In his famous and influential analysis of literature about the Middle East and North Africa, the scholar Edward Said (1978) wrote: “No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society” (p. 10). Offering a sociological perspective on scholarly production, Said makes the significant observation that knowledge production must always be recognized as a product of the social location in which the individual who produces it is embedded. By social location, we are referring to the perspectives individuals develop due to their gender, race, ethnicity, social class, sexuality, citizenship status, and religious beliefs, among other socially determined factors.
In this Teaching and Learning Conversation, we took Said’s perspective as a point of departure to think about how not only knowledge production but also knowledge consumption on the part of students must likewise be understood as a reflection of social locations. To teach effectively, one must be acquainted with the social locations from which many of our students interact with the world. We regard this as especially significant as it relates to discussions of Islam and the Middle and North Africa, where misconceptions and misunderstandings often circulate in the classroom. While it is not possible to speak of a single “TCU Classroom” or to specify the numerous social locations in which our students are embedded, it is possible to reflect on the demography of current and incoming TCU students to anticipate how their social locations could inform our pedagogies in the classroom.
Important features of current and incoming students to TCU that impact conversations regarding Muslims and the Middle East generally include the racial and ethnic composition and age distribution of our student populations. According to the TCU Fact Book, in the fall of 2017 69.7% of our student population identified as White whereas only 13% identified as Latinx, 5.5% identified as Black or African American, 3.1 % identified as Asian, 0.8% identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native, 0.7% identified as Multi-ethnic, 4.9% were classified as Nonresidents, and the remaining students did not express a racial or ethnic identification. In addition, approximately 0.42% of the Fall 2017 student body identified as Muslim. White students on our campus are overrepresented compared to the general U.S. racial and ethnic landscape, which presents unique opportunities as well as challenges to fostering discussions about the Middle East and the topic of Islam.
One of the limitations of having a student population that does not reflect our country’s more general demography is that the majority of our students will not be exposed to the intellectual exchange or develop life-long friendships with people who may be racially and ethnically different from themselves, including with Muslims or individuals from the Middle East and North Africa. As sociological and psychological research shows, the erosion of stereotypes and misunderstandings through interaction is most likely to occur when we are exposed to other people who are of equal, not subordinate, status (Robinson Jr. and Preston 1976). In light of this challenge, we suggest that faculty require students as part of their coursework to participate in events on campus that compel them to engage with students across a range of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. For instance, there is a committed Muslim Students Association on campus that hosts events where students can interact as peers and learn from one another. In addition, we propose that faculty include on their syllabi the writings of scholars from broader Middle East and North Africa so that they may be exposed to intellectual production outside of Europe and the United States.
Syllabus construction is a key site where we communicate to our students who should be regarded as a “cognitive authority” (Addelson 1991) which many scholars across disciplines have referred to as a process of “de-colonizing” our scholarship and teaching (Bhambra 2011, 2014).
An intuitive but less frequently acknowledged aspect of our TCU classrooms is the age composition of our student body. The average incoming freshman this year was born in 1999, which means that the majority of our students have grown up and been socialized in an almost exclusively post-9/11 social and political landscape. This cohort of students has been profoundly shaped by consistent U.S. military engagement with the region of Middle East and a popular culture that circulates racialized framings of Muslims as terrorists. Consequently, faculty must historicize our contemporary political context and be prepared to challenge existing student assumptions about the regions of the Middle East and North Africa as well as Muslim populations.
One constructive approach that I use in my sociology classrooms is to ask students to see their own society from the perspective of someone in the Middle East or North Africa. I regularly assign a chapter from Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi’s book, Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, called “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem.” The chapter details Mernissi’s observations about being in the U.S. and experiencing judgments on the basis of size and beauty ideals as she tried to shop for clothes in an upscale U.S. clothing boutique. She challenges the assumption that the social control of gender-segregated space, characteristic of some parts of the Middle East, is worse than the social control she observes in the U.S., which she says limits women’s value to being “young” and “thin.” This reading compels students to see their own society through someone else’s eyes and to question their assumptions about gender in the Middle East. We also regard it as a pedagogical imperative to provide opportunities for our students to learn about questions of Islam and the Middle East outside of the TCU campus. Dr. Yushau Sodiq, Associate Professor of Religion, regularly takes students to observe prayer at the Islamic Association of Tarrant County masjid, which is only a few minutes from campus. The patrons of this masjid and the space itself have the potential to transform student perceptions about Muslim communities and offer them insight into the everyday experiences of Muslim Americans.
By reflecting on the social locations in which our students are embedded, we can more effectively and deliberately design our classes in ways that compel students to question their assumptions and step outside their own experiences, whether that is on the TCU campus or beyond.
Addelson, Kathryn Pyne. 1991. Impure Thoughts: Essays on Philosophy, Feminism, and Ethics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2011. “Historical Sociology, Modernity, and Postcolonial Critique.” The American Historical Review 116 (3): 653-662.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2014. “A sociological dilemma: Race, segregation and US sociology.” Current Sociology Monograph 2: 1-21.
Mernissi, Fatema. 2002. Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. New York: Washington Square Press.
Robinson Jr., Jerry W. and James D. Preston. 1976. “Equal-Status Contact and Modification of Racial Prejudice: A Reexamination of the Contact Hypothesis.” Social Forces 54 (4): 911-924.
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.