Adapting to the New Term and New Landscape

It sounds like there will be some form of in-person courses for the fall semester based on a recent conversation of President Sands with local business community members. This strikes me as an interesting and likely optimal scenario for everyone involved.

On the one hand, the businesses and town of Blacksburg relies upon the influx of students for nine months out of the year. This influx of students brings a lot of life and commerce to campus and the surrounding town.

For the students (particularly undergraduates), there is likely a keen interest in returning to some degree of normalcy. Blacksburg is a great place to be a student. That said, that sense of normalcy will be different.

At a personal (and perhaps a bit selfish) level, I am interested in teaching a hybrid course. I think it would be an interesting challenge and new way to experiment with instruction.

This also makes me think about all of the ways that Blacksburg, campus, the lives of students, all of us, really, as well as instruction and higher education more broadly will be radically different come the fall. What will a classroom setting look like? What will the library be like? What will the students be like? Let’s just hope it’s as rewarding!

Changing Landscape of Higher Education

While I think everyone has been processing the rapid pace of change over the past two months, one of the most striking developments for me was the closure of MacMurray College.

I grew up in St. Louis, so the school was not very far. While I did not know much about MacMurray, it was a school that I had heard about or was at least familiar with in name. Now, I knew that the school did not have a large enrollment, but nevertheless, the recognition of its proximity and familiarity made the closure all the more profound.

It also was a bit foreboding. With all of the changes going on in the current moment, it makes one wonder whether more colleges and perhaps larger universities will close or at least drastically scale back offerings. For example, could Virginia Tech cancel all humanities and social sciences to focus exclusively on engineering and hard sciences?

These questions seemed so far-fetched until only in the recent weeks. This sense of uncertainty and fluidity leads me to think about all of the other potential scenarios that could play out. Either way, my sense is that all of us will be responding to this changing situation in any number of ways for the foreseeable future.

A Seat at the Table

In “A Call to the Administration: A Student Perspective on Next Semester,” the author, a junior at Harvard, outlines the reasons for why students should have a seat at the table for the discussions about whether the university should open. 

While the crux of the argument is to be open for next Fall, the idea that students should have a seat the table made me consider the importance of student perspective on such an impactful decision. How could this be achieved? Should there be through student representatives? Or perhaps it could be comprised of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from different colleges and units? The possibilities are endless, but the idea seems like a valid one to include in the planning for the fall term. 

This also made me consider how students contribute to some of the most important decisions to affect the campus? I realize there is GSA, but I wonder if there are other ways to include student participation either at the department level or at the aggregate institutional level? It strikes me that students should have a seat the table in some way, shape, or form. 


In-class or Online Courses for the Fall?

The question of whether to have in-person courses or to have online sessions next year is a question that has been on the minds of most people in higher education in recent weeks. The letter by Purdue University President has stuck out for the assumptions displayed. 

He claims that COVID-19 is a “near 0% lethal threat” to people under 35. But what about those who are immunocompromised or immuno-suppressed? The claim is that steps will be taken to separate the over 35 population. While I appreciate the boldness of the ideas and interest in trying to find ways to manage the changing situation, I hope there has been adequate consideration for the contingency planning in the event a large number of students fall ill. 

The letter seems to suggest COVID-19 is something that can be managed. There are aspects of it that are controllable, but not how a mass of student bodies may respond. I think the most important side of the management entails consideration for what would happen with widepsread infection. Are the facilities able to accommodate the influx of patients? Can facilities be prepared in a matter of days or hours, in the event that there is an outbreak? 

While I applaud the “can do” attitude of the president, prudence and careful consideration for managing different sides of this issue, including potential worst-case scenarios, are needed now more than ever. It is urgent that President Daniels and his colleagues express an ability to handle those potential scenarios of an overrun health system rather than to assume that the entire situation can be managed through contact tracing to prevent such an outbreak.

Using Technology for New Voices

I relish the opportunity to have guest speakers in the classroom. Guest speakers add a different perspective and bring a new personality to a given topic. They also often provide a deep dive into a specific topic. I view this as vitally important in the context of teaching the 20th century history of the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict courses.

One of the challenges that I face at a personal level in teaching these topics is how to push students to question their assumptions about the region. This means that I usually start the semester with passages from Edward Said’s Orientalism and probe the relationship between history and memory as a way to disrupt power dynamics within assumptions about hierarchies of sources (i.e., archives as more credible and oral histories). In a past semester, some students had a negative experience with one of the guests, which led me to stop including guest speakers for any classes I taught.

However, the shift to asynchronous instruction this semester provided the opportunity to reintegrate guest speakers for the semester. I realized the power of these guest speakers this past week when two students joined in on the optional call with a Palestinian living within 1948 Israel. The students are permitted to use the conversation as the primary source for an assignment, if they so choose.

