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Vinay Gidwani

Vinay Gidwani, professor of geography, teaches a one-credit course on "The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy: Alternative Voices."

Alternative voices spark debate

IGS-sponsored speaker series and course on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East promotes critical thinking--and riles critics

By Jim Thorp

Oct. 24, 2006

Not a day goes by that the airwaves aren't full of news from the Middle East. With so much information so easily accessible, why would 44 students commit to extra reading and class time for a single-credit course that doesn't count toward their majors?

Vinay Gidwani is teaching the one-credit class that stems from the Institute for Global Studies (IGS) speaker series The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy: Alternative Voices." Organizers expected 15 to 20 students to sign up for the class--but demand has been more than twice that.

"The degree of interest suggests that there is a population of students who want to confront, understand and engage with current geopolitical events that affect us all," says Gidwani, an associate professor of geography with the University of Minnesota's Institute for Global Studies.

And while the initiative has been criticized as unbalanced, he counters that academia has an obligation to engage students in exploring all perspectives.

"There has been some criticism that the Israeli mainstream perspective is missing," Gidwani says. "While I am respectful of this critique, Israel's point of view and security concerns are very well known and acknowledged. U.S. foreign policy is closely aligned with Israel's interests, and this is precisely the mainstream perspective students encounter in most media coverage and international relations courses on the topic."

Views from abroad The aptly named series and class purposefully offers different perspectives than those typically represented in the media--but the series doesn't revolve around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It is the critical task of academia to expose students to the full gamut of views, to confront ideas and questions--however uncomfortable--that cannot be discussed and debated with the same patience and rigor elsewhere."

"The series not only includes alternative voices to the mainstream Israeli narrative--and let's remember that Jeff Halper, the second speaker in the series, is an Israeli citizen who has lived in that country and worked in its peace movement since 1973--but also alternative views on the mainstream U.S. narrative (Joseph Margulies on Guantanamo and the rule of law) and the mainstream Lebanese narrative (Rami Khouri, Hisham Bizri and Carol Hakim, who have close ties to Lebanon and are tough critics of Hezbollah)," says Gidwani.

"The recent war in Lebanon is only the latest development that North Americans have struggled to understand," explains fellow geography professor Bruce Braun, one of the faculty organizers of the speaker series and companion course. "While these events have been debated widely in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, there has been much less room for alternative voices in the United States and Canada, as evident in the unanimous vote in support of Israel in the U.S. Senate and the recent statement by the Canadian deputy prime minister likening Hezbollah to the Nazi Party of the 1930s."

Gidwani says that exploring the historical and political underpinnings of U.S. support for Israel, or the origins of Hezbollah and whether or not it can be compared to German National Socialism, provides students with key insights into events and U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Responsibility and responsiveness The purpose is not to single out one country as primarily responsible for conflict in the Middle East. "The underlying premise of the course is that it is the critical task of academia to expose students to the full gamut of views, to confront ideas and questions--however uncomfortable--that cannot be discussed and debated with the same patience and rigor elsewhere."

Global Studies at the U
Formed in 1998, the Institute for Global Studies has two primary responsibilities:

- Oversight of the Global Studies undergraduate curriculum

- Programmatic activities including research collaboratives, symposia, workshops and classes

The institute's interdisciplinary focus reflects the diversity and complexity of most issues that are global in scope, and IGS shares faculty with departments including geography, history, anthropology, sociology, American studies and women's studies.

Students in the Global Studies major must choose:

- A thematic concentration (Culture, Power, Place; Environment and Sustainable Development; Governance, Peace and Justice in a Global Context; International Political Economy; or Population, Migration, and Identity)

- A regional focus (Africa, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, Russia or South Asia).

IGS facilitates this type of exploration by bringing together a small group faculty from across disciplines to interact and discuss the big issues of the day. Institute faculty can often respond more quickly to critical problems and current events than their collective departments or colleges could--making it possible to organize a speaker series and course in a matter of several weeks.

"A one-credit course in response to current events has a certain novelty and significance for students that standard courses do not," Gidwani explains. "The challenge is finding an instructor and an institutional platform with advising resources (such as IGS) to launch the course."

Such courses represent an overload for the instructor (above and beyond the typical two-course teaching load), but "enough instructors care sufficiently about certain issues that this is not an intractable hurdle," he says.

"In the case of the Alternative Voices course, many people have been involved in making the course possible. Setting readings on a week-to-week basis gives the course built-in flexibility that allows it to respond to changing events on the ground, if necessary."

Gidwani credits faculty members Braun, Michael Goldman (Sociology and IGS), Simona Sawhney (Asian Languages and Literatures) and Rachel Schurman (Sociology and IGS), and IGS staff Evelyn Davidheiser (director), Klaas Van der Sanden (International Studies Title VI grant coordinator), Amy Selvius and Allison Lindberg as instrumental to the success of the current program.

In the end, student engagement matters most. At the outset, Gidwani told them, "No issue--controversial or not--shall be left off the table: indeed, it is our collective responsibility to use this privileged academic space to discuss without squeamishness the full gamut of issues that confront us and as they affect U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

"At the end of the semester, I don't expect or want you to agree with me. Agree or disagree, what I want from you foremost are intellectual rigor and passion."

Further Reading Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jeff Halper at U of M The Prospects for Peace in the Middle East Film screenings by Arab directors are part of four-day event at U