Last Lecture

The last class is always a challenge. What can I say that best ties together the big issues of the course? Can I say something new, provide novel insights or insightful interpretations for the things we’ve been doing, not be redundant, offer encouragement if not wisdom?  I usually spend a lot of time thinking about what to say during my last chance with the students. And, since we had (rather unconventional) guest speakers all last week, I really wanted to try to work with the students to integrate the guests’ presentations into the rest of the course.

On Friday, five days before my last class, rumors began to circulate that President Obama–and Jimmy Fallon–would be coming to campus. Rumors were confirmed by a Sunday email sent to all faculty asking us not to penalize students absent to see the President of the United States.

The students entered to an interview with the creators of the Egyptian “revolution song” I had shown some weeks earlier. The song is so upbeat, it is terrific to begin on even a rainy day. (President Obama arrived on one of those amazingly beautiful days when the sky really is Carolina blue.)

I began with a quote from an oped I had read just that morning. I wanted to bring home to the students that what we had been doing all semester was not some kind of avoidance of “real education,” the dates, names and places they had learned as “history” before coming to UNC. For both conservatives like David Brooks and for progressives, education is about critical thinking, complex reasoning, and learning to communicate effectively in writing. That was what we had been engaged in all semester. The technologies, the questions, the efforts to get students to think about causes and outcomes, they were all part of that project.

I revisited the mind map, reminding them of the four big questions we had been trying to answer and the ways that events and ideas could be connected to larger questions. Then it was back to those historiographical issues: how do historians do what we do? What is the difference between argument and opinion? How do we analyze evidence?

I really wanted to find out from them how they thought the poetry and music we heard last week could be used as sources for understanding history.  They had read James Gelvin’s Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. But in class, we had focused on performance and culture: on Tuesday, Will McInerny introduced them to Poetic Portraits of a Revolution and on Thursday, Omar Offendum talked about music and Syria and uprisings and growing up Arab in America.

What role should historians give this kind of information when trying to understand the past? The students were remarkably articulate. One student explained that we can learn about emotions, about fears and hopes, from poetry and music in ways that political economy cannot match. Another emphasized the role of poetry, story-telling, and narration in the history of the Middle East over centuries. And one provided a metaphor. Learning about politics and economy are like studying the banks of a river, he said. They show the shape and direction of history. But to really understand the river, you need to wade in, to feel the temperature of the water and get wet. Poetry and music allow us to do that.

Finally, I turned to the role of the lecturer–me.  Because critical thinking and historical scholarship require the analysis of evidence, I pointed out, lectures are inherently problematic.  I had encouraged them to view me as a source, and I pointed to their digs to remind them of their responsibility. In the course syllabus, I had encouraged students to do brief research in primary sources:  Something you read, I say, or the class analyzes will strike you as inaccurate, outrageous, or otherwise unacceptable. You get credit this semester for proving it wrong (or proving it accurate). You can get up to 5 points for writing a “dig” based on primary sources that will let you bring new information to the debate and give you firsthand experience with how historians write history.  I summarized the 15 digs I had received in which their classmates had taken the initiative to critically engage with course material.

I ended with that David Brooks quote, thanking the TA’s for their remarkable efforts to help the students develop those critical thinking, complex reasoning, and especially, coherent writing skills.  And now they are gone to exams and to summer, some to graduation and new lives.  I hope some of them stop by next year.

War in Iraq

I did my first public speaking during the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm, and once I began, there have been, sad to say, so many American (mis)adventures in the region that I seem hardly to have paused.  There seemed then, and seem now, so many things the students have to know, so many contradictions between the stories the government told us and the information we had even then, it is difficult to step back and let students draw conclusions.  The stakes seem too high, even now after more than a decade of sanctions and another horrific invasion.

Our job is to have students learn to analyze sources critically and to draw conclusions.  That’s what I was demanding of my public audiences more than a decade ago.  Instead of including the students’ voices today, though, I hoped I could model the way a historian can create a narrative based on diverse sources.

 They arrived to Saadoun al-Bayati performing Iraqi music at UNC, videotaped this fall when he was part of my students’ workshop for K-12 teachers, Iraq beyond Conflict.

We began with a review of Saddam Hussein’s reasons for invading Iran, tying them to the issues that we had been discussing since World War I.  Then I moved on to the US support for both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict.  I focused on the aftermath of the war: the horrific human cost, the Anfal campaign in which Saddam Hussein’s troops destroyed Kurdish villages and lives, the devastation of the economies of both countries, and the consolidation of Iran’s new revolutionary regime.  I argued that one could not understand Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait without recognizing the effects of the previous invasion of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s sense that Kuwait was disavowing their common war aims by demanding loan repayment, accusations that Kuwait was engaging in economic warfare against Iraq, insistence that Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil.