The conversation struck me as remarkable, not merely because Razi, the guest speaker,  spoke about his earliest recollections, experiences, and tensions growing up Palestinian within 1948 Israel. But this it was also remarkable, because the technology brought the students closer, they had a common experience in the current moment. Toward the end of the discussion, they discussed the what each of them were experiencing as an undergraduate student living in the current extraordinary moment.

While I don’t think of myself as a luddite or someone opposed to technology in the classroom, I think of technology as a tool to be used, this was one instance in which I realized the potential for technology to form human connections that I would not otherwise be be able to make.

Making the most of our current situation?

One of the questions that has stuck with me since we first transitioned to the online instructional platform was: how to use the current situation as a learning opportunity?

While I shifted some writing assignments to grant a bit more flexibility to write on COVID-19, I am still a bit conflicted. I was left wondering, what if one of the students had a family member who was ill from COVID-19 or someone close to them passed away because of it? Would that make them want to write on this topic? It could have the opposite effect in that they may be resistant and need a bit of escapism through focusing on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers Coup or the tensions in the availability of water within the Middle East.

the more I thought about this, the more I feel that “using” COVID-19 and our current moment as a learning moment is not fair. Certainly we should be able to offer this as an assignment for students to examine and investigate, but the experience with the pandemic could be too raw or even beyond what we can grasp as painful.

These questions and where I landed with this answer speak to how we are all processing and experiencing the pandemic in our own ways. While we may be all having a shared experience of a transformed life, whether it be living with family in Northern Virginia, physical distancing in the comforts of our homes, or on working in a grocery store, each of us has different experiences and, thus it seems necessary to grant a degree of flexibility and understanding about how students are coping with the circumstances.

The Limits of Asynchronous Learning: Building Solidarity and Connection through Online Learning

“What does that sign say in the background?” was a question posed by a student last Friday during an optional discussion session. The object hanging on my wall is not something that I ever anticipated being asked about by a student. This situation reminded me of how the instructional setting and pedagogy have changed in light of the COVID-19 crisis.


There is a kind of intimacy but also distance with instruction. I recorded lectures in my apartment in Blacksburg – they see me in t-shirt and sweatshirt outlining the impact of the Six-Day War. They see my home décor as well as the printer, where I printed off handouts that I would distribute in class. Similarly, students are watching them at their homes or the homes of their parents. The shared, communal space of the classroom and Blacksburg as a meeting ground is a relic of what now seems like a distant past.


Due to the crisis, I followed the advice of most recommendations from the Dept of History by transitioning to an asynchronous course based on modules that I created by consolidated readings each week accompanied by smaller assignments, such as blog entries. The asynchronous approach also meant that students could work through the materials at their own pace. This seems fair, because none of us know what our students are dealing with, and thus the asynchronous approach seemed most responsive to those needs. For all I know, some of the students could be dealing with the trauma of a loved one being affected by COVID-19.


Yet I also wanted to ensure that students have access to me in a semi-structured format, so I included optional discussion sessions during our scheduled class time on Fridays. While I did not have a huge turnout at the last discussion – six people out of 36 – at least two of the students indicated that they missed the experience of having discussions or the classroom setting. They explained that all of their classes had moved to asynchronous instruction, and thus, left them feeling disconnected from the classroom setting.


This was particularly eye-opening or me. I should have known that we learn as social beings, we learn from each other and those who have come before us through the knowledge they produced. Yet in our currently quarantined situation, students lost access to direct forms of social engagement. While it is not my place to inquire into their mental wellbeing in a setting such as a classroom discussion, this encounter helped me to better grasp a key challenge some students may be facing. They simply do not have the coping tools to manage the changing circumstances of being disconnected from friends, family, or possibly the places that have become familiar over the course of the past few months or years.


This was a disheartening realization of the issues students face, but also motivating. How could I encourage participation in the optional online sessions, but also make them worthwhile? It inspired me to try to find ways to pull in students for engaging discussions. To do so, I drew upon colleagues and former students who are facing similar situations in the Middle East North Africa region. To facilitate discussion and to encourage greater participation in an online discussion, I plan to facilitate discussions with former students around the region for the remainder of the semester as extra credit opportunities. Those that I approached expressed a lot of curiosity as to how US students are coping with the current situation.

This Friday I will have a Palestinian from Gaza currently living in a small college town south of Milan join the optional online discussion as an extra credit opportunity (students attend the whole session, then write a one page reflection paper on it for two points). He is a former student that I have been checking-in on over the past month or so, and his university semester was canceled, so he is quite literally stuck in lockdown in Pavia, but even if he could leave, he would have difficulties returning to Gaza and there would be questions of him leaving again.


