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Emotional Wellbeing in the MES Classroom: Teaching on the Middle East in Times of Distress

Session XII-07, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the Committee for Undergraduate Middle East Studies (CUMES), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The pandemic’s impact on students’ emotional wellbeing has been well-documented. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are on the rise while resilience is frequently said to be deteriorating. But students are dealing with much more than the pandemic. Bigotry, inequality, environmental disasters, divisive politics, and more are compounding their distress. And then they enter the Middle East Studies (MES) classroom. While there has been little research on the subject, many of us recognize that teaching and learning in MES can by itself be a fraught proposition. Instructors and students are often required to confront traumatic pasts and presents, navigate incendiary debates, defy frightening attacks on academic freedom, and challenge a potent Middle East exceptionalism that, among other things, posits the region as one of perpetual despair and conflict. Finally, many students of Middle Eastern provenance continue to grapple with events currently besetting their countries of origin and the peoples they hold dear. Beyond impacting our own emotional wellbeing as instructors, this nexus of troubling circumstances has ramifications for students in our care. Consequently, more than ever, it is vital that we reflect on the ways instruction in MES can and might impact emotional wellbeing and, in turn, how and what students learn about the Middle East. This panel examines the affective dimensions of teaching in MES during times of distress, the ways in which we as MES instructors might mitigate the negative impacts on students’ and our own emotional wellbeing, and, finally, the connections between emotional wellbeing and learning outcomes in our field. Drawing on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL), critical and anti-racist pedagogy, and other fields and paradigms, presenters will outline and assess a range of practices, involving both the adaptation of cross-disciplinary approaches to create more inclusive and accessible MES classrooms as well as the formation of MES-specific pedagogical interventions that address or attempt to enhance emotional wellbeing in and through the MES classroom.
  • The conjunction of the pandemic and the intensification of social justice movements following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others helped create conversations around collective trauma and compassion. Within the academy, this has led to robust discussion of creating inclusive and compassionate classrooms. The growing body of literature on practices of critical, feminist, and anti-racist pedagogies provides useful insights into ways of creating an empowering and compassionate classroom. In this paper, I seek to consider how the past two years have shifted my pedagogy from one focused on critical thinking and the empowerment of individual students to a more classroom-community focused approach, designed to foster greater engagement, encourage collaborative knowledge-building and cooperative learning, and empowerment of students as both individuals and collectives to recognize and push against structures of power. This work will incorporate a review of critical, inclusive, and anti-racist pedagogies, followed by a discussion of practices and activities that I have implemented in several courses, including lower-division survey courses and upper-division cultural awareness courses—all of which are centered on Middle East history and interdisciplinary Middle East studies. This includes first-day activities that help students identify their roles in participating in and resisting structures within the classroom and in global contexts, small-to-large group activities around debates and source analyses, and "awkward discussions" designed to place students at the center of slow, deliberative, but ultimately deeply rewarding discussions on conflict, memorialization, race, and identity. Finally, I will incorporate student feedback and reflective autoethnography to assess the successes (and failures!) of these efforts to date.
  • This paper outlines a number of pedagogical interventions for grappling empathically with religious, racial, and ethnic difference in the Islamic and Middle East Studies classrooms. Inspired by Becky Thompson, Michael Sells, Toni Morrison, and Tara Brach, I outline various exercises for approaching difference that seek to expand students’ capacities for empathy and emotional well-being. These include Qur’an recitation, creative writing and performance exercises, and mindfulness meditation. When students memorize and recite portions of the Qur’an, they connect with the tradition with their ears, tongues, and bodies—in ways that complicate facile divisions of insider/outsider and us/them. Creative writing, performance exercises, and meditative practices help to bring reflexive awareness to students’ inchoate anxieties about being out-of-place: feeling like intruders, colonizers, or voyeurs, rather than students of Islam. These practices allow students to foreground the singularity of their identities while learning to empathize with their classmates’ experiences, helping students to responsibly situate themselves in histories of exclusion, colonialism, and nationalism. They further provide an entry point for both Muslims and non-Muslims to empathize with a variety of Islamic traditions and relate to cultural “otherness” with tenderness and care.
  • In this presentation, I discuss the methodology and findings of a formal SOTL (Scholarship of Teaching & Learning) study on classroom emotion(ality) interventions in a course at the University of British Columbia - MES300 The Middle East: Critical Questions & Debates. The course asks students to examine the troubled history of Middle East Studies (MES) and then work to decolonize and resituate the field within a social justice framework. Emotion(ality) was communicated as essential to this larger project and made manifest through the syllabus, ‘emotive short reads,’ and allocated times for openly emotive discussions. Most significantly, students were asked to produce multiple emotive writing assignments – individually and collectively – that reject a feigned ‘neutrality,’ reframe the role and mission of the (MES) intellectual, and allow for vital expressions of emotionality and positionality. Through focus groups, surveys, and interviews with students, the SOTL study evaluated the impact of these interventions in the MES classroom and beyond. Above all, it assessed the transformative potential of classroom emotion(ality) and emotive writing assignments on students’ ability to: a) Produce inclusive and just visions of the Middle East and MES; b) Upend inequitable academic conventions and ponder more equitable modes of expression; and c) Attend to their and each other’s emotional wellbeing in (MES) courses with traumatic subject matter and in fraught times more generally. The presentation will outline the risks and potential pitfalls of bringing emotion into the MES classroom, but ultimately will argue that doing so is vital to the transformation of MES and the creation of a more inclusive academic world. Most importantly, the study findings demonstrate the importance of classroom emotionality interventions to students and their emotional wellbeing. In particular, the study demonstrated how such interventions can open a critical space for marginalized students, especially those with connections to the region, to openly and honestly evince their experiences/perspectives without having to assume a conformist ‘academic’ voice that frequently obscures more than it illuminates.