The George H. W. Bush administration waited hardly any time to see if sanctions had worked, and the war was quick and enormously destructive, carried out by a coalition of 34 countries.  Ending the war was a murkier project.  I showed them an interview with then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney explaining (presciently) why trying to topple the Iraqi regime would have resulted in a quagmire.

I showed photos of the “Highway of Death,” when American forces bombed Iraqi conscripts retreating from Kuwait.  I talked about the importance of military reports, showing them one that discussed the complications of the campaign, like the bombing of the Amiriya Shelter that had killed hundreds of civilians.  I ended with a description of the simultaneous Iraqi uprisings against the regime, encouraged by the US, during which American forces did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression.  They left to the video of the destruction of Kerbala.

In the end, it was an old-fashioned narrative, a lecture about war and destruction.  How traditional can a historian get?

Sadat and Saddam: The 1970s and 1980s

For some reason, recent history seems much harder for me to synthesize.  What are the biggest issues of the 1970s and 1980s?  How can one present them to beginning students who don’t know much about the region, without eliciting significantly more controversy than analysis.  By the time we get to the 1970s and beyond, students already have fixed ideas and a stake in the narration.

Instead of doing an overview of the 1970s and 80s, I decided today to focus on two secular autocracies and try to connect them to the big issues of the era.  I realized they hadn’t hear Fairuz yet, a serious deficiency on my part, so they arrived to her singing one of the songs my Damascus women friends seemed to consider almost an anthem.

The “quiz” today was the same one that Viji gave her students a few weeks ago, and their responses were similar.  I told the students about the experiment she had done in class, and how thinking about issues at a deeper level would help students learn.  I explained that when I asked them to respond to a poll, I had hoped to encourage the kind of engagement that would help them participate more actively in the kinds of analysis historians do, but now it seems I may have been (inadvertently) helping them learn and remember the issues we were talking about.

I began by reviewing the importance of the past in understanding the violence in Lebanon in the 1970s, talked briefly about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the Israeli occupation of the south, the Syrian occupation of much of the rest, and the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut, for which a memorial exists down the road at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Then I asked the students to think about all they had learned so far about the region.  Based on that, what kinds of challenges faced Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s?  Here are their Poll Everywhere responses, appropriate and complex, as a word cloud:

I began with Sadat’s Egypt, the high costs entailed in being neither at war nor at peace, and the 1973 war that managed to solve none of those problems.  Neither did the “opening” to capitalist investment.  I described Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the result of food riots that followed the imposition of IMF austerity measures.  (In past years I have had to describe the demands for austerity measures, but the students seem to know lots about them these days.)  I introduced the Muslim Brotherhood as both an economic and a political force, and ended with the assassination of Sadat.  (They now know the names of all of the Egyptian presidents since 1952!)

Then on to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Context comes first: the Cold War, and the various ideological options available to people in the 1970s Middle East: communism, state nationalism, Arab nationalism, Islamism.  The Ba’ath party made sense in this context. The rising price of oil we had already talked about (and they seem to have talked to their parents about) provided the emerging Iraqi dictator with a lot of income to spread around.  I talked about rapidly improving child mortality rates under his rule, and the sorts of improvements that would have been reflected in the improving health of children.  But I also showed them a series of images reflecting the growing cult of personality, and concluded with the 1980 invasion of Iran, trying to provide the background they would need for the week’s reading, Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.  The Iraqi invasion of Iran, I pointed out, brought together most of the issues we had focused on since the end of World War I: disputes over borders, questions of belonging, Nasserism and nationalism, and fear of popular revolution.

Their questions will provide a transition to Thursday:

Revolutionary Middle East, Thursday version

I was pleased with the format Tuesday, with the students’ participation in constructing the narrative and thinking about the implications.  But I couldn’t figure out how to provide enough background for their discussions.  They were reading too broadly this week (what was I thinking?): a Nasser speech, Fanon on torture, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and two chapters from Nadje al-Ali’s wonderful book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present.  Their journal was to be on whether these events really constituted revolutions.  So I had to provide at least the background for the Algerian war, Iraq 1958, Nasser 1952, Mossadegh 1953, and the Suez Crisis.  It seemed to me that they all fit together, but they were obviously too much for one lecture.

I wanted to focus on France and Algeria for the welcoming music, but since I couldn’t decide which Rai to play, I did two, beginning when only a few students had arrived.

