Teaching is full of surprises, both unanticipated hiccups and fortuitous convergences. It requires adaptability, open-mindedness, and creativity. Becoming an effective teacher is a process that necessitates constant and consistent nurturing and growth both for the teacher and the students through self-reflection, evaluation, and diligence. I have found the experience consistently rewarding, challenging, and dynamic. For me, teaching involves synthesizing my broad training in the history of the Middle East and Central Asia, religious studies, and foreign languages to inspire my students while they master the specific course content. I cultivate a supportive learning environment, and I guide my students in the development of their critical thinking while at the same time I encourage them to polish their communication skills.
My course design recognizes that students have very diverse learning styles and needs. To accommodate students, I build into my courses different modes of instruction and assignments. Much of this depends on the type of course and the enrollment. Regardless of the length of the lecture I signpost the important points at the beginning, middle, and end of the lecture so that my students understand where we are going and what I expect them to learn. Whenever possible I draw specific links with previous lectures and foreshadow future content so that students easily see the connections from day to day. I realize that many students are accustomed to learning in ways that do not reflect a traditional lecture. These students often benefit from small group discussion or low-stakes writing assignments that direct them to focus their ideas before engaging in a larger group discussion. In seminars, I require students to lead discussion during at least one class meeting. I also assign a presentation component to accompany research assignments so that students have an opportunity to share their work with the rest of the class, situate their topic within the course content, and practice public speaking in a supportive environment.
The study of the Middle East and Central Asia requires students to familiarize themselves with a vast geographical expanse and a small but important technical vocabulary. I regularly explain key terms and concepts both at the beginning of class and in the context of the lecture. Maps serve two purposes: they allow students to gain a sense of topographical, political, and other boundaries, and they can act as a tool for showing students how maps can be drawn in ways that affect or purposefully manipulate our understanding of the world. When appropriate, video clips from documentary films or motion pictures can provide stimulating material for discussion especially in terms of how historic events are (re)imagined and (mis)represented from other sources. I also find films such as Mongol (2007, Russia) and Le grande voyage (2004, France), to be particularly helpful for students to visualize unfamiliar climate zones and cultural phenomena. Art, architecture, and archaeological remains are vital sources for historians of the Middle East and Central Asia. Nothing makes this point clearer to students than for them to see a wide range of images including illuminated copies of the Shahnama, mosques designed by the famous Ottoman architect, Sinan, and remnants of silk textiles that illustrate the tiraz system. I then incorporate these images into the interactive discussion that either follows the lecture or takes place as the lecture proceeds.
I prepare students to have strong foundations for additional study of the Middle East and history in general by teaching them how to distinguish between strong and weak historical arguments, discern how histories are composed across different cultures and time periods, and make their own historical arguments. These skills extend beyond the classroom to drive students to become more informed citizens in a world where we have access to endless information but often without the benefit of a framework for interpreting the reliability of that information. I relate the content of my courses to current events even when the chronological focus of the course is earlier. For example, I extend the chronology of my Silk Road course to the present day rather than ending conventionally with the Mongol expansion to the West. I do this because the term “Silk Road” is a product of the nineteenth century and I think that it is valuable for students to understand how people construct categories that are then taken as timeless and immutable. The course culminates with the students conceptualizing and creating their own museum exhibition complete with the reconstruction of some aspect of material culture found along the “Silk Roads.” Creative assignments that connect today with the past emphasize the idea that history is relevant.
There is still a dearth of good textbooks and readers on many aspects of Islam and Central Asian Studies. Out of necessity, I have often compiled my own course packs. Primary sources include excerpts from travelogues, correspondence, diplomatic reports, court chronicles, poetry, endowment documents, hagiographies, and inscriptions. I work with students to learn how to read these sources, situate them in their historical context, and use them as evidence to back up their arguments both in discussion and writing. I have also had success with assigning essays that incorporate works of historical fiction, such as Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Andrei Platonov’s Soul.
In all of my courses I strongly emphasize the art of good critical writing. To ensure that students practice writing and complete the assigned readings in a timely and careful manner, I require writing exercises that discuss or develop a question about the reading. These writing exercises also offer me an opportunity to learn about the ideas of my students — even those who are apprehensive or shy about speaking in class. Having students frequently practice their writing — coupled with requiring outlines, rough drafts and revisions of papers — has resulted in profound improvements in my students’ overall writing and analytical skills. I have assisted graduate students, honors students, and undergraduate history majors with research for independent projects. Because my courses often focus on the Middle East or other non-Western regions, I hold a writing seminar that includes a guest lecture from one of our librarians. The goal of this lecture is to familiarize the students with library sources, research databases, and the challenges of working with non-Western sources and topics.
When developing courses I keep my goals for student success in mind. I seek to include promoting clear and effective communication, encouraging the development of students’ critical thinking skills and ability to read sources, and ultimately facilitating the students’ success for the course and beyond. Communication is key for clarifying expectations as well as fostering a respectful, collaborative, and productive classroom environment. I am available to students for academic support and advice on grant applications, language learning, and study abroad. I invite feedback from my students throughout the term and take end-of-term course evaluations seriously when reformulating a course.
Teaching at an institution with a diverse student population has allowed me to work with students from a wide range of backgrounds. I am committed to working with students to ensure that their needs are met and to create an optimal learning environment for everyone. I have made student learning the top priority of my classroom by providing my students with the tools they need to meet and exceed the demands of my courses.