While they will discuss his experience growing up in Palestine – the course I teach is 20th century history of the middle east – they will also be able to hopefully forge some kind of personal connection related to the shared challenges of dealing with the changing circumstances of the current crisis. The hope is that it could build bridges of solidarity and hopefully, empower each of them to “share” the challenges they face, not for me or even less so for their education, but in order to develop the requisite tools to handle learning in the current crisis. I feel like that sense of solidarity and connection are increasingly important as we spend more atomized time in front of a screen.

SPECTRA: An Interdisciplinary Journal Close to Home

I chose to focus a journal close to home in SPECTRA, a graduate student-run, blind, peer-reviewed journal that focuses on open-access interdisciplinary scholarship. I am one of the current coeditors of the journal, and thus have a personal and professional investment in it. The journal is based at Virginia Tech, specifically it is coedited by ASPECT graduate students on an annual basis.

I have been the coeditor for an issue last year and will be again for one this year.  It has been an interesting experience to serve as coeditor, however, there is a lot more than could be done with the journal. Mostly, we are understaffed: every student in ASPECT teaches one course as well as takes classes (for ~2 years) or is preparing for their proposal defense, comprehensive exams, the oral defense of their exams, or is writing their dissertation.

This means we are always a bit stretched thin, and similarly, the incentives for serving as a coeditor is twofold. First, it is a good experience to see the inner-workings of a blind, peer-review process. Second, it is also useful to include on a CV. Nevertheless, the role certainly seems like it is in addition to all of the other forms of service, teaching, or research on my existing plate.

The journal is open access based on the “principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge (About Page).” The journal does not note a specific “purpose” or “goals”, but includes a “Focus and Scope” page, which explains that the aim is to “highlight the power of interdisciplinary work and provide a platform for scholars to work across disciplines and experiment methodologically.” This section also explicitly notes that the journal seeks to “explore controversial topics and take intellectual risks.”

The journal publishes “critically oriented articles, book reviews, film and popular reviews, artwork, and interviews”. The primary type of submissions or publications are peer-reviewed journal articles and book reviews, however, the last issue included an interview with an interdisciplinary scholar.

I like the note of critically-oriented, however, I wonder the extent to which that is understood by people who are considering a submission. I feel like some of the language is helpful, but it is also a bit vague. That may, in fact, be a product of these kind of statements so as to allow for a maximum range of submissions.

All past issues are open access and fall under a creative commons license, although it is unclear how frequently specific articles, reviews, or other materials are republished. We have not had one republished during my tenure.

I should also note that SPECTRA has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with ASPECT and Virginia Tech in that the coeditors have been ASPECT students since the first issue in 2011. However, the majority of the articles, reviews, and other materials tend to come from ASPECT or Virginia Tech students, although there are usually 2-3 authors from different universities in each issue. Yet clearly more could be done in terms of publicizing it, however, the coeditors are not compensated for their efforts and there is little institutional infrastructure outside of the library support services, which handles the hosting, indexing, and typesetting.

On the whole, the journal is open access, however, much more could be done to publicize and support it. Yet doing so almost requires someone exclusively dedicated to developing the profile of the journal. I just know that in my own experience, it is a useful and fulfilling experience, but one that is limited by the available time and resources.

This makes me question the extent to which other open access journals face similar issues. How do departments or institutions support other open access journals? I know without the help of the library, the SPECTRA website would look a lot less professional. This makes me grateful, but also a bit concerned. What happens if that relationship changes? Similarly, what is the institutional or departmental relationships between journals that are behind a paywall?

Research Ethics: A Shared Responsibility

Ricky Malhotra (2016)

The respondent falsified and fabricated data included in three NIH grant applications, one grant progress report, one publication, and seven presentations, and one image file.

This case was a bout the fabrication of data and the writing up of those results. While the explanation of the case was a bit too technical (i.e., “45 experiments that examined phosphorylated JNK or Mitogen-activated protein kinase 4 (MMK4) expression in mN/SF exposed to UV light, H2O2, cadmium, or anisomycin, when the experiments were not performed.), however, there are some relevant points to take away and reflect upon.

The notion that data would be fabricated is likely a product of a convergence of factors not limited to the fault of the student. This is not to suggest that the student is not to blame, but I think such transgressions are as much a reflection of a faulty system as it is poor judgment.

I have a lot of questions that I would like to pose to the student not limited to why he would fabricate data. What pressures or challenges pushed him to think that the fabrication of data was acceptable? Bottom line, we all know what’s wrong and right, I would argue that we are put or put ourselves in positions that lead to poor judgments. While I acknowledge it was a choice, it was also a product of circumstances. I would be curious to learn a bit more about how all of this started.

