Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Politics in the Language Classroom

My assignment for the rest of the summer is revising my university's third year Arabic curriculum, which I will be teaching the in Fall.  Unlike Spanish Prof, I am not particularly into politics, and the idea of incorporating politics into the classroom is not something I find particularly exciting.  On the other hand, these are the topics from the textbook that we will cover in the Fall:

1) Journalism in the Arab world
2) The Role of the University

3) Modern Arabic Literature*
4) Pioneers of the Arab Feminist Movement

Add to this:
1) The Arab Spring
2) 9/11 and the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan
2) Most students who study Arabic in the United States are majoring in something like Political Science or International Relations
3) One of the first questions Americans are usually asked when studying abroad in the Arab world is What do you think of Obama/Bush/Israel/Palestine/the war on Iraq/Afghanistan etc?

Essentially, I simply cannot envision a decent upper level class that doesn't involve politics. 

Then there's religion.  For example, the following speaking activity from the textbook:

"What is the position of religion towards women? Discuss the opinions of different religions (Islam and Christianity and Judaisim and any other religions you know about)--on women's rights and their duties and position in society.  Remember and use the new words and expressions."

Which I'd tend to want to change to something like: "How is religion appealed to in support different attitudes towards women and their duties and position in society?" since I've seen religious justifications for just about everything.  

In the past, when dealing with controversial topics at lower levels, I've assigned different opinions rather than letting students choose their own, to make it more about using the language to express ideas rather than using the language to express your ideas and antagonize your classmates.  Also, I don't think it's ever a bad idea to have to think through an idea you disagree with. 

Then there's my opinion, which I don't have to state in the classroom, but will be pretty obvious to anyone who pays attention to the texts I choose.  On the one hand, there are certain stereotypes I (and clearly the authors of the textbook) want to combat (like Arab women are poor, oppressed victims) and this is where a chapter on the Feminist movement comes in.  On the other hand, I don't want to ignore gender-based problems in the Arab world--I would just like students to think a little bit more critically about them than the dreaded "East-West" "male-female" "powerful-oppressed" dichotomies allow.  All of that in a 3.5 week unit? rabbina yustor!

So, any ideas on this rambling post? How political would you make the class? What would you do to make students think a bit more critically?

*This tends to be fairly political


  1. Here is a post that could be more helpful:

    I'm in an airport, I'll think more about it tomorrow.

  2. Completely off topic, but I thought you would be interested, if you haven't already read the article:

  3. Thanks for the links! There is a Saudi channel that dubs bad American movies into Syrian dialect--my friend and I used to watch it all the time, as it could be pretty hysterical.

  4. I had a similar experience with a TV channel I got when I subscribed to premium cable (not anymore). It was on the "Latino packet", and would show American movies dubbed into Mexican Spanish. I think watching Dirty Harry in that channel was one of the most sublime film experiences I ever had.

  5. I don't know if it could fit in your syllabus, and I know very little about Middle Eastern culture to chime in. However, in my experience, it has always been helpful to bring an example that contradicts a common stereotype that students may have. One of them can be the idea of "Arab" culture as homogeneous and oppressive. And I put Arab in quotes because the idea I have is from Iran.

    One of the few things I know something about is the incredible breath of the cinema there (with all the political complications, like Jafar Panahi's incarceration. But maybe you could show clips of the film (the films can be boring for a Western audience, so I would be careful) or articles of the success of different Iranian directors abroad, and then open a discussion of how do they think it would happen if Iran was the axis of evil repressive tyranny that the US purports it is. Showing that at least a woman, Samira Makhmalbaf (granted, she has the privilege of being the daughter of well-know director Mohsen Makhmalbaf) was part of the group can help to show how certain gender issues are more complicated than they thought.

    I don't know if all the material has to be in Arabic, but I would include short texts by Arab women involved in political movements in the Arab world, some article (in English) that you agreed with by a scholar about some of the most polemic topics, and maybe a controversy over a specific issue showing the different opinions about it.

    Again, I don't know if this is way too advanced, but I'm sure you can get a couple of ideas out of them. And feel free to ask me more about Iranian cinema, if you are interested in the topic.

  6. Films are a good idea (although their dialect knowledge is not great, so I'd have to subtitle them which would be a lot of work). Bringing in different opinions is a good idea too, particularly as I could find lots of viewpoints about, say, wearing the hijab to demonstrate that this isn't a settled or for/against issue.

  7. Many directors are available on Amazon with subtitles: Jafar Panahi, some by Samira Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami. Netflix is another possibilty. And although the names escape me, I know there are 1 or 2 Egyptian director well-known in the International Film Festival circuit. That probably means that you would find them on Amazon. Maybe you could check which ones are available (university library, local library, Netflix), and an assigment can be that they watch one movie out of a list that you create and write a reaction paper following certain guidelines that would address issues that you consider are important.

  8. I will look--the problem is that I tend to dislike the ones that are important enough to get subtitles (I don't mean the Iranian ones, which I am not familiar with). Obviously, there are some that I like though. Or, I tend to think a particular movie would be perfect, and then it's not subtitled.

  9. I only know the Iranian ones, because they were quite the rage in the International Film Festival circuit in the late 90s, and Argentina has an audience for those movies so they usually get released (at least on DVD). There was a 2 year period in Argentina where an Iranian film would be release in the movie theaters every two month. Some were great, others not so much.

  10. I realize now that I don't know if those movies are in Arabic or in Farsi. Another thing you should check out.