Apr
23

The Doha Experiment

There is a reason why some books are published by academic publishers, and others not. Academic books are peer reviewed and are held to a standard of quality (usually). Retired professor Gary Wasserman's book, "Doha Experiment: Arab Kingdom, Catholic College, Jewish Teacher" (2017), was not published by an academic press, he opted for Skyhorse (known for its travel guides, science fiction and fantasy). Wasserman has published with academic presses before, he wrote a book (his thesis) published by Cambridge about decolonization politics in Kenya (which turns out to not be so ironic, as he focuses on Europeans in Kenya and their supposed outsmarting of the 'native population'). The Doha Experiment would not pass as academic, but doesn't claim to be.

Wasserman starts the book explaining that he had no contextual knowledge upon arrival (saying he had never even heard of the country before going) and ends the book saying "I never fully engaged the community in which I lived" (p. 244). Despite making little to no effort to learn about the country during his 8 years in Qatar, Wasserman nonetheless felt comfortable knowing his 'missionary' task: "implant liberal ideas... [and] do a lot of things that are certainly different from the traditions of the region." If this sounds like a colonial attitude (essentially: I don't know the place or the people, but they need to be more like me), it is not much different from Wasserman's work on Europeans in Kenya in the 1970s. Throughout the book the author speaks about bringing a 'liberal presence' to 'the Arabs' in a 'fundamentalist', 'Wahhabi' country, a part of the world he suggests is living under 'thuggish elites' who 'killed opponents'. This is exactly the kind of uncritical, generalizing stereotypes that Edward Said critiqued, whose work Wasserman should re-read (he quotes Said in the Introduction about such labels).

If you are looking for a Euro-Western view of narrow experience in Qatar, conveyed via orientalist tropes and with a colonialist attitude, Wasserman has your book. This could also be your book if you are looking for a coming-of-age read of a professor who was insecure about his own ethnic / faith identity (with fears rooted in bias and stereotype, and suspicion that everyone is Google'ing his faith), and coming to terms with himself in a Muslim country. Or, this could be your read if you are looking for examples of how openly unethical some professors are in their sexualization of students or in publishing student work / words without ethics review or informed consent. On a positive note, Wasserman was transparent in explaining that he knew nothing of the country and people, made little to no attempt to learn, and did not adjust his teaching to make it accessible and relevant to a new audience (other that course classifications (p. 226), there was a "resistance to revisions" (p. 242); imposing 'home', as the benchmark of all that was good). Wasserman concludes his book in suggesting: "I couldn't teach any other way because I didn't know anything else. And only now, on reflection, did I see this as an unacknowledged gap." (p. 244). Apparently there was no interest to learn. 

If you are looking to learn something about Qatar, read Kamrava; if you are looking to learn about Education City, read Vora.

In case that sounds too critical, a few quotes for context:

Even in re-writing personal history in 2017 the racism is bold: "When we left for Silver Spring, it was not just because of the expected influx of blacks, the worsening integrated schools, and the perceived growing danger in the streets..." (p. 8). The author says (distancing himself from labor exploitation in Doha): "my family had a "colored lady", whose name was Mary, come to the house to clean", which is presented as not as bad as Doha because while there was "separation between Them and Us but it wasn't much" (p. 196).

Comments made about students (additional context: the book was written while author was in his 70s): "riveting face... tall and attractive" (p. 73); "chubby Pakistani" (p. 5); "She would not be called conventionally pretty - too many angles on her long Semetic face" (p. 82); "long, athletic legs of this six-footer" (p. 90); "attractive, lively Syrian girl" (p. 102); "a tall, good-looking Qatari" (p. 105).

Thoughts of the region? Certainly not one of respect and dignity, rather of broad generalization rooted in stereotype: "Communicating this to students in a region where they were surrounded by true believers, extremists, and group thinkers did not seem an unreasonable goal for a liberal outsider." (p. 130) Courageously, quoting his spouse, viewing "women who covered themselves as locked into medieval customs that forced them into marriages as teenagers" (p. 242).

Embracing the colonial narrative: "Much like colonists of an earlier century, the expats needed to see the locals as flawed or at least not quite good enough to operate on their own. As the economy got more complicated and the citizenry got wealthier and ever more indolent, the case became easier to make." (p. 159)

Embracing the 'mission': "He and others saw liberal education uncomfortably undermining many of the traditional values and assumptions with which students from the region began college..." (p. 238) "Their education became another step in the process of detaching from societies and peoples, beliefs and values, among whom they were no longer comfortable or even welcomed. They no longer followed the same faith, spoke the shared language, or felt comfortable in the same clothing they did before" (p. 240-241).

