Muhammad Ali and the Ottomans

When one of my students dropped my seminar because it was not his “learning style” (he prefers lectures), I wondered whether these 200+ undergraduates were really disappointed that I wasn’t telling them what to write in their notebooks.  Conversations with my writing group have me reconsidering: if some need to be told what to think, is my job to tell them, or to insist that they figure it out?  If students have different “learning styles,” where is the balance?  I found myself at the end of a really exciting class wondering how many considered it a waste of time.

We began today with my efforts to answer all the questions they had asked at the end of the previous class.  Their questions on Poll Everywhere are enormously helpful, both in figuring out what I left out and in showing me where they are.  And they sometimes really challenge the way I’ve been thinking about something.  One of the most reassuring things: they often predict the next lecture in their questions.

The project today: introduce Muhammad Ali and the Ottoman Empire.  I asked them, based on their reading about Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s conquest, to write down five things Egypt’s new ruler would have to do to create an effective military force.  After a few minutes to compare lists with classmates, one of the Teaching Assistants typed on the PowerPoint slide while another circulated with the microphone.  Soldiers and equipment, they responded.  As I pressed them–what would be necessary for training the soldiers?  How could equipment be manufactured and moved?  How would officers learn new tactics?  How could these be paid for?–they came up with a comprehensive list of what would really be necessary for Muhammad Ali to create the kind of military force he desired.  It was clear that building an effective military would require dramatic changes in education, infrastructure, political structures, and economy as well.  I was struck by how much less efficient the process is, but it seemed (at least at the time) that they really began to understand the ways in which military change required broader transformation. Muhammad Ali was a governor serving the Ottoman Empire, and my mini-lecture  described some of its basic institutions, largely through the character of Hurrem  (Roxalena to the Europeans).   She was concubine (slavery) and lover (letters to husband Suleyman the Lawgiver/Magnificent at the front trace Ottoman military engagements); she established waqfs (social institutions and urban development), at least some of which were designed by the great architect Sinan (slavery and architecture history).

But the Ottoman Empire began losing battles and territory, and people both inside and outside the empire were talking about decline.  I became so focused on the question of “decline” that I forgot to post the poll for their questions at the end of class.

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