How Do You Teach the Arab Spring?

That was the question we asked ourselves six months ago when Professor Spiegel finally agreed to take on a new class, after much haranguing from his graduate students. The subject needed, begged, to have its own class, but scarcely can the book be ordered, the articles assigned, and the slides prepared before some new disruptive event changes the course of Middle East politics (again). How can you keep up with, much less teach a class about, an unfolding series of events whose consequences and significance are still unknown? The very name “Arab Spring” continues to be debated in some circles (a pet peeve of one of our speakers, it turns out).

Prof. Spiegel explains, “[t]he problem I faced in designing a course on the Arab Spring was the freshness of the subject, changing daily.  And I believed strongly that ultimately, however influenced each state was by its neighbors, the individual country problems required specific answers and discussions suitable for each from analysts dealing with the issues on an ongoing basis.  In planning the class, I recalled a class I had co-taught immediately after 9/11, where we invited specialists to speak weekly on the problems the US faced then, but that format would not work this time.  And the one ‘sage on the stage’ method was in trouble enough; it would never work this time dealing with the ever-changing Arab Spring.”

The answer turned out to be elegant and simple: bring in the experts.  

To pull it off, CMED had to get tech savvy. As far back as August the idea of videoconferencing was floating around as something we should “look into.” I even have a card of a videoconference specialist who I randomly met at UCLA. None of us quite understood what this would entail, and hardly any professors had taken advantage of this technology outside of the engineering department. But by November we were testing the connection between the room at UCLA and UCDC, our counterpart in Washington D.C. 2600 miles away. It looked incredible, and it enabled the speaker to see and interact with the class and professor. Prof. Spiegel adds, “I tried it once from Washington, and it felt as much as if I was in Perloff 1102 [at UCLA] as I felt from UCLA toward Washington.” 

Michele Dunne, Director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, lectures from UCDC

At the same time, Prof. Spiegel and his TAs Benjamin Radparvar and Joshua Saidoff cobbled together a syllabus. There were 18 classes of an hour and 15 minutes each allotted to cover the countries of the Arab Spring and the themes that they presented. The product was an impressive overview: Public Opinion, Media and Identity, Tunisia and Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Islamism, Terrorism, Iran, the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq, Obama and US foreign policy, and, finally, Turkey.

Next came the selection of the experts. From Prof. Spiegel’s network of colleagues and a list of recommendations, we narrowed down some likely candidates. Their backgrounds spanned the breadth of political, academic, and governmental institutions: from the State Department to think tanks like the Atlantic Council, from professors at the University of San Diego and George Washington University, to our own UCLA graduate students, professors and CMED scholars.

So what’s the end result of this experiment?

"Being exposed to the top researchers and officials in the country is what going to UCLA should be about. Not only were the lectures entertaining (most of the time), all of the information was so relevant and applicable that I am able to use it outside of the classroom... which is not necessarily something you get from other classes."

     - Miri Gold, 3rd Year Political Science Major

“In a standard class on US-Middle East relations, students are exposed to the views of people who analyze US foreign policy.  In this class you have heard directly from people whose analysis informs US foreign policy.  Everybody in this class, students and teachers alike learned a tremendous amount.  It was a privilege to be involved in this undertaking.”

     - Joshua Saidoff, TA and Graduate Student, Dept. of Political Science

“The sense of being together added to the ability to actually have a discussion, not just a lecture, as first I engaged the speaker, and then members of the class asked questions and made comments.  Of course, with a variety of speakers there is always the issue of keeping to major themes, and hoping the presentation will not be a dud.  Remarkably, no guest bombed; all added to our collective knowledge, and many students told me it was their most intriguing classroom experience at UCLA. 

Obviously, there are improvements to be made, but in sum having guests ‘come to lecture’ in class from anywhere enhances the experience, and I certainly intend to use the method again where appropriate and useful.”

     - Professor Steven L. Spiegel, Dept. of Political Science, Director of CMED

What were some of the lessons learned?

(1) The videoconference style of lecturing is not for everyone. While the speaker and the class can see and hear one another, it takes time to adjust to speaking into a camera. Unfortunately, we were limited to an hour and 15 minutes, so there was little time to introduce the speaker and allow them to get comfortable. To that end, it would be better to have 2 hours at our disposal. Despite this, and the fact that some of our speakers aren’t necessarily used to lecturing in an academic setting, they adapted quite well.

(2) Technical difficulties come with the territory. UCLA has an excellent A/V department (shout out to Don Roby!), but there were a few unforeseeable problems that gave us anxiety down to the last second. The lesson here is be prepared to improvise and do some stand-up lecturing to fill the time until the connection is fixed.

(3) Speakers are unpredictable. We left it to the speakers to determine how much background information was needed to contextualize current events on their country of expertise. Necessarily, there is a lot of variation because each country has a unique history that influences how the Arab Spring is playing out there. However, this can be problematic for the students who are responsible for deciphering what information is essential... and what will end up on the all-important exam. Also, not knowing ourselves what the speakers would cover, it made choosing readings that much more difficult. Sometimes the readings contradicted the speakers or approached an event from a different angle or otherwise imperfectly covered the material.

On that last note, inconsistency can be useful because it teaches students that there is a lot of disagreement on how an event can be interpreted, especially something as complex as the Arab Spring, so they should be critical of what they read and hear, even from experts.

After all, isn’t that the point of an education?