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Teaching the Middle East

May 11, 2015

The Middle East raises some of the most important global questions about nationalism, human rights, American foreign policy, and international security. So what does it mean to teach the Middle East in the classroom today? How do scholars approach their roles as public intellectuals on deeply politicized topics? Five Jackson School faculty with expertise in Middle East and global affairs explored these questions with an audience of students and the Seattle community that packed Thomson Hall 101 for the panel discussion on May 7.

Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba, who served as the moderator, opened the forum with an overview of the student body today as one that is global in nationality and diversity of experience, including as survivors of war. He spoke about the role of media in reinforcing stereotypes, and the peril of social media of “listening to only those people we agree with.”

“We need to encourage students to think for themselves,” he remarked.

Sara Curran, a professor of international studies, urged the audience to think about what it means to build the capabilities and courage in students, including compassion and imagination, critical reflection and identification of possibilities, and challenges to their own belief systems.

“I want to get into the heads of Arab and Islamic leaders,” said Joel Migdal, professor of international studies and director of the Ph.D. program in the Near and Middle East studies center. “I want my students to explore how these leaders understand their place in history… I want students to have empathy and analyze the struggles of others.”

Jay and Marsha Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies Devin Naar talked about sensitizing students to common categories for describing others, such as “Arab and Jew” and “colonizer and colonized,” and used case studies of Arab Jews in Baghdad and Palestinians living in Jerusalem to convey the need to break down stereotypes.

Arzoo Osanloo, associate professor of law, societies, & justice and incoming director of the Middle East center, discussed the desire to build a program for students that treats conflicts like the Middle East broadly and not as a “Muslim world” issue.

Energized, the audience questioned the panel on many fronts. They asked about bringing the moderation of tone in the controlled environment of the classroom to outside behavior, conversing with others from different belief systems who do not want to listen, to preventing singular thinking about the Middle East among faculty and keeping research and lectures relevant with the rapid changes in the region.

“We have no campus thought police,” said Professor Migdal. “But we can help ensure we bring a general quality of approach in our teaching on the Middle East.”