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"Teaching the Middle East" Conference: Conclusions and Moving Forward

[Image from Jadaliyya archive.] [Image from Jadaliyya archive.]

The best way to conclude this summary and discussion of “Teaching the Middle East” — indeed, given the structure of the conference and the nature of the conversations, as set out by Bassam Haddad in his opening remarks and reiterated in his remarks before the two closing panels, the only way to conclude — is that the discussions that began at this conference have not yet concluded. Indeed, these discussions are really only getting started. This was part of the conception of the conference itself: as Haddad noted in his opening comments, the idea from the beginning was that it would really be a first step in a longer project aimed at setting new agendas for teaching and research addressing the Middle East, at moving beyond a defensive posture and towards new strategies, and at making sure that the opportunity to make current events part of a teachable moment is actively seized. So by way of a conclusion for now, here are some of the items for these new agendas, as proposed by the conference participants.

In terms of future research agendas, one very fundamental set of questions revolved around the work of the intellectual, whether in the role of educator or scholar (or both at once). The phrase “speaking truth to power” has been used so often that it risks becoming a cliché; a question that became central to the conference was, if our job is indeed to speak truth so as to affect power, to whom should this truth be directed? There was an interesting and productive tension between those who thought that the most productive work might be to find ways to influence policymakers — either directly (by getting ourselves heard in the halls of power) or indirectly (by teaching those who will become the policymakers of tomorrow) — and those who, by way of contrast, suggested that the best aim was to speak truth to a wider public than to “the powerful” more narrowly defined. A related discussion revolved around whether the forms of distortion that have been a part of the dominant discourse on the Middle East are the results of a sheer lack of knowledge (or, as was suggested, the idea that power makes people stupid and leads to a sort of imperial arrogance and ignorance), or whether, on the contrary, these distortions are “rational” in the sense of serving particular interests and agendas. The preliminary discussions around these sets of issues have the potential to influence future conversations about the strategies underlying new sorts of research and pedagogical initiatives.

In a more focused sense, many points discussed during the conference clustered around particular sets of issues that have the potential to influence future research and pedagogical agendas. In terms both of summing up the conference discussions and moving forward with delineating and realizing these agendas, it might be best to break these down schematically:

Research Agendas:

1) Political Economy and Related Approaches: Many of the discussions came back to the importance of revisiting (or, as some participants articulated it, returning to) approaches drawing on political economy. The topics proposed for further investigation through such approaches included:

  • Neoliberalism (both as an economic structure but also as a lived reality or life-world)
  • Counter-revolution (as it threatens to manifest itself, or has already done so, in many ongoing situations throughout the region)
  • Contentious politics and social movements, and their relationship to forms of organized party politics
  • Issues related to subjectivity, agency, and institutions

2) Law, War, and Revolution: Another cluster of recurring issues centered around these three topics, especially as related to questions of accountability. Major topics within these categories proposed for further investigation include:

  • Human rights
  • International law and enforcement
  • Accountability
  • Police power
  • State “building” and destroying
  • Constitutionalism

3) Thinking Through Our Units of Analysis: A further set of questions arose regarding the methodological and other sorts of overarching approaches to the issues discussed throughout the conference. Indeed, at the largest level, there was a fruitful set of discussions regarding the very question of how to frame our unit of analysis: Does the rubric of the “Middle East” still provide the most helpful unit of analysis, or do other categories, such as “Arab politics” or “the Islamic world,” hold out the possibility of doing more useful work? Are any of these categories sufficient for our contemporary moment, or do entirely new ones need to be evolved?

Pedagogical Agendas:

1) Moving Beyond Orientalism: In terms of meeting with the conference’s stated goal of moving beyond “defensive” approaches to teaching the Middle East, one set of issues involved trying to think about ways of getting past simply challenging Orientalism and instead finding more transformative approaches to pedagogy. How, for example, can we find ways of moving beyond simply teaching what the west wishes to know about the Middle East, and move towards teaching about the culture, politics, and communities of the region on their own terms?

2) Approaches Old and New: Moving forward, how can we find institutional spaces and opportunities for introducing new topics and classes, rather than trying to squeeze new approaches into existing curricula or trying endlessly to put new spins on old classes? On the other hand, how can we critically evaluate our pedagogical tools in order to more effectively know what needs to be retained from the past, what needs to be revised and revisited, and what may need to be jettisoned altogether?

3) Transforming Notions of Teaching: What are the roles we wish to play as educators, and how do we determine and establish our pedagogical goals when it comes to teaching the Middle East? How do we adapt our teaching methods to face various forms of institutional challenges: for example, teaching undergraduates within general humanities courses versus teaching specialized graduate courses versus teaching more “professional” oriented courses for students looking to get into politics or diplomacy or intelligence work? How do we formulate our roles as educators in order to better foster future commitments and create new forms of solidarity — in short, in order to be transformative intellectuals?

4) Techniques and Strategies: How do we begin to evaluate our best practices and generate new ideas for bringing the issues discussed at the conference into the classroom? How do we begin to approach the ethical issues raised by new institutional practices — for example, the deeply disturbing ethical issues raised by many study abroad programs set up in the region by U.S. universities? What is the role of the “virtual classroom” — does it really help to link students in different locations, or does it mostly function to indulge certain exoticist curiosities on the part of western students? How can we best use new media technologies and other visual media to meet our pedagogical goals when it comes to teaching the Middle East? How do we address the new forms of campus and classroom politics that will emerge, and are there opportunities to link these to the political and cultural activities of youth movements in the region?

As all this suggests, what emerged most clearly by the end of the conference were sets of questions, suggestions, and goals. The work now is to move forward with the inquiries and efforts initiated during these two days.

Once again, we at Jadaliyya, along with Arab Studies Journal, would like to extend our sincere appreciation to the Ali Vurak Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and the Middle East Program, both at George Mason University, without who's financial and logistical support, the conference would not have been possible.

Click here for the Introduction to Jadaliyya's "Teaching the Middle East" conference.

Click here for Panel Summaries of Day 1 of Jadaliyya's "Teaching the Middle East" conference.

Click here for Panel Summaries of Day 2 of Jadaliyya's "Teaching the Middle East" conference.


1 comment for ""Teaching the Middle East" Conference: Conclusions and Moving Forward"


I am glad I had the opportunity to read the entire Conference and many of the panelists' pieces. I think students and non-students would greatly benefit from online or on campus discussion forums about some of the panelists' topics. There's a deep need for education on as well as informed discussions on the Revolutions and the Middle East.

Ruth wrote on June 24, 2011 at 06:31 PM

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