How do you teach the Arab Spring?

Photo for How do you teach the...

Michele Dunne, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, lectures from UC Washington, DC. (Photo: Cody Saleh, CMED.)

By Cody Saleh, Center for Middle East Development

“How do you teach the Arab Spring?” That was the question we asked ourselves six months ago when Professor of Political Science and Center for Middle East Development (CMED) Director Steven Spiegel finally agreed to take on a new class, after much haranguing from his graduate students. The subject needed—begged—to have its own class, but scarcely could a book be ordered, articles assigned, and slides prepared before some new event would change the course of Middle East politics (again).

How can you keep up with, much less teach, a class about an unfolding series of events whose consequences and significance are still unknown? The very name “Arab Spring” continues to be debated in some circles (a pet peeve of one of our speakers, it turns out).

Spiegel explains, “The problem I faced in designing [the] course was the freshness of the subject, which changed daily. And I believed strongly that individual country problems required specific answers and discussions with analysts dealing with these issues on an ongoing basis.”

The answer turned out to be elegant and simple: bring in the experts.  

“In a standard class on U.S.-Middle East relations, students are exposed to the views of people who analyze U.S foreign policy. In this class, you heard directly from people whose analysis informs U.S. foreign policy. Everybody in this class—students and teachers alike—learned a tremendous amount. It was a privilege to be involved in this undertaking.”

Joshua Saidoff, teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate, UCLA Department of Political Science

To pull it off, CMED had to get tech savvy. As far back as August 2012, the idea of videoconferencing was floating around CMED as something we should “look into.” None of the group who worked on the course quite understood what this would entail; hardly any professors outside of the School of Engineering at UCLA had taken advantage of this technology. By November of last year, we were testing the connection between the videoconferencing facility at UCLA and the UC Washington Center, our counterpart 2,600 miles away in Washington, DC. It looked incredible and enabled a speaker to see and interact with a class and professor at UCLA. Spiegel adds, “I tried it once from Washington and it felt just like I was in Perloff 1102 [UCLA].”

While gaining experience with the technology, Spiegel and his teaching assistants Benjamin Radparvar and Joshua Saidoff cobbled together a syllabus. The 18 classes of an hour and 15 minutes each would cover the countries of the Arab Spring and the themes that they presented (see below).

Next came the selection of the experts. Their backgrounds spanned the breadth of political, academic and governmental institutions, from the State Department to think tanks like the Atlantic Council, from professors at the University of San Diego and George Washington University to our own UCLA graduate students, professors and CMED scholars.

“The sense of being together added to our ability to actually have a discussion, and not just a lecture,” remarks Spiegel. “First I engaged the speaker, and then members of the class asked questions and made comments. Remarkably, no guest bombed; all added to our collective knowledge and many students told me it was their most intriguing classroom experience at UCLA.”

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, and Professor Spiegel lecture from Washington, DC. (Photo: Cody Saleh, CMED.)

Lessons learned

Videoconference lecturing is not for everyone. While the speaker and the class can see and hear one another, it takes a bit of learning to speak into a camera. The time limitation of an hour and 15 minutes also left little time to introduce a speaker and allow him or her to get comfortable with the technology, making two hours a more reasonable time frame. Despite these challenges, and the fact that some of the speakers weren’t necessarily used to lecturing in an academic setting, they adapted quite well.

However, technical difficulties come with the territory. Don Roby of the UCLA A/V Department gave the course excellent support, but a few unforeseeable problems gave us anxiety down to the last second. For professors considering the videoconferencing format for a course, be prepared to improvise. You may need to stand up and do some lecturing to fill the time until a connection is fixed.

Using a roster of invited speakers also means classes are unpredictable. We left it to the speakers to determine how much background information was needed to contextualize current events in their country or topic of expertise. Necessarily, there was a lot of variation among classes because each country addressed by the course has a unique history that influences how the Arab Spring is playing out within its borders. These variations can be problematic for students, who are responsible for deciphering what information is essential and, of course, what will end up on the all-important exam.

In addition, because the team that prepared the course did not know exactly what the speakers would cover, it was difficult to choose assigned readings.

“Being exposed to the top researchers and officials in the country is what UCLA should be about. Not only were the lectures entertaining (most of the time), all of the information was so relevant and applicable that I am able to use it outside of the classroom. . . which is not necessarily something you get from other classes.”

Miri Gold, 3rd-year UCLA undergraduate,
political science major

Finally, the readings occasionally contradicted the speakers or approached an event from a different angle. Yet this kind of inconsistency is useful because it teaches students that considerable disagreement exists over how to interpret an event, especially something as complex as the Arab Spring.

As a result, students learn to be critical of what they read and hear, even from experts. After all, isn’t that the point of an education?

Looking back at the course experience, Spiegel concludes, “Obviously, there are improvements to be made, but in sum, having guests ‘come to lecture’ in class from anywhere in the world enhances the experience. I certainly intend to use the method again where appropriate and useful.”


“International Relations of the Middle East”—Winter 2013 Lecture Schedule

Topic Lecturer
Ottoman Empire to the Arab Spring Professor Steven Spiegel, UCLA
Public Opinion Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, and Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
(Social) Media & Identity Yael Warshel, Visiting Scholar, UCLA Center for Middle East Development
The Arab Spring: An Introduction Avi Spiegel, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of California San Diego, and Fellow, Strauss Center for International Security and Law, University of Texas, Austin
Tunisia, Libya, and the Consulate Attacks Karim Mezran, Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council 
Egypt Karim Haggag, career Egyptian diplomat, and Visiting Professor, Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University
Syria Murhaf Jouejati, Professor of Middle East Studies, NESA Center, National Defense University, and Lecturer in Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
Lebanon Frederic C. Hof, former Special Advisor on the Transition in Syria,
U.S. Department of State
Islamist Movements & the Arab Uprisings Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University, and Nonresident Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Terrorism & the Middle East David Rapoport, UCLA Professor Emeritus of Political Science, and Editor, "Terrorism and Political Violence" (journal)
Iran: From Constitutional Revolution to the Pahlavi Dynasty Benjamin Radparvar, Ph. D. candidate, UCLA Department of Political Science
Iran: Origins of the Revolution to the Rise of the Islamic Republic Benjamin Radparvar
Iran: War with Iraq, Khatami, The Nuclear Issue, the Green Movement and Ahmadinejad Professor Steven Spiegel, UCLA
The GCC: The Arab Spring and the Politics of Survival in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait Judith Yaphe, Distinguished Research Fellow for the Middle East, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, and Lecturer, Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University
Yemen Abdu Alkebsi, Regional Director for Africa and MENA, Center for International Private Enterprise 
Iraq: Was it the First Arab Spring? Judith Yaphe
Obama and the Arab Spring Michele Dunne, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
Turkey & Course Review Asli Bali, Assistant Professor, UCLA School of Law; and Steven Spiegel
An earlier version of this article was originally published on the CMED blog,“The Middle Easterner,” on March 26, 2013.
published icon

Published: Monday, April 1, 2013