As a scholar of the modern Middle East, my courses often serve as a student’s first formal entry point into the historical study of a non-western culture. In a post-9/11 world where “Islamic extremism” and “jihadist terrorism” predominate US media coverage of the Middle East, students enter my courses with preconceived ideas that are mostly negative.
I therefore approach each class as an opportunity to make the feared unfeared and the unfamiliar familiar by drawing connections between “here” and “there,” “the east” and “the west,” the “self” and “other” in the past and in the present. Without knowing it, students begin to demystify the region through their interactions with me, an American-Muslim with North African origins. Students who expect to suffer through a litany of boring names and dates (that are foreign, no less!) encounter lively historical content in a classroom where I endeavor to humanize a region, peoples, and religion that are too often misunderstood. My classes are infused with my passion for teaching and are enriched by the variety of teaching materials I employ. My lesson plans are unpredictable. On any given day, my students are exposed to an unexpected combination of films, photographs, political cartoons, novels, paintings, newspapers articles, magazine covers, video clips, and social medial content. I encourage probing discussions and debates so that students can make important connections between what they assume is a distant past of a faraway people and the world around them.
I strive to enliven my classroom not just with how I teach but what I teach. Key to our collective inquiry is the privileging of texts written by Middle Easterners as a way of discovering stories told from the “Other’s” side. I offer students the opportunity to explore historical events, many that may be familiar, but from unfamiliar perspectives. As we contextualize these voices, students begin to see more clearly the complex historical entanglements of the region within longstanding western, especially US, geopolitical realities that have shaped our current global society. All of my courses, at their very core, seek to equip and empower students to see, critique, and connect hierarchies of difference from the past to the present in hopes that they might work toward effecting equitable change.
Since joining the history department fourteen years ago, my pedagogy and teaching techniques have evolved in significant ways. This can largely be attributed to my increased involvement in the Intergroup Dialogue (IGR) program and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI). I have come to realize the determinative role that an inclusive classroom plays in fostering and deepening student learning. I recently came across an adage that I now include in all my syllabuses as part of my stated policy on diversity, equity and inclusion:
Tell me and I'll forget.
Teach me and I'll remember.
Involve me and I'll learn.
While I have long valued the importance of creating an open and respectful classroom, I did not appreciate what it meant to create an inclusive one. As a facilitator in the IGR program, I have heard countless Villanovans from varied religious, racial, socioeconomic, gendered and sexual identities and levels of ability offer powerful narratives about their personal experiences at Villanova. Too many expressed feelings of being overlooked, unheard, and even erased by unintending faculty. They were uninvolved. Their personal narratives offered me, a faculty-of-color, a lens through which to view and critique my own teaching: I saw some but overlooked others, I listened but did not always hear. These students especially have taught me how to teach more effectively. I strive harder to use inclusive language (despite messing up…a lot!), offer historical and contemporary examples that represent more diverse social experiences, and use varied teaching strategies to suit different types of student learning. I have long known about my capacity to shape students’ minds; learning more about diversity and inclusion has taught me how to transform their hearts. As Villanova’s student body and my classes continue to welcome more diverse students, I am now quite intentional about integrating inclusive pedagogies so that every classroom I step in, whether a history or IGR course, I lead students in recognizing and humanizing not only the voices of Others in historical texts, but in our classroom as well.