The Middle East is a region that is continuously in the news and frequently the focus of controversial, polarizing, and sometimes virulent debate within both policy and media circles. Scholars working on the Middle East face a unique set of challenges in their teaching and research. What they have to say, and how they say it, is often subjected to intense scrutiny by those with vested political or ideological interests. Such extra-scholarly pressures can pose serious threats to academic freedom and exercising professional responsibility. In light of these circumstances, the Taskforce on Middle East Anthropology created a resource guide in 2006 titled Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility after 9/11: A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers. The first edition of the handbook was based on ethnographic interviews with and research on academics working on the Middle East who have encountered obstacles in their teaching and scholarship.
In 2012, we gathered as a revision committee to update the handbook. Continuing the collaborative approach of the original taskforce, we have tried to learn from as many people as possible about the diversity of tools available to assist academics in what are, at times, difficult circumstances. We evaluated the current atmosphere of academic freedom via a survey distributed to faculty and graduate students studying the Middle East and updated the document to reflect legal changes that impact the ability of academics to carry out their scholarship and teaching. We also reviewed major controversies over academic freedom since the original version of the handbook was published in 2006 and updated links, citations, and contact information.
Our research highlights the influence of a growing number of extra-academic organizations, formed with the mandate of “monitoring” the scholarship and teaching of Middle East specialists. Their efforts to silence individuals they disagree with is a threat to the academic freedom of all scholars, but especially untenured faculty in a precarious job market. As a result of this surveillance, some professors we surveyed reported feeling like they are “walking on eggshells” or “walking in a minefield” in their teaching and research on the region.
Despite these challenges, many professors have used the increased scrutiny to engage the academic community in richer discussions about the region. Many go to great lengths to foster a classroom environment that is open to discussing multiple viewpoints. The perception of the region as always embroiled in conflict can offer professors greater latitude to explore “sensitive topics.” In addition, some professors feel that being scholars of a region that is constantly in the news and the center of public attention leads to their expertise having higher value within their home institutions. For many, the “Arab Spring” has become an excellent counter-argument to pervasive negative stereotypes about the Middle East. They report that student perceptions of the Middle East have improved as the uprisings have “humanized” Arabs, although it has not always led to significantly more sophisticated understandings of the region and its role in current political affairs.
The handbook is divided into two major parts. The first section examines the diverse institutional resources available to faculty who face threats to their academic freedom, including internal university structures, professional organizations, legal recourse, and media outlets. It addresses core concerns that scholars in these situations may have: how to find allies within the university, how to prepare for a potentially controversial event, how to initiate a letter campaign in defense of yourself or a colleague, and when to contact the media.
The second section is a practical guide to dealing with difficult situations that may arise in the classroom. What should a teacher do if a student accuses him or her of bias? How should disruptive outbursts by students be handled? How can a teacher best respond if a student makes a racist or discriminatory remark in class? The handbook discusses specific pedagogical techniques to manage such situations.
Research for the handbook suggests that scholars of the Middle East who face challenges to their academic freedom often turn first to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) for support. However, discipline-specific organizations also serve as an important additional resource for scholars in such situations. Disciplinary annual meetings and publications for members can offer venues for discussing existing threats to academic freedom and sharing techniques to address these challenges.
Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility: A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers of the Middle East is available here.
[A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Anthropology News.]