I had decided that I would begin the lecture with a Poll Everywhere poll on the biggest issues of the era.  I would take their responses, create a word cloud with wordle, and then talk about the issues raised by the biggest words (most frequently used in the students’ responses) in order.  I had prepared the PowerPoint to be flexible.  But the system was down!   (Poll Everywhere was very apologetic, claimed this wouldn’t be repeated.)

Face to face with the problem of technology: sometimes it doesn’t work.  It took me most of the hour to regain my footing.  But what followed was not my finest hour as a teacher.  I was flustered, and reverted to a standard lecture, in chronological order.  Iran, oil and the cold war (Mossadegh 1953) followed by the Sinai Suez Crisis (Great Powers, Super Powers, Nasser and Israel), and the Algerian revolution.  The only redeeming elements:

First, I love this BBC clip on the 1956 Sinai-Suez crisis, especially when thinking about 2002-3 and Iraq.

And second, I juxtaposed de Toqueville and a colon legislator on the effects of the French on Algerian society.

I scrambled to the end, trying to remind us all of the big picture concerns as I finally wound down and hoping that they would think about the bigger issues in discussion sections.

Revolutionary Middle East: Nasser

The decade that followed the creation of the state of Israel saw the overthrow of most of the rulers of the Arab states.  It’s a challenge to “cover” all of the revolutionary movements, let alone their consequences.  I have been struggling with my desire to talk about all of the big events of the decade, trying to figure out which things I should focus on.  Those would have to stand in for the issues raised by all of them.

Who better to begin with than Um Khulthoum, though I’m not sure the students understood from the video clip why she has been so beloved by so many for so long.  Review today: the partition of 1947, Israel’s establishment, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that resulted.

I’d found a wonderful Guardian newsclip on the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 Iraq, and asked the students to watch it and prepare to respond to four questions: What happened? Why? So what? What other information would you need to know to answer these questions?  Then the film:

They began to respond, and quickly got bogged down.  After I played the clip again, they were able to answer the questions, while the TA typed their responses.  Although I’m not convinced the responses are below the right questions, it seemed (I hoped?) that the exercise was helpful not only to make the list, but also to think about HOW one prepares for–and works to understand–historical information.

Clearly, Nasser was not only a huge and frightening spectre for the British newscaster.  He was also a really significant symbol for those who have come after him and used his legacy to seek change .  I wanted the students to think about Nasser and how he could have come to be so popular.  They are reading one of his speeches this week.  I asked them to think about everything they know about Egypt to this point, and began a timeline on a PowerPoint slide.  They were quite impressive, remembering not only the events, but also some of the big issues.  We had left Egypt after the Urabi revolt, so I caught them up to 1948: the frustrated efforts for independence after World War I and the dependent independence that followed, with British continuing to control most aspects of Egypt’s government and economy.  I hope by the end of the semester to convince them that context matters, in this case, that Nasser and his legacy can only be understood within the contexts of Egypt’s history, the struggle against colonialism, and the Cold War.


Today’s welcome video was a brief clip from the terrific film, “Crossing the Bridge–The Sound of Istanbul”

The class was tremendously enlightening.  After a week that had included two public lectures in addition to the usual work, I fell back on my previous teaching style.  There was so much to “cover,” what with the Urabi Revolt in Egypt, the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, and the “Young Turk” revolution in the Ottoman Empire, that I spent the whole class lecturing about the events.  I tried to tie it all together by emphasizing the belief of many members of the elite that a constitution would be the silver bullet that could strengthen Middle Eastern powers to be competitive with European states.  (The irony: although members of the US government pretended that they could introduce democracy through invasion at the start of the 21st century, people in the region had believed a whole century earlier that they could withstand foreign intervention if they only had constitutional regimes.)

Despite my enthusiasm for the topic and all of the techniques we teach new lecturers (moving around the room, lots of eye contact, dramatic voice changes, repeating important points), it was clear that I lost the students.  This was the first time all semester that they were not engaged– some actually fell asleep.  By the time the lecture was over, only one posted a question.  The only student who approached me afterward asked for a glossary so they could follow better while I sprinted through events.

I suppose it was a good test of the new system.  Some of the students had seemed to want more traditional lectures, and I had begun wondering about the efficacy of taking so long to focus on fewer things, unable to “cover” as much as during previous semesters.  This was an eye-opening “failure”: had I focused on underlying questions, they may not have “learned” about all three constitutional efforts, but they may have remembered the big ideas.  In discussions after class with the TA’s, I began thinking about how I should have done it.  Perhaps comparing the underlying notions of governance and the governed that had informed the medieval “Circle of Justice” ideals with the early twentieth-century constitutional demands that had been assigned as their reading for the week?  I also learned that it takes much more time for me to re-imagine the histories that I don’t research as problems to be explored instead of events to be narrated.

