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Reforming Middle East Studies By: Winfield Myers
The Examiner | Friday, January 19, 2007


A new handbook for professors of Middle East studies attempts to restore credibility to a discipline whose reputation has been shattered by years of politicized scholarship, one-sided teaching, and bullying students.

The publication of “Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility after 9/11: A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers” by the Taskforce on Middle East Anthropology testifies to the effectiveness of organizations and individuals whose critiques of Middle East studies and higher education have put the professoriate on the defensive. Absent these efforts to shed light on the abuses so common in the discipline, the mandarins of MES would never have bowed to public opinion with this welcome, but flawed, document.

Among those recognizing the new reality are Laura Bier, who teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In April 2006, she penned pseudonymous essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education lamenting an article written by a Tech student that criticized Bier’s talk at a pro-Palestinian event on campus. Eschewing such a dramatic gesture this round, Bier’s name appears as one of the co-authors of the handbook. For good measure, the document is endorsed by such MES luminaries as Rashid Khalidi of Columbia and Zachary Lockman of New York University.

If one emotion pervades the handbook, it is alarm: The field is presented as embattled, in crisis, and on the run. Professors who a few years ago were confident enough to wear their politics on their sleeves by bullying students (as Joseph Massad did at Columbia) or assuming that activism could substitute for scholarly accomplishment in their climb up the academic ladder (as Juan Cole tried at Yale) have discovered to their chagrin that their actions are now deemed newsworthy.

Indeed, a more accurate subtitle might have been, “How Do We Fix this Mess?” The answer, in part, is to avoid reliance on those whose reputations also lie in tatters. In a section on courting support from professional organizations, the handbook advises professors under “attack” not to turn to the Middle East Studies Association, the umbrella group for the field, because “some people we interviewed wondered about MESA’s effectiveness, in part, because the association itself has been attacked, which may make it harder to respond.”

Translation: The word is out on the way we’ve been doing business, and our professional association lacks the credibility to defend us in the court of public opinion.

The authors fret that “groups such as Students for Academic Freedom and Campus Watch pose not only ideological but also legal threats to academe’s essential freedoms,” although they counsel that lawsuits should be a “last resort.” That’s probably good advice, since the best the authors can offer by way of a successful lawsuit is that brought by former Stanford professor Joel Beinin (whose recent decampment to the American University in Cairo isn’t mentioned) against David Horowitz for using a photo without permission.

A systemic weakness of the intellectual left is its equation of criticism with censorship, and the handbook employs the latter term eight times (and “censure once”) in its 31 pages of text.

Professors are advised to elicit media sympathy by describing criticism as censorship, and by calling “progressive” leaders like Cynthia McKinney, the former U.S. representative, to complain that “there’s a worrisome situation of censorship starting to unfold.” McKinney, who speculated that that George W. Bush may have had foreknowledge of Sept. 11, might seem an odd choice for an ally.

Furthermore, the handbook suggests professors charge censorship when describing off-campus organizations and individuals who critique the field, and offers a script for calling reporters that reads in part, “it strikes me as a troubling crossing of a line, when outside organizations are stoking the flames on campus.”

Yet, for all the doublespeak and self-important victimization, the handbook offers advice long absent from MES. It calls for including ground rules for civil and courteous classroom debate in syllabi, and recommends that lectures and discussions remain on topic and not wander into political or personal territory. Transparency is lauded as a virtue in teaching, and the fact that both professors and students are responsible for forming a successful class is emphasized repeatedly.

This recognition that students AND professors are mutually responsible for successful classes may prove the most useful component of the document. Such recommendations are a double-edged sword that can wielded to aid students subjected to politicized and bullying faculty, and future combatants should avail themselves of these weapons.

Moreover, the handbook demonstrates that rigorous critiques of Middle East studies can no longer be ignored by the field’s gatekeepers.

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