, traditional to non-traditional age, military-attached, evangelical-affiliated, and predominantly white students take seats in my classroom. Accounting for the unfamiliarity of Southwest Asia North African histories, the students start inquiry into the subject by engaging the sonic world of the region – information, pronunciations, sounds, references -, which inhabit their daily life actively and passively. I have curated a course, “Islam and the West,” in various iterations for over a decade, which unpacks the historical, political, and cultural legacies attached to the history of Orientalism. The structure of the course establishes a narrative arc for podcast episodes. The first section of the course emphasizes framing devices – (un)mapping assumptions of a region; to capitalize or not; of absolute categories and civilizations; unpacking “Europe”; theorising the “West” -, before an examination of Edward Said’s Orientalism. The second half of the course analyzes cultural products – painting, opera, silent film, and literature -, before the final section, which engages with decolonizing Orientalism by having students engage indigenous voices to think about issues of citations, anthologies, and canons. I ventured into the realm of podcast projects inspired by students taking Islam and the West. One of the students described the podcast project as a way for students to activate their voices and to “get comfortable” with the material, which writing essays did not address in the same way. The narrative arc of the podcast project does not culminate in one podcast. Students work with a partner to curate episodes every ten days. The arc in the syllabus becomes the arc of the teams’ engagements with the material. In the roundtable, I will share templates for the podcast projects, take aways and learning curves.
  • Many challenges exist in teaching the Modern Middle East to undergraduates. Over the years, I have employed several techniques to try to get a better understanding and participation in my courses. The most effective strategy that I have utilized has been the flipped classroom. Having used this technique for four years, I have found greater term/word recognition, improved pronunciation of terms, and found many students more confident in discussion. This method could be utilized for a standalone course or as a part of a World History course. The flipped classroom allows students the opportunity to review and analyze the material at their own pace. This is often a major stumbling block when teaching the modern Middle East. A vast array of new terminology and geography can cause great confusion even to the most seasoned History undergraduate. This flipped classroom allows students to review the material thoroughly. This talk will address assessment, discussion, and set-up of a flipped classroom and the unique issues that arise when applying this approach to the modern Middle East. The idea of this classroom model is to motivate students and to infuse enthusiasm into the material. In addition to providing a better understanding of the material, having videos prepared for each discussion makes dealing with absences much more straightforward. Rather than re-explaining lectures/discussions, instructors can direct students to the video. With these successes, challenges still remain Apathy only moderately improved, extra “production time” to create videos, and although there has been improvement, discussions are generally mediocre. Altogether, this approach to the Modern Middle East History course will provide instructors options to improve discussion and participation as well as allow them to think of this course in a new way.