 Perhaps part of the problem had been UNC’s devastating one point defeat at the hands of arch-rival Duke in the last second of last night’s game.  In an effort to lighten the mood, instead of a map quiz, I did a review of the recommendations for Ottoman renewal.

Europeans, Ottomans, and Minorities

The students are reading two versions of the horrific massacres in Damascus in 1860, when Muslims killed Christians, one of the first instances of religious violence in the region for a long time.  There has been a lot written about the violence, but what I wanted to do was have them think about what I’ve been thinking about in my own research.  What are the options for how one treats “minorities”?

I began, as always, with a video to try to wake them up, and this one worked wonders!  It’s based on Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and I wanted to end with the Crimean War.  (The students seemed either horrified or amused!)

I have been using Poll Everywhere to take attendance, since their phones are registered in the system.  I do a quiz every day, usually about definitions or locations.  This one is the first they really missed:After one of the students came into my office confused about Muhammad Ali’s relationship with Napoleon, I decided to do a brief synopsis of the story to date (the TA’s liked this).  I wonder if my focus on the big issues is leaving them confused about events. Clearly, they need to know enough detail to make interpretations and see how historians work.

I had left class on Tuesday worried about my description of Christian privileges that resulted from European “protection.”  So I began with a broad question: based on their readings for this week (1860 Damascus massacres), the Tanzimat proclamations describing Ottoman reform measures from last week, their discussions about “outsiders” from Tuesday, they were to brainstorm in small groups. What are all the possible ways for institutionalizing relations between majorities and minorities?  Once they had listed them, they needed to choose the best option, and take it to another group and see if they agree.  The students texted the consensus decisions to the Poll Everywhere slide behind me.  Their proposals fell into three groups, all tried at various places in the recent past:

  1. Majority rules. Minorities have to adapt.
  2. Minorities should have the right to live their own culture/religion/society and provisions should be made for them
  3. Individuals should have free choice about how to live.

I reassured them that we would return to all of these in time.

The Ottomans came closest to the second of these options, and I described the millet institutions and the use of multiple legal systems.  Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian nationalist hero living in Damascus at the time of the massacres, became the obvious character to describe varied Muslim responses to non-Muslims.

The man who led the fight against French colonialism in the early years after France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria had been defeated and exiled to Syria.  There he protected hundreds of Christians during the violence described in the readings for this week.  Although the French claimed that Abd al-Qadir’s protection of Damascene Christians indicated that he had reversed his previous antipathy to their invasion of Algeria, neither he nor his supporters thought anything of the kind.  He had opposed a foreign invasion.  He had protected Christians, which for him was a duty incumbent upon Muslims because of the special protected status Christians enjoyed in Muslims lands as “peoples of the book.”  His fight against the French invasion of Algeria was anti-colonial, not anti-Christian.  His protection of Christians was Muslim, not pro-French.

But that made the 1860 massacres even more difficult to understand, so I suggested that there is a difference between prescriptive “Islam” and the behavior of Muslims.  This may be easy to understand in a largely Baptist environment where what “Christianity” demands and what Christians do are often dissimilar.  Because this is a history course, we don’t focus much on the way faith is supposed to be but instead on the ways it is mobilized and articulated at specific times in the past.  We are concerned with what Muslims have done, and they have done a wide variety of things.  We can no more attribute the horror of September 11, 2001 to “Islam” than we can attribute the horrors of fascism to “Christianity,” even though the perpetrators of both claimed they were motivated by faith.

I needed to continue my meta-history mini-lecture, thinking about where I had left them after the last class.  I had tried to explain why Muslims in Damascus might have been angry at Christians, angry enough to commit terribly violence.  How is it possible to understand the perpetrators?  More importantly, are we supposed to understand the perpetrators?  This has become a bit of a political argument in the United States of late.  Academics have been accused of “supporting” terrible crimes just by trying to understand the motivations behind them.

If we don’t try to understand the perpetrator, we risk having any crime be simply “incomprehensible,” any criminal simply “barbaric,” with no possibility of prevention or reconciliation.  Once this sort of attitude is directed at whole populations (Muslims, Arabs, and Africans are the most common in history texts), warring groups are assumed to be motivated by “savagery.”  As a result, of course, colonialism, rapacity, slavery, or bombings cannot be mentioned–the violence arises out of nothing more than the character flaws of the population.  Challenging as it is, then, for many of us, one of our jobs is to explain the motivations of the perpetrators (whether the Africans at Omdurman or the British).

