World War I

I was convinced and energized.  Instead of “covering” everything, I would introduce the enormous changes that World War I brought to the Middle East, emphasizing the big stuff and letting some of the details go by the wayside.  The students could use discuss the details they had read about for the week in sections to verify, refute, or lend color to the big question.

The big question, of course, was the fate of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the war.  The maps shows how dramatic the change was:

I welcomed them with one of the more depressing and relevant videos I will show all semester: Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” illustrated by images of the battle at Gallipoli. 

After briefly reviewing the Thursday (data dump) lecture, I asked the students to help update our mindmap.    I wanted them to think about European interests in the Ottoman Empire (economic, strategic, political), interests that would help determine the future of the empire after its defeat.

I reduced the causes of World War I to three minutes (an outrageous travesty!) so I was able to spend a bit more time on three big Ottoman wartime experiences: the battle of Gallipoli, the siege of Kut, and the Armenian genocide.

My bigger interests were the postwar settlements.  I reminded them about the efforts of the European Great Powers to keep the empire intact in order to prevent conflict over the remains.  In that context, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement made sense: Russia, Britain and France awarded each other control over their favorite places to avoid postwar conflict.  The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres extended the dissection of central Ottoman lands, but it was made moot by the Greek invasion of Anatolia.

The postwar settlement allowed me to return to major course issues: the question of belonging (the Armenian genocide and the Greek-Turkish population exchange), the intervention of outsiders (invasion, occupation and treaty imposition); the lives and livelihoods of the people (devastation of war and the population exchange), and the nature of the state.  There was too little time to explain the long-term implications of Kemalist ideology (to which we will return), but they loved this video synopsis of Ataturk’s life.


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.

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.