A Few Notes


I’m delighted that people from six continents have viewed this blog!

I wanted to call attention to two things:

  • For blog newcomers, please note that the newest posts are on top.  To see posts from earlier in the semester, you need to scroll down.
  • If you click on the images, many will take you to interesting video clips that I have used in class.

I would love to hear from readers!

Iraq Reprise: The 2003 Invasion and the Historian’s Work

I decided to spend my last substantive lecture of the semester addressing that student’s question directly: How do I deal with the importance of narratives in my lectures?  Although I had planned to welcome them with part of the film Control Room, technical issues made that impossible.

I began by reiterating Tuesday’s problem: Why was there an uprising among Palestinians in 2000? I reviewed my arguments: The uprisings resulted from the same kinds of issues being faced by people throughout the region: economic hardships, oppressive governments, and, in this case, also occupation.  And I had really emphasized my other argument: Historical interpretations have consequences.  I wanted to take the historiographical issues I had discussed about the origins of the 2000 Intifada and ask the students to think about how to apply them to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The lecture would focus on the ways historians think, with a silly slide providing the outline:  I began at the beginning.  Different questions would require different kinds of sources, I explained.  So “Why did the US lead an invasion of Iraq in 2003?” would require different sources than the question “How were Iraqis’ lives changed by the 2003 invasion?”  And both would require different sources than the question, “What were the international consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq?”  I shared with them my sources for Tuesday’s lecture and discussed the importance of primary sources.  Then I asked them to think about their assigned readings on the 2003 Iraq war.  What questions would they want to ask?  We collected their questions, the TA writing them on the PowerPoint Slide.  After they had articulated their research questions, she typed in red their brainstorming about where they would look for primary sources.

Often the sources lead to changed questions, which I illustrated using my own experiences beginning research only to find that the information I had was inaccurate or the documents I sought were unavailable.

The next problem was analyzing the evidence.  How do you know that what you read or see or hear is accurate?  I provided two examples.  First, the pulling-down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.  First they saw the Fox News version of the events.  Then they saw the MSNBC critique.

   How is one to decide which version to accept?  I also offered them Jessica Lynch’s disagreement with the narrative that had been provided about her heroism, but did not have time to play the link with her testimony to Congress.  (I do post my PowerPoint slides on the Blackboard site, so they can view it if they choose.)

The question of sources is quite tangled, I argued.  I showed them the New York Times investigation about the “Pentagon’s Hidden Hand” in television analysis, and juxtaposed that with an analysis from National Defense University of the issues raised by US military interventions. 

But even with presumably reliable evidence, the question remains, which issues and events matter?  I talked about fishing in the sea of history, deciding which things of the millions and millions of events taking place each day should be included in our considerations.  I reminded them of the first week of class, when I had explained that some analysts sought answers to the current uprisings in economy, others in demography, and still others seeking to understand the Arab uprisings by looking to religion.

Whichever events and issues seem most important to the analyst, though, it would still be necessary to put them into a larger context.  Here I went back to the British mandate.  Was the mandate important in some way for understanding the 2003 invasion or today’s Iraq?  If it was, how did it matter?  What kind of context did it provide?  Did the distinction between two different Muslim groups matter in the war or its outcome?  I pointed out that, although many people have emphasized the centrality of a Sunni-Shi’I divide, Iraqis themselves seem not to have paid much attention to it until 2006.  Bagdad’s neighborhoods were remarkably integrated until after the bombing of the al-Askeri mosque.

In the end, historians have to construct narratives.  But which of the images do we focus on?And what about the consequences?

For historians, how important is “balance”?  Although journalists find it crucial in their work, at which stage of our work are historians supposed to seek “balance”: Question-asking? Source-locating? Evidence-analyzing? Narrating hardly seems to be a place to begin trying to find countervailing patterns and forces just for the sake of “balance” when evidence shows a clear way to an argument.  And the point of historians’ work is, after all, to interpret the past, not to present a variety of incidents and issues and let the reader decide.

I wanted to make sure that they know that this freedom to pursue information about the past, and to narrate it consistent with our research, is crucial to society in general.  That is why US universities provide academic freedom; this is what the tenure system is about.  I offered examples of places where historians and journalists are not free to write the information they found, not free to offer their best and most accurate analyses of the past.  I really wanted this next generation to understand the point of tenure: the fact that I have tenure allows me to write and teach history as I and historians around the world have understood it, without fear of losing my job–or my life–even  if my analysis disagrees with the most powerful members of my society.  Having dissenting views is not only important for some abstract liberal reasons.  Having people able to tell the powerful that their ideas are likely to evoke dreadful consequences is important for the whole society (even, sometimes, for the powerful themselves).

