Reading for What? And for Whom?

A bit more on what I refer to as the reading problem, inspired by the cultural anthropologist Angela Jenks and a recently-rebroadcast episode of the On Point radio program.

Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.
Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.

Reading has been fundamental to learning for the last 5,000 years, but it’s still an activity that a lot of students avoid whenever possible. So we, as teachers, create a variety of carrots and sticks to get students to read and to read in ways that are beneficial. These carrots and sticks include specifications grading systems, plain old rubrics, and even software tools. I personally expend a lot of mental effort on designing writing assignments that I hope help students improve their analytical reading skills.

Wrapping up my annual summer course on the Middle East inspired me to take a step back from assignment design and look at a more basic question: what should students be reading, given who they are and why they have enrolled in the course? My Middle East course is a bit peculiar: it’s online, only seven weeks long, and for graduate students. A large portion of the students have military or government experience; many of them have worked and even fought wars in some of the locations they study in the course. They tend to be working professionals looking for both a deeper understanding of their interests and a credential that will help them advance their careers. They are not future professors or undergraduates fulfilling a general education requirement.

People often choose required readings for a course on the basis of “coverage” — we define Topics 1 through N as essential to the study of Subject Q, and look for readings that we think address 1 to N. For a survey course on the Middle East, these topics — at U.S. universities — are usually:

  • The brief introductory geographic and pre-modern historical overview.
  • A basic understanding of Islam and its supposed sociocultural effects.
  • The decline of the Ottoman and Safavid empires and European imperialism.
  • Post-independence state-building.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Oil and the USA.
  • Something about “political Islam” (whatever that is), terrorism, and ongoing instability.

For my course, I have always used Westview Press’s A History of the Modern Middle East, by Cleveland and Bunton. It’s a brilliant, well-written synthesis of politics and history. However, the text of the newest edition — excluding notes and index — has crept upward to 556 pages. I also like to assign Reza Aslan’s 266-page No God But God for the topic of Islam.

The length of these two books means that I am not able to assign other readings that might be more pertinent to my students’ interests and futures. For example, while I think it is important for people to know some basic information about the Ottoman era, I don’t think it is necessary for these students to read 200 pages about it. They could very well be better served by reading something that will provide them with a better understanding of the politics behind the Arab Spring and its aftermath, like Rage for Order by Robert F. Worth, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux — which itself clocks in at 272 pages. 

All of this means that I’m now thinking about which topics are the most and least important to my students, rather than the topics that I think must be included to “cover” the subject. It also means that Ellen Lust’s 900+ page The Middle East, from CQ Press, is just too big for students in this course. Instead I am looking at shorter histories, such as James Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East (370 pages), or books that focus on the contemporary period, like James Barr’s Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East (359 pages).

If anyone has any recommendations, please comment.

One thought on “Reading for What? And for Whom?

  1. I often find that think tank reports are good for background, and I often supplement these with a handful of law review and legal journal articles. I’ll be discussing this when I write about our (the Beyond English) CFR Model Diplomacy simulation on the East China Sea.

    In lieu of the legal academy (or as a supplement to the legal academy), what about review articles? There are always the usual suspects: Features in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The Economist, The Guardian, and so on. But beyond these and related newsstand publications, I turn to review articles — to supplement the legal academy. Even give SSRN a try, although I prefer SSRN documents that have already been published or accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed source. (I like peer-review, which is one reason I’m hesitant to use books. I’ve seen too much get past the screening process even with the top university presses. It’s often mere opinion disguised as scholarship.)

    Something else I do: Search the ETH Zurich site in Google Scholar. Use TERM/PHRASE (with or without Boolean operators). Great reports from their site! Even a better first stop than the HKS think tank search.

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