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.

Guest Lecture

This week is lecture week.  After my extended discussion of the origins of the Lebanese civil war and questions of belonging on Tuesday, the students were treated to a remarkable lecture by my colleague James Gelvin from UCLA.  He was on campus to participate in a panel on the Arab Uprisings with Amjad Atallah, Al Jazeera bureau chief for the Americas.  Professor Gelvin placed the Israel-Palestine context in global context using two timelines, both drawn by hand on a white board.  Some of us need no technology.

History, Causality, and Evidence

I left the second class with that sinking feeling.  I had over-prepared the specifics and had not brought home the main ideas in the compelling way I had hoped to.

I had wanted to spend this first week engaging students in the current situation, challenging them to think about evidence and argument, and setting the stage for new kinds of processes in the large lecture arena.  In the past, I had launched into background information about Islam and early Muslim history.  Over time, I have been unable to rationalize this.  I want to emphasize the role of economy and society and politics and global issues in the history of the Middle East, and I see religion as an element of many things.  But focusing on Islam at the very beginning of the course implied something entirely different–the primacy of religion in the region.  I have wondered whether my US History colleagues begin their courses with an intro to Christianity.  This year I would experiment with beginning in the present.

The first class had really exciting, and this time, I wanted to get specific.  What kinds of explanations had been offered for the so-called Arab Spring?  How was someone to judge among them?

I spent a lot of preparation time on PowerPoint slides: Demographer Emmanuel Todd explained that gains in literacy, a falling birthrate, and the decline in cousin marriage marked significant cultural shifts that led to the events in Tunisia and Tahrir Square.  The Financial Times insisted that it was economic and political grievances.  Political Scientist Mark Lynch disagreed, claiming it was about the demand for dignity in the face of corruption and abuse.  Allen West (R-Florida) asserted that it was an Islamic totalitarian movement, anti-American, and the opposite of a call for democracy.  And I played them an audio clip of Wael Ghonim (blogger-in chief and Google executive) thanking Mark Zuckerberg and emphasizing social media.

I asked them to talk with the students around them to figure out how we could assess the varied explanations.  But instead of responding with the MEANS of comparing these varied possibilities, students fell back on claiming that each one was relevant and a contributing factor.

This was what I should have been preparing for–how to confront the tendency of students to accept all explanations as equally valid.  I had long marveled at how, given two opposite alternative possibilities, students seemed to want to either choose an alternative located in the absolute middle or to claim that all were important.  And, in front of 200 students, I was unprepared to provide compelling examples of why that wouldn’t work.

I had prepared a more general response, though, and fell back on my colleague Jonathan Katz’ explanation: “Historical study is primarily concerned with cause-and-effect, that is, uncovering factors that explain how particular events or circumstances came into existence. However, unlike the ‘hard sciences’ the explanations that historical study offers are generally framed as interpretations—not concrete facts. As a consequence, the study of history implies thinking critically about historical explanations rather than simply learning concrete facts.”

The difference between OPINION and INTERPRETATION, I argued, was evidence.  Historians don’t begin their arguments with “I believe….”  Believing is simply not adequate as a basis for historical argument, I insisted.  Then I followed with an admittedly lame discussion of how we use different kinds of sources depending on the questions we ask, and how we assess the accuracy of those sources.  Clearly, I’ll be spending a lot of time this semester trying to not only give students the tools to critically analyze sources, but also empowering them to realize that they are actually capable of judging between varying possible explanations.

Next week we begin the “Modern Middle East” with Napoleon’s invasion, and I was really pleased to find the transitional image back into the past.  Omar Makram was my man, not only as the Muslim scholar known for his opposition to the French invasion in 1798, but also as the statue overlooking Tahrir Square.  And he offers so many options for a historian!  After opposing the French invasion, he worked with the British.  He was instrumental in recognizing Muhammad Ali, but was then exiled by the new Egyptian ruler because of his opposition to the new leader’s land confiscation policies.  Moreover, the Tahrir Square mosque bearing his name had not been built until the 1940s (by an Italian architect), and the statue had been unveiled only in 2003.  So here was a possibility for analyzing how the memory of historical figures are mobilized for contemporary purposes.

At the end, I began the newest innovation: a Question slide that would allow them to tell me what they still wanted to know.

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.