I did not, in the end, provide my own narrative about the Iraq invasion of 2003, which the TA’s told me would likely frustrate the students.  The students can easily find a timeline online, and their journal for the week asked them to write a textbook entry for the Iraq war.  I knew they already had the basic elements, and I wanted to interrogate how they had come up with their own narrative.

As the semester draws to a close, I had consciously decided to focus on making the historian’s process transparent instead of presenting my own narrative, and I’m not sure that was generally appreciated.  Next week, we turn again to the current uprisings in the Middle East, something we haven’t discussed in the big lecture since January (though the students had been talking about their weekly news postings in discussion sections).  But the person at the front of the room won’t be me as the course considers the ways that people are living the current Middle East.

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?

Spring Break Reflections

I have been able to visit three discussion sections in the past week, and it has been generally reassuring to recognize not only that my Teaching Assistants are really good at facilitating conversations about the main themes of the course, but also that the students seem to be understanding them!

I have signed onto a new project sponsored by UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence, a “faculty learning community” devoted to teaching large classes.  Nine of us will be meeting monthly, and we are expected to provide each other the kind of mentoring that is often absent at research-focused universities.  Faculty tend to critique each others’ teaching for purposes of promotion, tenure, and post-tenure review, but we don’t really provide much  feedback to each other when the stakes are not as high.  So I looked forward to observing a colleague to get ideas, and to their thoughts on how I could improve my teaching.

The class I attended (a psychology methods class) was both fascinating and instructive.  The professor, Viji Sathy, has a challenging task–teaching late in the afternoon on Thursdays–and this week immediately before spring break must have been even more difficult.  I was struck by how much her personal warmth and enthusiasm for her subject carried the students with her.  I was reassured that even her students spent part of their time online doing other things–it isn’t just mine!  I know the research shows that multi-tasking doesn’t really work, but the student sitting in front of me managed to do some online shopping, study for an exam in another class, and perhaps even write a paper, and could still raise her hand and answer (correctly) a difficult question.  I’ve talked with colleagues about strategies for dealing with laptops in class, but I persist in believing that these are adult students who must decide how to spend their time–and take the consequences.

The most important lesson I took away was the importance of “deep-level thinking.”  The professor did a multiple-choice poll on Poll Everywhere at the start of class:  Which of the following is the MOST important ingredient for successful learning?

  1. The intention and desire to learn
  2. Paying close attention to the material as you study
  3. Learning in a way that matches your personal learning style
  4. The time you spend studying
  5. What you think about while studying

Toward the end of class, she carried out a remarkable experiment to illustrate the response.  Here is Viji’s description of the experiment, which she attributes to Willingham:

Students listen to a list of words. For each word, they carry out an orienting task that creates either deep or shallow processing. One group rates the pleasantness of each word (“Is the word pleasant?”), an orienting task that leads to deep semantic processing, Another group checks each word for the presence of an E or G (“Does the word contain an E or G?”), an orienting task that causes shallow processing. Additionally, half of each group is told in advance they will need to recall the words (intentional learning), and the other half are not warned ahead of time that they will need to recall the words (incidental learning). This results in students being divided into four groups: deep/intentional learning, deep/incidental, shallow/intentional, shallow/incidental. To make it simpler to “see” the results the room was divided into quadrants with each quadrant receiving a different set of instructions.

After completing the list, the students are asked to recall all the words. The instructor then asks the class to check their list and count the total number of words correctly recalled. Everyone is asked to stand and remain standing as the instructor calls out the number of words recalled in 3’s (remembered at least 3 words, remembered at least 6 words, etc.). The group that did pleasantness ratings, the deeper processing orienting task, virtually always remembers strikingly more words. What is remarkable, is that both the intentional and incidental groups recall the most words when the processing is deep rather than shallow. So when the word was rated pleasant/unpleasant we see the highest level of recall, regardless of if the group was told ahead of time that they would need to remember the words. This was not true of the “shallow” processing group as most of them sat down first and demonstrated recalling very few words.

Revisiting the initial question posed: most of us would say that the intention and desire to learn is key to successful learning, but the demo indicates that what you think about while you are learning (i.e., a deeper level of processing)  results in higher retention.

The professor had visually demonstrated the answer to her first Poll Everywhere slide: successful learning comes from engagement at a deeper level.  I found myself musing about that during the whole break as I prepared for the second half of the semester.

