The second semester at Al-Quds University is in full swing now. I told my students that my courses would buck AQU tradition and would start on Day 1 of the semester – not two or three weeks in once students completed their registrations. Besides, Day 1 of the semester was the first full day of the Trump administration. We couldn’t afford to delay!
I am offering two courses in the spring 2017 semester. The first is called “Leadership in American Life.” When I worked with AQU colleagues to re-design the American Studies program, one of the things we said is that we wanted to emphasize issues of “leadership” and “entrepreneurship.” The idea is that students in the program – young Palestinian professionals in a variety of fields – stand to benefit and bring back lessons (positive and negative!) to Palestinian institutions and society by understanding these two aspects of the United States. So while the “Leadership” course is an elective, it’s central to the new direction of the program.
This class is a chance for students to pursue their own interests deeply. Students will do a modest amount of reading in leadership theory, but they will spend much of the semester immersed in a major research project on the leader or group of leaders of their choice. I have encouraged them to focus on an individual or individuals within their own professional field or their field of principal interest – there is no excuse for being bored or getting tired of this project! And I have definite “leadership” for this purpose quite broadly, though I have told them that I would prefer that they choose someone who has had significant responsibility within an institution, rather than pure “thought leaders.”
To get warmed up, I have been presenting on a handful of the best-known “leaders” in American life: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a chance to smuggle in some conventional U.S. history into this course, as well, of course, to introduce them to important individuals and classic texts. So, on the day we listened to Trump’s inaugural address, I also introduced them to the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to give them some context for the very different tone that some leaders are capable of striking. It did not take a great deal of explication for them to see the difference between a speech where “carnage” was the most important word, and another in which the concept of being “dedicated” (in all its meanings) took center stage.
The class is also an opportunity to host Americans from a variety of fields as guest speakers. This week, we had a terrific appearance by Gary English, a theater director based at the University of Connecticut who has had a long and fruitful connection with the Freedom Theater in Jenin. Gary is teaching a course at in the AQ/Bard College program on campus this spring, so I snagged him for a guest appearance. He gave a terrific talk on theater as a “rehearsal for democracy.”
This week, the students are dedicated to choosing subjects for their research projects. It looks like we will have an interesting range. Some will focus on recent presidents. One student started a mini-presentation in class on George W. Bush by declaring how much she hates him – but she still wants to spend her whole semester immersed in his life and work! Others are following professional interests. A student who recently started a new job at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs quite naturally wants to focus on one of the recent U.S. Secretaries of State. Then there’s the student whose passion in life is to help create a better pension system for Palestinian people – I have gently guided her towards a project on Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under FDR, the first woman appointed to the U.S. cabinet, and one of the guiding lights behind the implementation of social security. A student with an interest in media wants to work on Jack Shaheen, a writer whose work focuses on anti-Arab stereotypes in Hollywood and the U.S. media more generally; perhaps Shaheen is not a conventional “leader,” but I am helping the student place his work in the context of anti-racism efforts more generally. It looks like Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs are going to get some attention. I’m hoping for takers for Katharine Graham, Sheryl Sandler, Paul Farmer, and Betty Friedan, in part because our American Studies library has hard-copy books by or about each of them! It should be interesting. Proposals are due in another week or so.
The other course is called “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice” When my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser and Dan Kryder and I worked with three AQU counterparts on changes in American Studies, we came up together with the idea for this new required course. We felt that it was essential that students have at least one course focuses on issues of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexuality, and other forms of diversity in the U.S. But we didn’t want a course that was a simple celebration of multiculturalism. Hence the combination with issues of rights and law – the story of how different groups have struggled for justice was, we thought, a central story in the U.S. We also wanted to signal that this was neither a story of steady progress (as “Diversity and Justice” might have indicated) nor a jeremiad about the immutable horror of American racism (as “Diversity and Injustice” might have suggested. So we settled for a rather awkward course name that I have shortened to “DJI.”
Of course, there’s far too much material to cover in a semester. But I have explained to the students that now I am beginning to treat them like true graduate students. That is, I am assigning them more pages each week than they can possible cover, with the understanding that they have to start getting good at making choices about what’s most important, and how to spend their time. (And they can get to some of the unfinished readings over the summer!) I give them some guidance about what I will cover . . .but I’m leaving much more of this decision-making up to them. This also gives me a chance to push the stronger students a little harder – and to expect them to contribute more meaningfully to the on-line forum for the class.
So far we warmed up with a terrific class focused on James Baldwin’s short letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook,” (the first piece from The Fire Next Time), and Ta-Nahisi Coates’ long Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” Baldwin, with his combination of anger and compassion, is a great introduction to the complexities of the African American experience; while the Coates article allowed students to explore a question that has quite immediate relevance for their own region: what kinds of actions can and should be taken to address injustices from earlier eras that still reverberate in human societies? My precedessor as Fulbright Scholar at Al-Quds University, Dominique Day, was still around and co-taught this session with me, which was a pleasure.
This week promises to be a sensitive and provocative session. We happen to be focused on the Native American experience, and particularly legal and quasi-legal maneuvers that American whites took to deprive Native peoples of their lands. Among other things, they are reading some primary sources on treaties, and commentaries on treaties by Native Americans themselves, which show the manipulation of American law by whites in all of its ugliness. As it happens, this week the Israeli Knesset passed a controversial law that allows (both prospectively and retroactively!) for the appropriation of Palestinian-owned land to accommodate the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The formal translation into English makes this the “regularization” law, but Haaretz, the most left-wing of the Israeli newspapers, has taken to simply calling it the “Land Grab Law.” Although many commentators here expect this law to be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, it is generating considerable controversy because of its transparent attempt to provide a legal fig leaf for existing practices.
I have asked my students, in preparation for the next DJI class, to consider similarities and differences between the two situations. There’s a lively on-line discussion going on right now, with a variety of opinions. Suffice it to say that the Native American experience resonates loudly with my students, wherever they stand on the political spectrum within the Palestinian community. I’m looking forward to what promises to be a vigorous discussion.
Of course, we continue to monitor closely the first weeks of the Trump administration. This week, of course, I have been reminding them of all of the discussions we had in our “American Politics” class last semester about the separation of powers and checks and balances. Students have taken note of the president’s steady and deliberate efforts to undermine the judiciary as an institution (including his administration’s claim that his decisions on national security are “unreviewable”). They also understand, however, that this president likes nothing better than to stand in defiance. We will see what happens in the Supreme Court.
Finally . . . I could not resist, last Sunday afternoon, making sure that American Studies students were fully aware of the social and cultural significance of . . . .THE SUPER BOWL. Yes, in advance of last Sunday’s game, I devoted half an hour of class time to this weighty subject – though, in fairness, I connected it to “Diversity, Justice and Injustice” through the theme of race and sport. (All legitimate, right?) After all, they can’t claim a graduate degree in this field without some knowledge of the place of American football in U.S. life . . . and it was my obligation to provide it . . complete with power point showing highlights of the New England Patriots season. This week . . . I think I’ll need to show them highlights of the historic comeback – a major event in American history, as every Pats fan will agree!