September 10, 2013

Maine college classrooms adapt to Syria spotlight

Teachers are changing their courses and students are tuning in for the news as schools stay topical.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

College students in Maine who are taking Middle East political science courses are watching their textbooks come to life as the United States debates whether to use military force in Syria, professors say.

"My courses are filled with students (who) take my courses because they feel like they know a bit but they don't know enough to understand what is happening," said John Turner, an associate professor who teaches Islamic history and Middle East history at Colby College in Waterville.

The Obama administration is pushing Congress to support a military strike against Syria in response to what it says was a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people.

The headlines are dominating class discussions, said professor Ali Adbullatif Ahmida, chair of the political science department at the University of New England in Biddeford.

"The first thing in class, we go over the news," said Ahmida, who is teaching a course in comparative social revolutions this semester. "I just try to get my students to feel comfortable, and see how much they know about it."

Many of the students "didn't follow the news closely" and now are trying to take in the shifting landscape. In that way, they are very much like most Americans, he said.

"Most people have not followed Syria very closely," he said. "But needless to say, the issue is becoming more and more interesting to my students.

"There is a mixed reaction. Some of them are very apprehensive," he said.

The events in Syria are so current that the political and religious upheaval is being incorporated into courses that were planned previously.

There may be a teach-in on Syria later this year at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, said Reza Jalali, USM's coordinator of multicultural student affairs.

The school held a teach-in on Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011, and another is scheduled on Iran in November.

Turner said he expects to alter his course on modern Middle East history in the spring semester at Colby to reflect the upheaval in Syria.

"I will, of course, talk a lot more about Syria than I have in the past," he said. Last year, Egypt was in the headlines and dominated the class discussions.

Eric Hooglund, a retired political science professor who taught at Bates and Bowdoin colleges and lived and taught in Syria over his 45-year career, said his students always came in with passionate opinions but "lots of stereotypes" about the Middle East.

"It's fascinating, how they read these books (in class) and they get a whole new perspective," he said.

Hooglund, who helped organize a vigil in Monument Square in Portland on Monday night to oppose a U.S. military response, said, "Syria is a very difficult situation and it cries out for a diplomatic solution."

Hooglund said he supports Secretary of State John Kerry's proposal to wind down tensions in Syria. Kerry said Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could resolve the crisis by turning over "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of this week.

"It's never too late for diplomacy," Hooglund said. "I think (Kerry's proposal) is something serious to consider. And when Kerry backtracks on that, I've lost all respect for him."

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com 

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