The University of Iowa

UI Middle East courses expanding

April 5th, 2012

By Derek Kellison, The Daily Iowan

University of Iowa courses are expanding to meet an increasing level of student interest as the political atmosphere continues to evolve in the Middle East.

Since 2001, UI political-science professors said there has been a marked increase in enthusiasm for courses related to the Middle East. And with the increase, some professors said, comes a responsibility to accurately present the foreign events in an educational way.

Prior to 2001, the UI Political-Science Department had no Middle Eastern coverage separate from a comparative politics courses, said UI political-science Professor Vicki Hesli.

"Before 9/11, there was not a single course that systematically covered the area," she said. "Over the years … the university has developed an abundance of good information [on the Middle East]. Other departments are covering the area more thoroughly as well."

Courses offered for the current academic year specifically covering this area include Introduction to Politics in the Muslim World, Topics in the Middle East/Muslim World Studies, Politics of Terrorism, and Topics in Culture of the Hispanic World — which details the history of Granada, a former Muslim-ruled city.

All together, 175 students are enrolled in these classes.

Iowa State University currently offers two courses specifically on the Middle East, Politics of the Middle East and Introduction to Islam, with a combined enrollment of 72.

Helena Dettmer, an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said UI is trying to accommodate the increased interest by creating more courses.

"I would say that we offer approximately three to four courses per year in expansion to the courses we have," she said.

UI professors working to develop courses focused on the Middle East said being knowledgeable about the region is becoming more imperative as such issues as military and religious conflicts arise.

Hesli said the constant presence in the news forces professors to adapt their teaching methods and incorporate materials like news articles into their lessons.

"I do a lot of learning along with my students," she said. "But I have a good solid grounding in the history of the region and in government functions of the area. This has allowed me to analyze the issues as they come up, but I always need to keep up-to-date with media and news."

Because most issues discussed in class are topical, professors have to be prepared for students with strong opinions. Professors said this means increasing the care they put into presenting the facts.

Brian Lai, an associate professor of political science, said he has had to be careful to avoid taking sides with groups mentioned in his class, Politics of Terrorism.

"When teaching the class, I can't focus too much about the justifications the terrorist organizations use," he said. "Professors that teach these kinds of topics have to focus on helping their students understand the conflicts, not the mindsets of the groups behind them."

Hesli said objectivity is important because it gives students a sense of "empathy" with people living in other cultures and different circumstances.

"I want students to know what it's like to walk a mile in their shoes," she said.

UI sophomore Jory Kopish said he signed up for Introduction to Politics in the Muslim World to clear up confusion on the topic.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about Islam and the Middle East," he said. "This class has helped me understand what's true and what's false."