By Katherine Pollock | This story appeared in the July 2017 edition of AUC Today.
The focus of the sociology class titled Borders, Wars and Refugees: From the Ottoman Empire to the Islamic State is the history of modern borders, yet the class itself takes place in a virtual world devoid of such borders.
Taught by Amy Austin Holmes, associate professor of sociology in AUC’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology, the class was a joint course between AUC and Oberlin College in the United States. The course utilized video conferencing technology as a tool to bring AUC students from their classroom in Cairo together with their peers in an Ohio classroom to exchange and debate ideas.
“In both the United States and Egypt, a lot of students can no longer afford to go on a study-abroad program, so our class provided an alternate means of exposing students to the experience of sharing the classroom with students from a different university,” said Holmes. “Students benefit greatly from this international exchange.”
Holmes co-taught the course with Zeinab Abul-Magd, associate professor of history at Oberlin who was a visiting professor at AUC’s history department in 2011-2012 and again in 2014. The idea for this collaboration came more than a year ago when Holmes and Abul-Magd began planning for the course.
In order to get this idea off the ground, Holmes and Abul-Magd submitted a grant proposal to the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, which aims to strengthen education in the liberal arts and sciences globally. The grant allowed Abul-Magd to travel to Ottoman archives in Istanbul and British archives in London, collecting old maps from the archives and hosting a lecture series at Oberlin, in which Holmes presented twice.
The class began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of new nation states, focusing on different minorities and ethnic groups. “In order to explain recent events in the region, we have to look back in history and ask how it got this way,” said Holmes. “This history of displacement was a theme throughout the class, as well as how borders were drawn, who drew the borders, what to do if there are people with the same identity on two sides of the borders.”
The syllabi at AUC and Oberlin covered the same readings for a number of weeks throughout the semester so as to facilitate discussion between the two groups. However, Holmes did emphasize certain relevant topics more specifically, such as that of Nubians in Egypt and Kurds and Yazidis in Syria and Iraq. Drawing further inspiration from the idea of the “borderless classroom,” Holmes brought in two Nubian guest speakers to the class and a Kurdish guest speaker from the Sinjar region of Iraq, who spoke via an online platform.
Connecting Across Borders
AUC and Oberlin College students video conferenced approximately every other week, reading the same material and engaging in discussions. AUC classrooms are equipped with advanced video conferencing technology, which greatly facilitated this international virtual conversation. The technology allows the camera to zoom in on the person speaking, as well as pan out and capture the whole classroom at once. It is also possible to see both classrooms at once on the same screen, so it feels as though the class were taking place in one room.
“Video conferencing was a new experience and was quite interesting,” said Amr Haddad, a political science senior at AUC who is minoring in sociology. “It was different from a normal classroom setting because it encourages you to participate all the time.”
Holmes emphasized that this two-way communication gave students a voice.
“To know that there are people in another country, on the other side of the world, listening to them gave an added importance to what the students were saying,” said Holmes. “Even just projecting on the big screen gives their words a sense of importance and weight that you wouldn’t have in a normal classroom setting.”
Similarly, Abul-Magd noted, “A large number of Oberlin College students joined this globally connected course, which took the form of a Middle Eastern history seminar. At enrollment time, my students were very excited about the possibility of connecting with and talking to fellow college students in an important country in the Middle East like Egypt. They tremendously enjoyed the video conferences and looked forward to each one of them.”
With U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration and his immigration and border walls proposal in recent news, one of the first class sessions was spent discussing these topics with students across the ocean. “We discussed in general the issue of borders in relation to current affairs, external borders of a sovereign government and even internal domestic borders,” said Holmes. “The topics of the wall between the United States and Mexico and the travel ban came up quickly, for example.”
From the American perspective, Abul-Magd noted, “The fact that the topic of the course touches not only on Middle Eastern history issues but also current political issues in the United States, especially Trump’s new border policies, made the whole experience more enriching and exciting for Oberlin students.”
Reflecting on what he learned, Haddad declared, “The students from Oberlin were very good listeners. They didn’t criticize anyone’s point of view, but were ready to accept any differences in opinion. On both sides, we realized we have a lot in common when it comes to the way of analyzing texts or understanding certain issues.
The fact that we come from different cultures did not cause any problems, but actually made us realize that we could all have the same perspectives on certain issues.”