Amy PoppingaWe’re barely into April, but Bethel students are already registering for their Fall 2013 courses. In addition to old favorites like American Beginnings, Latin American Civ, and Modern Europe, they’ll find a new option available: HIS356 Modern Middle East.

One of two new courses being offered in 2013-2014 by new hire Amy Poppinga, Modern Middle East gives our students a chance to explore in depth a region of enormous religious, cultural, economic, and political significance. (It also fulfills the Global history requirement for the History major.) We asked Amy for a preview:

What are the major themes of the course?

1. Increase knowledge of the many peoples and cultures that comprise the Middle East by using sound scholarship and personal narratives.

2. Analyze the role Western cultural, political, religious, and economical influences have played in shaping the current realities of the Middle East.

3. Recognize cross-cultural commonalities in human experiences in order to gain a deeper and more appropriate appreciation of both our similarities and our cultural differences.

4. Consider the impact that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have had on the historical development and “story” of the Middle East region.

Of the historical figures you plan to talk about… Whom do you find especially interesting?

Tolan, The Lemon TreeOne thing that makes the study of recent history in the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) so interesting is the impact of the “ordinary” person. Many of the social, political, and religious changes that have shaped society, at times good and at times bad, can be traced to “the streets.” I’m excited for students to learn the story of Bashir al-Khayri and Dalia Landau, a Palestinian and an Israeli whose chance encounter has led to a lifelong friendship and common commitment to peace and stability for their homelands. I first learned of their story (which is now widely known through the book The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan) through one of my grad school professors who is married to Dalia. This is just one such story but there are so many.

What are some of the pivotal events in the course’s narrative?

There are a few “turning points” that serve as markers for our course. Students often have quite a bit of knowledge and experience with WWI and WWII from and American and European perspective. I’m looking forward to exploring how these wars shaped the Middle East, particularly after WWII. In addition, we focus on how the Arab-Israeli War, the Revolution in Iran, the Iran/Iraq war, and the first and second Gulf War all have shaped the Middle East’s struggles with globalization and westernization.

What most excites you about teaching this course for the first time?

We have many Bethel students and professors who have spent time in the Middle East. This course presents the unique opportunity to draw on the experiences of those around us. I’m looking forward to utilizing podcasts and interviews in ways I have not before.

Secondly, while this is certainly the case with all areas of history to some extent, it is exciting to accept that our content has no official “the end.” This history is literally unfolding, and I am looking forward to working as a team with my students as we all find ways to keep up on current events. I’m predicting each class will need to start with the question, “Did you watch/read the news last night?”

And third… I ♥ GEOGRAPHY!

The principles of geography, particularly the relationship between humanity and land, are key to understanding Middle Eastern history. (Note: Amy also teaches our History and the Human Environment course — offered both fall and spring.) I hope this course widens my student’s understanding of history by demonstrating the role of the environment in shaping political, social, and religious movements.

What do you think students will find most surprising or challenging as they learn about the modern history of the Middle East?

Part of me would like to give this class the title The Middle East: Let’s get the backstory. In certain respects, this is a class that will be taught backwards. We have to start with what we know now, and then we do the investigative work of finding out how we got to where we are. I find that exciting. There’s a tendency to think of 9/11 as the starting point of US/MENA relations. In other courses I have taught that focus specifically on Islam, we have taken this backwards approach and it works really well. There are many “Aha” moments and spaces to pause, ask some self-reflective questions, and then try to put the pieces together. I promise we will get back to the present, but we have to do some tough stuff to build our way back.

If students take away only one thing from the course, what would you like it to be?

That they would walk away convinced that studying other societies, cultures, and religions is a worthy pursuit. Certainly for the sake of becoming a better global citizen but also because it informs and challenges our understanding of our own place in history.

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