It is difficult to imagine a field of study without stereotypes. Stereotyping is one way of knowing something; it is a framing of expectations, even if unfounded. And, having a set of expectations when setting out to learn something new is not necessarily a bad thing. Expectations become dangerous when we insist on guarding them as true and actively set out to prove them as fact.
All fields of study have to address stereotypes, but in fields labelled “Area Studies,” like those programs that house the study of Arabic and other Middle Eastern literatures, stereotypes take on a particular salience. For students, stereotypes are often where the relationship with these literatures begins. For instructors it is counterproductive to even consider avoiding stereotypes. It is more fruitful to find ways of negotiating a healthy relationship with them; of managing them well in a classroom and outside of it, in research; of using them as a starting point for a daring interrogation of the means by which we produce knowledge about our “areas” of interest and the conscious and inadvertent ways we perpetuate that knowledge. It would be an achievement if we succeed as instructors and scholars in exposing stereotypes that inform our fields and transforming them from accepted “truths” to revealing “constructs.”
When thinking about teaching and stereotypes, I cannot but base my observations on my experience as a student and teacher of Arabic literature in programs of Middle Eastern Studies/Near Eastern Studies in the U.S. In my own teaching I am conscious of my experience as a student, and I try to keep my own biases from shaping my students’ experience. I came to the U.S. as a student interested in the study of poetry who happened to be an Arab, but the American academic system responded to me as an Arab who happened to have interests in literature. The way I and other Arab students in my situation are pigeonholed created a very perplexing and challenging academic experience. Not only was it an aggressive process of labeling but it was a process that forced me to remain acutely conscious of the labels that defined me, some of which I was never even aware of before and others I would have preferred to keep blurred and out of focus. Here, I had to prepare myself to respond to labels such as “Muslim,” “Arab,” “Lebanese,” “Middle Easterner” which became much more defined and rigid than I had ever experienced before. I am particularly interested in the place of literature in these “studies,” and the role of stereotypes in driving interest in “other” literatures and in shaping their image. Those rigid labels have driven my scholarship, but they might just as easily have alienated me from the whole field.
In the classroom now, as an instructor, I continue to negotiate those labels but now have to consider my own authority and expertise carefully. Stereotyping and pre-conceived ideas do not only play a role in what we do as scholars of the Middle East in America, but it can sometimes determine who we are. The situation is especially tricky when you are engaged in a field of studying “others” and you yourself are an “other.” Consciousness of perspective and approach is crucial here. As an Arab scholar in the U.S., you are always walking a tightrope between what you study and those who study it. You have to keep guard lest what you are perceived to be becomes more important than what you do. For it is very easy, and sometimes encouraged, to “perform” one’s identity and have it pass as scholarship. As literary scholars and humanists, we have to cross a barrier of suspicion. Before we can read an Arabic poem as a poem and not as a cultural document or artifact, we are expected to prove that it can serve in some way to alleviate an anxiety towards the Middle East or shed light on some dark dimension. This was and still is a very unsettling situation for me. Students and scholars genuinely interested in literary studies of Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Hebrew cannot but feel that their real interests are constantly compromised in favor of other extra-literary interests that are portrayed as more pressing and “useful.”
In teaching, all of these factors play an active role in the decisions I make. To guard from misguidedly dealing stereotypes to my students, and in some cases becoming one myself, every element of a class must be planned out as an act of resistance to the politics of pigeonholing, labeling and essentializing, from the title of a course to the assigned secondary literature. For example, the class with the highest enrollments among the classes I teach is one, titled: “Arab Women and War.” I find the title problematic, but I think it contributes to the appeal of this class. I keep the title because it allows the class to spend some time in the beginning of the semester examining the students’ expectations.
Discussing the title allows us as a class to address the broader biases and assumptions students (especially non-specialists) have when it comes to studying Arabic literature and culture. These prejudices and motivations inform the backdrop against which or in conversation with which my teaching happens and my students come to learn ways to challenge those stereotypes. Once the class has exposed the backdrop of motivating biases and expectations we can use them as an entry point, allowing me to steer the class towards a literary reading of the texts at hand. This reading turns to the aesthetics of the texts and resists handling them as symptoms of cultural or ethnic or gender complexes or as “useful” to students’ extra-literary interests. We continue to return to our initial expectations and assumptions throughout the semester, modifying them and tracing their development and transformations in light of our readings and discussions.
I consider a class to be successful when we manage to examine our approach to the material as much as the material itself; examining ourselves and the lenses with which we translate literature into our experiences and vice-versa. Here, translation as a practice and as an attitude is central. On some level, we, in area studies, always teach in translation whether it’s a class conducted in English or in Arabic. This is why I often rely on translation theory to frame classes of Arabic literature. I use this framework to set the tone for the class and to encourage students to critically examine their processes of reading and finding meaning in texts. Such classes, especially at the undergraduate level, are opportunities for students to learn how to become conscious readers and responsible interpreters of literature and of the world.
Huda Fakhreddine is an assistant professor of Arabic literature in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts and Sciences.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. See https://almanac.upenn.edu/talk-about-teaching-and-learning-archive for previous essays.