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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Pedagogical Uprisings: Teaching to the Unconverted, or Against Multiculturalism's Middle East

[Image by Sarah Carr] [Image by Sarah Carr]

The revolutions and popular uprisings that inspired this conference demand sustained intellectual responses from those of us concerned with studying and teaching the Middle East; they also demand a questioning of traditional paradigms for intellectual work, as this conference calls upon us to do. I see the call to move beyond paradigms based on critiques of Orientalism, Islamophobia, and neoliberalism as presenting a particular kind of opportunity, albeit one determined by our present political moment in the United States. For those of us who have been closely attuned to these events, it is sometimes possible to forget that our preoccupations may not be shared by the wider public (such as our students). The Egyptian Revolution was exceptional in reaching a wide and generalized U.S. audience, and this and the other ongoing popular uprisings in the region have the potential to change and disrupt predominant preconceptions about the Middle East, especially among younger Americans, but the discourse around the death of Osama bin Laden is only the latest evidence that dominant narratives about the region still retain much of their power. We might call this the question of how to teach to the unconverted. So we must find a way to address the unconverted without falling back into our old defensive positions.  

I would argue that within the humanities, the larger problem of teaching to the unconverted is exacerbated by a paradigm that has emerged from institutionalized multiculturalism, a critical method that I call “one of eachism”: motivated by the honorable impulse to allow other voices into an overwhelmingly Eurocentric critical context but restricted by the given limitations of various institutional contexts (for example, the unavoidable choices imposed when preparing a syllabus), the response is a move by which individual texts are given a representational status. In the case of a text such as, say, a contemporary Egyptian novel translated into English, this form of representational positioning might range from the fairly limited (as a representative of modern literature from Egypt), to the more generic (a novel from the Arab world), to the problematically general (an example of Middle Eastern literature), to the disturbingly overgeneralized (a book by a Muslim writer), depending upon the context into which it is placed (or shoved). Even the most benign of these contexts, of course, cannot hope to do justice to the full cultural and political understanding that we would hope to foster, especially in the light of recent events.  

So, in addition to trying to move beyond the well-intentioned but often defensive critiques of Orientalism, Islamophobia, and neoliberalism, I would suggest that we have the opportunity to move beyond the well-intentioned but ultimately crippling limitations of institutionalized multiculturalism. This means developing critical and pedagogical strategies for dealing with some of the central political questions thrown up by the popular uprisings. It also means addressing major institutional issues: fostering closer ties between specialists on the Middle East and those belonging to a variety of other disciplines at a variety of institutions; developing initiatives in translation and language learning to make bodies of knowledge more readily available to students in the U.S., especially those at non-elite institutions; beginning conversations between disciplines that should have been begun decades ago. Finally, it means finding a form of analysis that is at once supple enough to grapple with the new realities emerging from the uprisings, and at the same time allows us to address ourselves more and more clearly to the unconverted — many of whom, I would suggest, have been waiting to hear from us without even necessarily knowing that they were waiting to hear from us.

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