Narratives: Cooption of a Pedagogical Tool

Posted on October 16, 2017 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Narratives: Cooption of a Pedagogical Tool
By Mekarem Eljamal

            Narratives – be they presented as films, performances, art, speeches, or writings – serve as incredibly powerful vehicles through which to impart new knowledge. As communities collaboratively developed syllabi, such as  #FergusonSyllabus, #StandingRockSyllabus, and #IslamophobiaIsRacism, to represent and explore their struggles, they included in these reading lists narrative pieces. Alongside suggested academic readings from Lila Abu-Lughod, Ned Blackhawk, and Michelle Alexander, personal narratives are paired with or folded into the academic texts. Too often, the people who bear the brunt of the consequences of anti-blackness, Islamophobia, or anti-Native racism are forgotten; instead, the conversations center the theories in an abstract form. While there is immense value in understanding the theories behind these topics, for issues that are extremely relevant today, the abstraction does little to help students cope with and unpack the problems. Alternatively, essays in books like Arab and Arab American Feminisms, provide both representation for Arabs and Arab Americans who rarely see themselves in coursework and from the writing, readers can glean information about anti-Arab racism, reimagine notions home, and challenge tradition understandings of Arab identity.

            From the social sciences to nursing, narrative pedagogy continues to be introduced as a method to increase awareness and complicate thought processes about the people one is around. However, the question arises as to who bears the brunt of educating when narrative pedagogy is used in the classroom. Are instructors providing the educational narratives to students via literature and students pull knowledge from the text? Or are they deferring to students in the class, asking for their vulnerability, openness, and narratives to be the educational tools? The conversation becomes even more complicated when we take into account the interests of administrations. How have administrators decided to use student narratives not necessarily as a tool for learning, but more so to protect their image in regards to student-administration relations?

            Today, students must navigate when narratives are being used as a source of knowledge to challenge bias and preconceived stereotypes versus when their narratives can be coopted to serve an administrative agenda. After moments of tension across campuses, administrations often call meetings with student leaders who represent the effected groups. For example, after frustration over a screening of American Sniper at the University of Michigan and several other instances of Islamophobia on campus, the president, Mark Schlissel, and vice president of student life, E. Royster Harper, met with multiple representatives from the Arab and Muslim student organizations. There were several issues that this meeting brought to the fore. First, throughout the whole process – the planning stages, during the meeting itself, and afterwards – student participants were unclear as to what the purpose of calling this meeting was. Second, a portion of the meeting required the students to clarify the differences between Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim; this not only highlighted the lack of awareness on behalf of the meeting organizers in knowing who they invited, but also signaled to the students that the administrators were not invested enough to do the minimum to prepare themselves for the meetings. Rather, they intended on having us provide them with all the information. After the conclusion of the meeting, most students left feeling as though nothing had come of it. We voiced our frustrations, but when we asked for concrete steps or actions to expect from the administration when another incident occurred, we received inconclusive and roundabout answers. Our initial frustrations were confirmed some months after the meeting when another Islamophobic incident occurred and Schlissel penned a response. The response included a reference to this earlier meeting, claiming it was part of “ongoing discussions with Arab, Muslim, and MENA students about the campus climate for several months. After sharing our narratives and the complexities of existing as MENA and/or Muslim and/or Arab students on campus, we as a collective never received any feedback from that meeting, but Schlissel was still able to take this meeting and present it to the entire student body as an example of “honest” attempts to address campus climate.

            The Michigan example is just one of many. For students of color, especially those involved in organizing and activism, they often have to walk this tight rope of balancing the need to be heard with the realization that any meetings or knowledge presented would be used for other aims than to address the issues at hand. But where is that line drawn; how much engagement should students take on with administrations? That is a question that students and communities must answer for themselves.

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