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Apr
10

Teach for Arabia

After some politically-oriented books on Qatar, I was pleased to find Neha Vora's "Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar" (2019). The book takes a quasi ethnographic approach to Education City (individual interviews and personal experience) and the author is reflexive about a wide range of topics and experiences. "Field" research was conducted while the author was working and teaching in Education City, between 2010 and 2014, and the writing was finished in 2016 (which shows you how slow book publishing is, as this comes out in 2019). One limitation of the book is that much is assumed about life and ideas outside of the people and place of Education City - the author did not interview anyone at Qatar University, at least for some perspective. Nonetheless, this is an interesting book, and most enjoyably, it is (self) critical - which is quite rare amongst the other volumes, many being rooted in orientalist perspectives and perpetuating colonialist attitudes (one book uncritically notes Education City as a colonization project, even celebrates it as such). Interesting in this book is the journey of the author, which she takes us along; not arriving as a scholar critical of content or assumptions, but rather was pushed to contest, challenge and critique at the demands of students (example below). A few notes:

Journeys of learning: "The class - who were about half Qatari citizens and half foreign residents who had grown up in Doha - arrived the morning after reading the chapter uniformly offended; they had clearly had a group conversation prior to our meeting. They told me the reading did not speak to them and also presented them or their classmates as exotic. Overall, they were fed up with the textbook... The students then moved on to tell me how their other classes - STEM classes - contained similar moments of tension, sometimes in the curriculum and sometimes due to their professors' presumptions about what Qataris, Arabs, and/or Muslims were like." (p. 2)

Centering and marginalizing: "Faculty and staff teach and speak what they know, and what they knew was usually refracted through the United States. In addition, the texts themselves, written in English, most often published in the United States and reflecting Euro-American disciplinary conventions, were usually geared toward American audiences with unconscious familiarity in American cultural norms. As one student told me, "of course they do bring a lot of current events into the classroom but a lot of the materials in the textbooks are so US-centered." (p. 55-56)

Upending assumptions: "Whenever I design a course now, I am reminded of that class in Doha and how much it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. It challenged me to question who I center and who I marginalize through my choice of readings and assignments, the language I use in delivering my lectures, how I assign group work, and my overall interactions with students. Today, I am a tenured faculty member at an elite liberal arts institution in the United States that markets itself as invested in critical thinking, undergraduate research experiences, diversity, and global citizenship training. The students at this institution will rarely get to experience these learning outcomes to the extent that I have witnessed students experience them at the American branch campuses in Doha, due to the diversity of students, quality of resources, and number of hand-on learning opportunities available there." (p. 3)

Liberal piety: "The categorization of places, ideas, regimes, and cultures in liberal and illiberal is fundamentally a project based on faith rather than fact, one that constantly needs to elide imperial histories, encounters with difference, and discursive and material inconsistencies in order to maintain what I call liberal piety, producing subjects who believe themselves to be liberal, cosmopolitan, and inclusive rather than parochial and complicit in ongoing forms of imperialism, Orientalism, exclusion, and American exceptionalism." (p. 9)

Contradictions: "The American university was foundationally colonial and white supremacist. The earliest universities in North America, which would become the Ivy League, were Christian missionary projects built in the name of manifest destiny and civilizing the inferior Indian. They were funded by profits accrued by white slaving elites, as well as built in part by slave labor." (p. 11)

Education system: "RAND's projects included helping to set up the Qatar National Research Fund guidelines, writing the Qatar National Research Strategy, working with Qatar Foundation on multiple projects, and assessing the national Qatar University. But their main project was focused on how to improve and develop public K-12 education. In 2007, RAND produced a report, Education for a New Era, which suggested three options for reforming what it felt was a system that had failed because of Qatari resistance to change and a lack of critical thinking in schools. All three suggested reform options were neoliberal approaches that reduced centralization and focused on parental choice..." (p. 41-42)

Priorities: "American branch campuses saw coeducation as integral to the liberal project in Doha. Branch campuses perpetuated the idea that students could not attain liberal academic progress without being in mixed classrooms, and they they could not attain full citizenship without heterosocial participation in activities outside the classroom. These understandings stemmed from the mainstreaming of liberal feminism into the US academy, and from the yoking of gender and sexuality to civilization metrics for branch campus success." (p. 81)

The voiceless: "I came to see how coeducation and other measures of liberal feminist success in Education City presumed a baseline voiceless Qatari female subject on which to inscribe liberation, not a woman who entered the university with her own forms of personal power and agency." (p. 83) 

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