My solution: historians must have a split screen, the ability to hold two things in mind at the same time.  For example, we have to be able to actually understand the arguments Israelis and Palestinians make and hold them in our minds at the same time.  In my research, I have to understand–simultaneously– the motivations of Venizelos and the Turkish nationalists in 1921.  So my quoting of the US Ambassador in 1835 saying that Christians had privileges that Muslims resented was not an effort to blame the victims.  It was, instead, an effort to understand the perpetrators, which is often a challenging project!  This reflects no sympathy for oppressors, but simply the need to make people in the past comprehensible to the present.

I returned to the Ottomans and the role of minorities.  Minorities became pivotal in Ottoman history not only as subjects who needed special law courts and holidays off.  European powers used the (often imagined) oppression of minorities to achieve their own imperial objectives–even in cases where local Christians neither needed nor wanted “protection.”  The Crimean War, like all others, was multi-causal, but it was the Russian Empire’s demand to “protect”  all Ottoman Orthodox Christians–and their refusal to acknowledge similar French claims to protect Catholics– that sparked the conflagration.  I ended with an unintentional reenactment from 2011.

Their questions suggest that they are thinking hard about the connections of the Ottoman past with more recent events.

Travelers and Tourists

The first class was thrilling.  I felt briefly as if I was simultaneously historian, newscaster, and Oprah, though missing the microphone that would have allowed my students to explain why they had changed their responses.

I have taught my large history survey on “The Modern Middle East” before, but this time I was committed to finding a way to make this lecture format consistent with my teaching philosophy.  This year there are more students than ever.  Facing a lecture hall, a podium, more than two hundred students, and the best classroom technology available, how could I avoid making these students tourists on the journey of history?  During the summer of 2008, as I conducted a Burch Field Research Seminar in Turkey with ten amazing UNC undergraduates, I contemplated the differences between tourists and travelers.  My students noticed the tourists: people who rode air-conditioned buses, stayed in four-star international chain hotels, ate Western food, and never encountered Turks not already engaged in the industry.  Tourists “learn” about Istanbul from the guide with the microphone at the front of the bus, who has already decided which things are worth seeing, and had already allocated the amount of time required to “experience” each site before boarding the bus for the next attraction.

Our students were different.  They were expected to engage, to ask, to meet.  Their first project was a day-long scavenger hunt that required them to cross from Europe to Asia and back again; to walk the major pedestrian paths of Istanbul, to count the palaces and the Starbucks, and to eat ice cream in the market with the goose.  They had to figure out how public transportation works, how the phones are activated, how to ask directions and use money, which street vendors’ food was most palatable.  They were travelers, and proud of the autonomy and the discovery that resulted from their curiosity—and their discomfort.

Now as I faced my too-quiet 207 expectant students watching me and waiting for me to pick up the microphone and begin the tour, I told them my plan.  I was going to work to turn them into travelers, to dislocate their understanding of the Middle East and introduce them to the discomforts of travel so that they could engage in the discovery of history for themselves.

I had spent months talking with colleagues about how to actually work toward that goal in the classroom. I had visited colleagues’ lectures to see the ways they were engaging students, I had arranged to use a technology I had never seen before, Poll Everywhere.  I decided that telling stories, narrating the past, necessarily sets up a non-discovery learning project.  What else could a historian do?  Recent research has shown how much more effective problem-solving and active engagement are for students to learn—they had always been essential for my own understanding of the past.  But that seems a lot easier in a biology or physics class than in a history lecture.   Nonetheless, in addition to being pedagogically non-optimal, the lecture format seemed to me politically compromising: how can we expect to teach our students to think critically and challenge sources when we tell them what to think during our lectures?

But I finished this first lecture ecstatic (and exhausted), thrilled with the students’ responses and hoping to be able to maintain this kind of excitement for the semester.

I began, of course, with an introduction to the course, and my goals for the semester.  I listed our four main questions, and showed them my mindmap

promising that the final exam would emphasize these issues.  After introducing them to Poll Everywhere by asking them to identify Tunisia on a map, I asked them to “vote” on which caused the “Arab Spring,” Politics, Economics, Religion, or Education.  They seemed very divided, although a large majority chose politics.

After they watched El Général’s music video Reis Lebled,  I asked the students to consult the people sitting near them.  Would their “vote” be different after watching the video?  It was then, as we talked about the music and the role of evidence in forming and changing conclusions, that I wished for that microphone.