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Session R4818 (Teaching Middle East Studies in a Controversial Time: Between Activism and Accountability), 2017
The most recent annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (September 1–4, 2016) had a roundtable discussion entitled: “To Stay Neutral or Not When Teaching the 2016 Election: Ethical and Pedagogical Challenges.” All of the panelists—Deborah Schildkraut (Tufts), Robert D. Putnam (Harvard), Christina M. Greer (Fordham), Samuel Goldman (George Washington), David L. Leal (University of Texas–Austin), and Efren Osvaldo Perez (Vanderbilt)—referred in their remarks to the dilemma of objectivity versus neutrality in the classroom setting. Panelist suggestions centered on the need to strive for objectivity—through a reliance on empiricism and transparency—rather than neutrality in our teaching. Max Weber (1904), in his classic work, “Objectivity in Social Science,” reminds us that there is no such thing as an objective fact, unfiltered by our prior ideas and concepts; our choice of theoretical lens (and, hence, categorical ordering) creates diverse and necessarily subjective realities from the same empirical data. Thus, as educators, we must be acutely aware of the concepts and lenses we are using to categorize and organize reality. However, we also have a moral and ethical responsibility to call out false equivalences and untruths, and to avoid the neutrality trap of giving equal weight to both sides when one side does not adhere to standards of empiricism and transparency.

The insights from the APSA roundtable have been helpful to me as I teach Middle Eastern and American politics in an international branch campus of an American academic institution to a largely non-American student body. In my daily teaching, I take care to balance between activism and accountability, which I do by focusing on providing objective and diverse viewpoints, grounded in data and methodological rigor. The learning objectives and outcomes of my classes include searching for, assessing/selecting, and utilizing information from reputable and recommended sources, a key skill for this generation of students and a necessary one for collecting objective and reliable data (c.f., Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s Blur, 2011). Likewise, I encourage my students to be invested, rather than neutral, in educating themselves on the issues discussed in class, in line with Robert A. Dahl’s insistence that enlightened understanding is necessary for a responsible and engaged citizenry (e.g., On Democracy, 2015). I look forward to discussing the negotiation of objectivity versus neutrality in the classroom at this proposed roundtable, which is both timely and important as we face a new global sociopolitical reality.