How Middle East Studies Professors Handle Bias in the Classroom

As they teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instructors have to point out underlying assumptions—starting with their own.
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Dov Waxman, a professor of political science and the co-director of Northeastern University’s Middle East Center, remembers his first teaching job in Ankara, Turkey, at the beginning of the Second Intifada. “It was a baptism of fire,” says Waxman, who is Jewish. “When they asked me questions about the Holocaust, because they hadn’t heard about it, it was very difficult to respond as a professor without getting emotional.”

By the time I took his class a couple years ago at Baruch College, Waxman had been teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a decade. He makes a point of mentioning his personal background at the start of each semester. “The first thing I try to do,” he told me recently, “is to be very honest with myself about my own biases and the way in which it may shape my outlook. Because after you do that, then you can begin the hard work of trying to free yourself from it. The most dangerous thing occurs when academics are unable or unwilling to acknowledge where they are coming from.”

Waxman’s dispassion is especially striking at a time when so many students are getting their news through social media. Today's college-aged demographic has access to more information than ever before, but when it comes to a divisive issue like Gaza, emotions run high and facts often appear out of context. Instead of engaging with each other, Facebook users tend to hold more tightly to their positions each time they feel they're under attack.

Another prominent expert on the Middle East, Columbia University's Rashid Khalidi, says his responsibility is not to tell students what to think but to make sure they have an informed view, whatever it may be. “Even if students hold positions on these issues, as is natural, they should act and speak on the basis on knowledge and not ignorance,” said Khalidi. “There is a great deal out there on this topic about which many people feel strongly but are very ill-informed, and in some cases misinformed.”

Khalidi, who is the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, was born in New York to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese-American mother. Like Waxman, he makes his background transparent. “I attempt to portray events as objectively as possible, giving many of the different narratives. No matter what I say in class, few students who have been exposed to only one side of the issue seem to feel I am biased, simply because I’m Palestinian.”

Even outside the classroom, academics who teach the Middle East conflict are subject to a level of public scrutiny that a professor of biology or English literature would rarely endure. Earlier this month, after Khalidi wrote a New Yorker article called "Collective Punishment in Gaza," staff writer Philip Gourevitch criticized him for taking too soft a stance on Hamas. "The hardest line that he will allow himself against Gaza’s categorically genocidal leadership is that 'we may not like' it," Gourevitch wrote. "What would he lose to say that we must not?" 

In the classroom there’s no time for well-crafted rebuttals, and face-to-face conversations help keep these teachers honest. Many of them feel compelled to serve as role models for handling polarized opinions on controversial topics.

“We have to make it clear that these things cannot be reduced to sound bites or one sided diatribes," said Waxman. "What colleges must aim to do is show how we can have engaged, thoughtful discussions about controversial and sensitive topics and how we can learn to respectively disagree.” 

Once students step away from their social media feeds, their interactions often become nuanced and interesting. Khalidi, who has been teaching for over 40 years, has seen this shift in his own classrooms. “Today’s students are far more knowledgeable and open-minded than their elders were. It’s much easier to teach them about some complex and controversial topics in Middle East history.”

As Waxman noted, today's students are also more likely to have friends who come from backgrounds different from their own. "Older generations have grown up in much more homogeneous societies," he said. Today's college students, more than any before them, are required to physically sit in the same room with people who don’t share their views. 

As the fall semester begins, current events will fuel heated discussions in classrooms across the country. Waxman plans to teach the same material he’s always taught, but will use the news as a way to engage his students: “I will begin the course by asking the students how much they followed the recent war between Israel and Hamas and whether they wanted to share their personal reactions to the fighting.”

Still, Waxman knows it will be a massive challenge for those who feel emotionally closest to the issue to separate their loyalties from the course material. He's had to run impromptu therapy sessions after his classes before, but in the end, it always boils down to his responsibility as an educator. “We are not advocates for any particular position, he said. “My loyalty is to the truth, not to any particular group.”

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Terrance Ross writes for and produces The Atlantic's Education Channel.

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