Sunday, May 24, 2009

Effective teaching to counter misinformation

We are beginning the planning to host a joint study tour of University of Maryland masters and doctoral students and University of San Diego masters students in January 2010. We've created a new model of mutual learning where the visiting tours will engage with us before, during, and after the visit to understand Arab/Islamic world dynamics, learn about Education City, and engage with us in addressing issues that are important to our future success. I like to contrast this to the "edu-tourism" that so frequently occurs when groups visit Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. North Americans want to visit these places but we haven't had models to really engage in mutual learning so that those touring and those at the site benefit.

As part of our planning, we've begun to exchange publications and ideas about how to make the most of our experience. Susan Komives shared an article by Jack Meacham, "Effective Teaching to Counter Misinformation and Negative Stereotypes: The Example of Islam," (AAC&U Peer Review, Spring 2009, pp. 13-16) which I found particularly helpful. The basic premise of the article was that faculty may be reluctant to include potentially controversial content in their courses because these topics may stimulate negative reactions among students that will be disruptive in class and/or that faculty do not know how to handle. Jack also said that many times faculty invite experts to discuss controversial topics but that singling out the topic and having an expert detracts from the responsibility that all faculty and students should take in relation to difficult and contenscious topics.

A couple of the lessons that Jack Meacham concluded from his efforts to include Islam and Islamic history in his course were: start small and without the assumption of great expertise or profound impact (learn as you go along); treat Islam in the same way as other topics rather than singling it out as a special and more difficult case; use original sources (i.e. the Qur'an) to expose students to foundational rather than derived or interpretted views; start with "cool" topics and grow toward those that are more controversial; and finally, don't attempt to tell students what they should think, but let them come to their own conclusions. These may seem commonplace but they are very important when approaching a topic, like the Arab/Islamic world, that has been portrayed so negatively by Western government officials and news coverage. And, Jack found that his strategy worked because students' views changed significantly, and were less negative and stereotypic, by the end of the term.

The approach here seems to be one of normalizing the portrayal of something that is quite unfamiliar to students. The core of the Arab/Islamic world is much more like Western values than it is different, although a significant amount of the focus is typically on what's different. I'm not minimizing the differences because there are many and they are important. What I am saying is that the Arab/Islamic world as I've experienced it values education, family, balance, prosperity, and justice just as much as the West. The West and Arab/Islamic worlds approach these topics and others in different ways but, in order to grow in our understanding and appreciation of each other, we need to find ways of discerning the commonality rather than accentuating the difference. It appears that Jack Meacham's "countering misinformation" pedagogy has promise even in courses where first-hand experience is not possible. Imagine what can happen when the 2010 study tour actually visits with us and learns through direct exposure.

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