By Rita S. Nezami, Ph. D.
Stony Brook University, New York
As Mohamed Bouazizi’s charred body lay in a hospital bed in Tunisia, I walked into the writing classroom in January 2011 and asked my students at SUNY-Stony Brook what they thought about the young Tunisian man’s self-immolation. They looked at me with blank, bewildered eyes. I could see they had no idea what I was talking about. A month later, as thousands of Egyptians gathered on the Tahrir Square in Cairo, I asked those same students what they thought about the Egyptian protests and the Arab Spring. Again, those blank eyes stared at me. This time, I was bewildered.
I’m perhaps not alone in finding an alarming number of students who are unaware of and unengaged by significant transnational developments, i.e., those that are likely to be widely covered in the worldwide, mainstream press. This witting or unwitting inattention or lack of interest by students is ironic given the cultural and racial diversity in our classrooms.
I want to suggest that, for reasons we don’t fully understand, students severely limit their attention to matters that lie outside their immediate sphere of concern. Yet, there’s something different now: online access. Digital, networked access puts the world and its complexities and the most recent developments in their pockets. The problem is choice: Why do students use the tools of unprecedented connection with events anywhere in the world, yet most use these technologies to build personally customized digital cocoons that keep the world out? Facebook users have a monumental resource to share and inform each other about current global events, yet it appears that young people are mostly interested in finding out what their friends are up, to relieve boredom, or to look at their friends’ photos.
Networked digital technologies could so easily make our students the most deeply informed population in history or political science. The urgent question becomes how our undergraduate writing classrooms can help students recognize the costs of their isolation from issues and debates that will shape their lives and how we can help them acquire the tools to question whether they live in self-imposed attention bubbles? The question is: How do we break the bubbles so that we can open our students’ minds in the classroom and beyond? It’s not an easy task. Yet, I managed to get my students motivated to write about various global issues through fiction. I was able to trigger their interest, for example, by assigning a textual analysis of a novella that tells Bouazizi’s story, whose self-immolation triggered the Arab Spring in the MENA region. After reading about Mohamed’s life and death under corrupt dictatorship, students began to show enormous interest in writing responses and research papers on the Arab Spring revolts, about worldwide corruption, brutal dictatorships, and suicide by self-immolation. By looking online at photographs of Bouazizi’s burning body, students’ interest was further heightened. I believe there are other ways, including visual rhetoric (photographs, films, art work) that we can use to help our students become informed, global citizens. Today I will speak about how I bring the world into the classroom through literature.
Some texts that have generated interest in global issues:
- My Mother, the Crazy African by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria. (Immigrant experience, assimilation, loss of identity and culture)
- By Fire by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Morocco. (The Arab Spring, dictatorship, police harassment, unemployment, self-immolation)
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Pakistan. (Post 9/11 discrimination/racism toward Muslims, racial profiling)
- Leng Lui is for Pretty Lady by Elaine Chiew, Malaysia. (Immigrant workers, cheap labor, human rights abuse)
- The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, Algeria. (Post-Soviet Afghanistan, Taliban terror, fundamentalism, human repression, public execution, individual liberty, human rights abuse, female condition/suffering)
In the Intermediate Writing course that I teach at Stony Brook University, I have students write a textual analysis on a short story that depicts various universal issues. I have noticed that once the class moves on to write their research papers on global issues, they often choose topics that are depicted in the story. After reading By Fire, for example, many students wrote papers on the Arab Spring, corruption, dictatorship, police harassment, self-immolation and unemployment. Students realize that unemployment and police violence are not only concerns in the United States but exist in many other nations. As a result, not only do they become more informed but also more realistic and somewhat humbled by the fact that young people in other countries face harsher realities. At the same time, knowledge about other corners of the world empowers students, making their self-esteem gradually go up as they begin to understand what lies beyond their self-imposed bubbles, what’s happening outside the United States.
My upper division undergraduate course, Writing 302 (International Literature) invites students to evolve their skills as writers by formulating various kinds of responses to literary texts by writers from around the world. By not limiting their readings to texts by writers living exclusively in the West who write in English, students open themselves to the possibilities of responding to the problem of being human in ways other than those conditioned by first-world assumptions formed by American and European culture, media, and politics. They read works in English and English translation.
They begin to see the world through different cultural experiences and rethink their assumptions about priorities, community, identity, suffering, happiness, and humanity. These texts provoke students by challenging their views about the universality of Western perspectives on ethics, economics, politics, freedom, power, and the human good. The acts of reading and writing inform each other. Students read in order to write about their reading, and they reflect on their experience of encountering alien notions of difference. Above all, they look more deeply into themselves. Ultimately, reading globally and writing locally becomes a rewarding, intellectual and stimulating journey into other ways of being, into other worlds, and into global issues.
Based on the interest generated among my students through such a pedagogical approach, I would urge instructors in writing and other disciplines to try this method of bringing the world into their horizon. Perhaps SUNY-Stony Brook’s cultural and racial diversity has helped domestic students engage with international students at a greater level. Once students realize that reading locally and writing globally can offer them a chance to become global and informed citizens, and allow them to travel into other cultures, they become instantly motivated. In fact, I’ve had many students tell me at the semester end, “I’ve applied for my passport. Now I can follow your advice and travel.”