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May 03, 2003

Is the MEALAC Department [Columbia University]Balanced?

Columbia University's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture is heralded by other top ranked schools as a department to emulate! Not so, says this article
[brief extract. Read in its entirety]...
In the debate over academic objectivity, Professor Joseph Massad's name appears frequently. He is a favorite target of not only Campus Watch, whose constituents he referred to in his Al-Ahram article as "thought policemen," but he also receives criticism from students and professors on-campus. Although Massad declined to comment for this article, he is usually vocal in expressing his views and does not deny their role in his class.

Students say that on the first day of his Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society class, Massad warns his students not to expect an even-handed analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, Massad says he does not seek to intimidate students. "My policy is always to have students, whatever their political coloring, to feel comfortable to express their views freely in class," Massad said in an interview with the Electronic Intifada in September 2002.

While Massad's self-admitted bias bothers many students, some find value in his teaching style, subjective as it is. One student reviewer for the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability, himself half-Israeli, acknowledges that "although it was perhaps the most difficult class to sit through at times, Massad's class is a necessary fixture in the mealac dept. [sic]"

Another student writes that although "I agree with Massad's stance, ... the lack of zionist [sic] voices in the ... reading list and the strict guidelines on paper topics (they steer you towards making Massad's own points) make this class not as thought-provoking as it should be."

Whether students approve of his style or not, no student of his seems oblivious to the fact that Massad offers only one perspective on a complex issue.

However, the question of its academic value remains. Bulliet believes that incorporation of one's own politics into the classroom, however self-aware or unavoidable, is inappropriate. "I don't think it serves a desirable pedagogical role," he said.

Some suggest that a topic as emotional as the Palestinian-Israeli issue requires passionate teaching to match. From this perspective, advocacy teaching portrays the conflict in its true provocative form instead of sterilizing it with academic objectivity.

Conversely, the very fact of the issue's sensitivity demands special consideration from a professor, Bulliet said. He described his preference for an "even-handed stance because the issue is so passionate. There are a few inflammatory issues that necessitate real caution and circumspection when you address them."

Inside the Classroom and Out

"As a department we are principally in charge of two agendas: teaching and scholarship," Dabashi said.

In the debates over the responsibilities of teachers, the line between teaching and scholarship is too often blurred.

Those who portray MEALAC professors as extremists often draw quotes from the professors' written scholarship rather than from anything presented in the classroom. While calling for an even-handed approach to issues in class may uphold certain academic standards, accusing a professor of malpractice for doing the same in his or her writing could be interpreted as censorship.

"[Professors] don't have the same responsibility in writing as they do in a pedagogical role," Bulliet said, "because they may be targeting an off-campus audience." For example, he added, "Khalidi has probably written things that you would not hear him say in class."

Many academics, including Bulliet, believe that what a professor writes for the public or even for the academic world should be kept separate from what he or she teaches in class. Others give more leeway for the mixture of scholarship and pedagogy, saying that it may enter the classroom, but only with sensitivity to students who may disagree.[more]