My introduction to teaching came from my position as doing educational outreach with a university-based area studies center. I had been in the job for a little over a year when, in September 2001, I found myself thrust into the spotlight. I enthusiastically tried a number of approaches to demystifying the Middle East and Islamic world—some of which were embarrassing failures.
Being the “expert” right after September 11th profoundly shaped the way I presented information, especially since some of my audiences were initially rather hostile. Over the following year, I adopted an approach that I coined “regrayification,” which I defined as “putting the gray back into issues that tend to be thought of in black-or-white.”
As my work expanded with K-12 educators, I developed a number of standards-based curriculum units consisting of as many primary materials as possible, around which our discussions were centered. This allowed me to bring more voices, each with their own context, into to the conversation that I, a cisgender, white, gay man could not authentically replicate on my own. Through this experience, I developed dozens of interactive student-centered in-class activities that public school teachers brought back to their own classrooms.
When I began teaching in the university classroom in the spring of 2017, I brought these skills with me. When teaching history courses under a general education course number, I have often faced a classroom of students uninterested in the study of the past. I discovered that my students found history “boring,” usually because their high school history courses consisted of questions with right and wrong answers, to be memorized for exams and then forgotten.
This, I realized, was my challenge to overcome, not theirs. I began emphasizing the notion of history-as-inquiry and encouraging students to think not only about what we know about the past, but how and why we know it. By “letting them in” on the way history is constructed they have been able to engage with the material in a different way.
I see my role in the classroom as a facilitator of discussion and inquiry rather than as the gatekeeper of definitive answers. I tell students on the first day of class that they are not required to agree with my opinions, as long as they are respectful toward myself and other students. Bringing in multiple perspectives to “regrayify” issues is still an important part of my teaching.
For instance, as a white male, I am sensitive about the way I conduct class discussions about Middle Eastern and Muslim women. Hence, I bring in a variety of sources across the spectrum; beginning with a discussion of Laila Abu Lughod’s article “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” and then examining women’s voices across the spectrum, from second-wave feminists like Nawal el Saadawi, liberals like Mona Eltahawy, Islamic feminists like Amina Wadud, and conservative voices arguing against the concept of feminism altogether. This way, students read and hear myriad voices that I can help contextualize.
This strategy also helps when discussing thorny issues such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; emphasizing the complexity of the issues obviates the need to emphasize the “correctness” of one set of ideas over another. For me, one of the most rewarding experiences in a class comes when a student who has been ardently arguing for or against a particular position pauses and says, “Wow, this is complicated!”
History is complicated—and history of the Middle East doubly so, given the prevailing narratives put forth in the media offering simple explanations and simplistic solutions. Once students appreciate that complexity, they are in a much better position to contribute fruitfully to dialogue about the region, and to articulate themselves to others how appreciation of past events benefits current and future government, business, and academic interests.