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Session R4818 (Teaching Middle East Studies in a Controversial Time: Between Activism and Accountability), 2017
I teach Middle East history at Rock Valley College, a community college in Rockford, Illinois. Rockford is a rust belt city struggling to overcome low levels of education, low wages, unemployment, and a high crime rate. Like other cities throughout the Midwest, it is overwhelming “white,” religiously conservative, and backed Trump in the 2016 election. Educators here face challenges, as many residents argue for technical education over liberal arts, despite the decreasing number of industrial jobs. These challenges are exacerbated when one teaches non-Western topics. It was at Rockford University’s commencement in 2003 when attendees booed New York Times reporter Chris Hedges offstage for giving a speech against American imperialism and the Iraq War. In 2010, Rockford’s congressman Don Manzullo told a local television station the terrorists were “driven by their savage religion.” Despite sentiments like these, it is more important than ever to teach Middle East Studies.
In this negative, politically-charged atmosphere, what is the instructor’s role in the classroom? It is imperative that one acts as an advocate for their students. Many of the students who enroll in my Middle East history classes are first generation Arab Americans—part of Rockford’s growing Muslim population. These students not only have a personal connection to Middle East Studies, but they may also suffer from anti-immigrant and/or religious discrimination. Furthermore, the traditional college student has grown up in the post-9/11 world, one in which the presence of U.S. combat forces in the Middle East has become normal. An overinflated fear of terrorism (including fictitious attacks), proposals to ban Muslims from the U.S., and President Trump’s rhetoric only add to the public’s paranoia and misunderstanding.
An opportunity in teaching Middle East Studies is that there is interest in the topic. Among my students are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An instructor can provide context to the present-day Middle East through tracing the background of Western imperialism in the region, while also exposing students to cultures that may be different from their own. Yet one must be able to break through the subliminal layer of fear and gut feelings in a community that is not known for its open mindedness. Within the classroom my goal is to allow discussions—of films, primary sources, and controversial topics—where students engage with their prejudices as well as fact-based evidence. Hopefully, students can share insights gained in class throughout the community.