I am teaching an interdisciplinary class on Cairo this semester. I taught it once before and I was happy with how it worked out. This year it is a completely new experience, even though I am using much the same syllabus that worked so well the last time. I started out by telling the class that I really was hoping they were to keep an eye on the coverage of Egypt in the New York Times, which we get during week days on campus, but that I hoped it would require them to go digging through the paper, that it was not going to be the main focus of the news, because that would probably be because bad things were going on.
Little did I know.
The textbooks I am using for the course are Max Rodenbeck's Cairo: The City Victorious and
Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building along with other readings and a recommended map purchase. I decided the first time I taught the class to start with the contemporary city and work backwards rather than the other way around. To be honest, this was because I didn't want 20 papers on pharaonic stuff, as I also teach an Egyptian Art class. So this semester we started out talking about how cities deal with the issues of being cities -- how they deal with trash, overcrowding, income disparity -- and then we started with the chapters of Rodenbeck that deal with the contemporary denizens of the city. Monday we talked about that, and had a really good discussion on Nasser and how the book looks at him (as a bad guy, to oversimplify) and how people in the Arab world look at him (as a great hero, according to the Arab students in the class). That led to a really interesting discussion and I went out of the class thrilled with how involved the students were in the discussion and how prepared they were (of course, one responded to my email telling him what we had covered and reminding him that class participation counted, so I was sorry he was not in class, by telling me that when he had called on me last Friday he hadn't been prepared, and he still hadn't gotten the assignment read by Monday so he decided it would be better for all concerned if he just didn't show up!). And then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Egypt exploded in disarray. We had been noting the events in Tunisia, but hadn't spent much time on it. Who would think that Egypt was so vulnerable to instability? I mean, I know the problems the country has been dealing with, and I knew that friends who lived there were more and more unhappy with the course of their lives, but Mubarak had been in control effectively for so long. Who could have known? (she says, echoing the Bush administration's normal excuse for anything they didn't plan for)
On Tuesday about 6:30 pm (Central time) I sent the students an email asking them to come to class the next day prepared to discuss events in Egypt. I asked them to take 30 minutes to investigate, to watch Al Jazeera or the BBC coverage, to read about it in the Guardian or the New York Times. And I hoped that some of them would have gotten the email and followed through. Instead, on Wednesday morning, every single one (two were missing, but everyone that was there) had done so. They had used the sources I recommended, but went further, and the student who had written that he was not prepared earlier, but promised to have the readings done by Wednesday not only had done that, but had also gone out of his way to get ready for class, and had spent quite a bit of time on the Facebook pages used to organize the protests, and used the internet translation programs to go from Arabic to English so he could follow through. Everyone was involved in the discussion.
And as I noted earlier, I was trying to figure out how to help them with essay questions which is something they said they wanted help with. So on Friday, I told them we would begin class and if Mubarak talked live, we would interrupt whatever we were doing to listen to that (at the time, they were saying Mubarak would speak any minute -- it was almost eight hours later that he finally did). But I played the first segment of The Daily Show from the night before (how cool is that? I seldom can get away with such things, but this time it was directly relevant!)
It was lovely to watch their faces and hear their laughter. People don't laugh enough in my classes, as I am not the funniest person in the world. Sigh. But The Daily Show picked up the slack. And then I read off and wrote on the board the following question:
What are the main reasons for the current instability in Egypt? How
much is it a response to the recent events in Tunisia? Or is it a
result of other forces/causes?
They wrote for 15 minutes, while I turned off the sound and ran the Al Jazeera feed on the screen, waiting for Mubarak. Then they were divided into four groups of 4-5 each, and they rewrote their questions (or at least two groups did, while a third rewrote an outline, and the fourth just had what they described as a fantastic discussion). I brought home the papers and the revisions to look at this weekend. I will see how the pedagogical exercise worked. But the task of getting students involved in the class, making connections between what they study in class and what is going on outside the university, and seeing the relevance of academic discussions, is completely achieved in a way I could never have forseen. This is not a good way for it to happen, I know, but this is an experiece every single student in this class will remember for the rest of his or her life.
I have heard from none of my friends in Egypt and I hope they are hanging on okay.