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.

Zionism, Identities and Nations

I was not happy to realize that I had only allowed one week for the interwar period, and it had to include Zionism and Palestine.  This isn’t the first time that my syllabus seemed to have been created by a phantom whose plans were different than mine.

I decided to turn the dilemma into an opportunity: I would connect the issues attending the new postwar borders and identities with the development of political Zionism, to embed the Palestine mandate into the regional—and global—history of which it is part.

I welcomed them with a wonderful collection of images of Palestine set to music, then proceeded to questions from last week.  After reviewing the World War I settlement and the mandates, I reminded them of identity issues around the Mosul Question, which they had discussed in sections last week.  I wanted to give them another example of the ambiguity of national identities: the Sanjak Question.  I told them the story of Yusuf:

Yusuf, a fisherman in the coastal city of Alexandretta, was intercepted by Nedim Ward and two other Arab nationalists sitting at Ali’s café on the morning of May 4, 1938. They demanded to know why Yusuf, an Arabic-speaking Alawite, was wearing a hat with a brim, symbol of Kemal Ataturk’s revolutionary Turkish nationalism.  A poor man, Yusuf responded that he had no other head covering to wear.  Nedim Ward handed Yusuf twenty francs, telling him to go buy himself a fez.  In response, Yusuf ripped off his own brimmed hat, threw it on the ground, and immediately purchased a fez from a nearby shop.  As he was leaving the store, he encountered two Turkish nationalists, who crushed his new fez and demanded, “Come, show us who destroyed the hat.” When the Turkish nationalists encountered Nedim Ward and his friends, the confrontation described in Alexandretta’s police records began.

My research suggests that national identities in the Middle East did not emerge before World War I, except among small groups.  For many, like Yusuf, a hat was simply a hat and not an identity–they already had many collective identities and nationalism had no resonance.  That meant presenting Sharif Husayn not as an Arab nationalist (as Antonius had in his classic The Arab Awakening), but instead as a would-be King seeking his kingdom from the British.  Rethinking the emergence of nationalism requires providing a different narrative of the interwar period that focuses on anti-colonialism instead of identity politics.

The new frame helps place Zionism in a broader context.  The Zionist movement was a European-style nationalist movement, dissimilar from the anti-colonial sentiments that drove the 1920 opposition to British and French occupations in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.

To talk about Zionism, I actually began with the “Jewish Problem,” centuries of attacks on Europe’s Jews based, first, on religion and then on race.  After providing some details, I asked the students to think about the treatment of Ottoman minorities under the Tanzimat, and the problems of how to deal with internal “others.”  What were the options for resolving the “Jewish Problem,” I asked?  I should have anticipated their reticence.  They did, after a bit of persistence, come up with the various alternatives: conversion (more difficult after racialization), expulsion, ghettoization, assimilation, or state-creation (like Liberia).

Then we moved to France in 1870, the aftermath of French defeat at the hands of the Prussians.  The parallel with the Ottomans was striking: how to deal with defeat?

  • Return to the faith (construct Sacré Coeur basilica)?
  • Or modernize (Eiffel Tower), especially the army?

It was the latter, the creation of a military meritocracy, that led to the rise of Captain Dreyfus, a Jew, to the rank of Captain.  The students, I hope, understood the parallel—the range of Ottoman responses to defeat were remarkably similar.

Covering the humiliation of Captain Dreyfus for treason based on little evidence (and subsequently overturned), assimilated Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl decided that, if the French couldn’t provide equality to Jews, no one could.  They needed a state of their own, because, he argued, Jews were a nation.  He rejected the other options the students (and Herzl’s contemporaries) had proposed, claiming none would solve the “Jewish Question.” This new kind of Zionism was based on nationalism, the idea that the Jews were a separate nation that could never fit in anywhere else.   The Zionists decided that they needed to establish their state in Palestine.

How could they decide to set up somewhere that others already lived?  I showed them the map of the world c. 1914, in which Europeans obviously had no hesitation about controlling lands on other continents.  The Palestine to which the Zionists arrived was the southern part of the Ottoman province of Syria, in the midst of Tanzimat reforms, self-strengthening movements, and debates over how to move into the future.

Zionists insisted that the lack of national identity in the region meant no one else had rights to the land; only nations had claims to territory–consistent with European notions–and the Palestinians were not yet claiming a specifically national identity.  The existence of farms and schools and churches and mosques and cemeteries were not relevant to those whose political and ideological world was circumscribed by notions of nation.

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.