Because, judging from the separate breaches, there was a bit of inertia in this particular case playing out over time. Dr. Malhotra fabricated three NIH grant applications, a publication, seven presentations, etc. These transgressions played out over the course of several months and years, which suggests that this fabrication grew to have a life of its own and became a kind of reality for the researcher. Why would he just not confront this fabrication?

I pose the above questions, because I pose a similar question to how architectural preservationists relate to their practice of preserving what were produced as racialized spaces during 20th century colonialism in cities, such as Casablanca. In other words, if the basis of your knowledge was founded upon a kind of structural (and material) violence, then how do you – as an individual – navigate those structural legacies to the inherited violence upon which your expertise rests?

The answer to the above questions came in the form of the “Undark” blog, which offers a bit more detail on the Malhotra case. In 2007, he confessed that “For the last 9-10 months I have been living under this huge cloud of guilt and wanted to confess my misdoing but for some inexplicable reasons I could not gather the courage to do so.” The inexplicable reasons were certainly due to a lack of courage, but also a lack of appropriate mechanisms or forums in place to address this issue at a department or institutional level.

Yet the issue with Dr. Malhotra spans well beyond one specific instance of poor judgment. When Dr. Malhotra made the poor decision at the University of Michigan in 2007, the university delayed the submission of the materials to Office of Research Integrity (ORI) until 2010. Thus Dr. Malhotra was able to secure a new job as an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Chicago, where he continued to fabricate data until 2016, nine years after the initial infraction.

In other words, the lapse in personal judgment and lack of institutional capacity allowed for the continued breaches. How could this happen at such an individual and systemic level?

This brings me back to the point that this issue is both a product of circumstance and poor judgment. If institutions, particularly R1 institutions, are committed to eliminating such situations, then more investment in cultivating departmental or institutional mechanisms to address these issues. Whether we like it or not, we individual researchers need to be more honest with ourselves about the challenges we face or encounter as much as departments and institutions need to consider spaces for such matters to be addressed. Otherwise, such situations seem unlikely to end.


Mission: A Snapshot of Institutions and their Aspirations

A mission statement, as I understand it, should define what an institution aims to achieve and for whom those achievements are to be made possible. One of the interesting points for reflection is in the extent to which these statements reflect both a current snapshot of the institution and speak to their wider aspirations.

A comparison of two mission statements of institutions of higher education offers insights on what is and is not prioritized toward the aspirations. This reflection will focus on the two mission statements of American University of Beirut (AUB) and Gettysburg College (see each below).

An interesting facet about these statements is that the location of each university is within the name of each institution. This eliminates the need to clarify the location within the mission statement. However, AUB, which is chartered in New York State, makes a point to state this as well as to indicate that the institution was chartered in 1863. Such a statement would not be necessary in the case of Gettysburg College, whereas in the case of AUB this lends credibility and clarifies the credentialing and preparation for study beyond Lebanon.

Both institutions situate the geographic scope of their institutions. The AUB mission statement indicates that it “serves[s]the peoples of the Middle East and beyond,” whereas Gettysburg College notes that the institution “prepares students from across the nation and around the globe”. The greater specificity in the case of AUB could relate to the fact they aspire to be a leading institution in the Middle East, rather than merely within Lebanon. Moreover, the AUB statement does not mention Lebanon; this could be due to the intent to frame the institution as being notable in the wider region, rather than just Lebanon. Furthermore, this could also speak to the student population; as a former graduate student, I can attest that the student body hails from both Lebanon and across the region.

On the other hand, the Gettysburg College statement does not mention Pennsylvania or even Gettysburg – perhaps because it is within the name itself. At the same time, this could speak to the aim to draw in students from around the nation and world. Moreover, I find it interesting that the statement invokes “nation” rather than just America or the United States. As one would learn in Political Science 101, a nation is separate from a state apparatus in that the nation is a group bound by language, shared historical experiences, notions of identity that does not have territorial sovereignty (Kurdistan is a notable example).

A point worth noting is the type of institution, education it offers, and population it seeks to serve. The mission statement for American University of Beirut makes note that it is an American-chartered university that connects knowledge production, research, and education. On the other hand, the mission statement for Gettysburg College notes that it is a residential undergraduate liberal arts and sciences college. It is interesting that AUB does not mention undergraduate or graduate studies, but points to “graduates” that presumably would apply to both undergraduate and graduate students, whereas Gettysburg is explicit about the focus of the institution being on undergraduate students in the mission statement.

A further point worth considering is the invocation of “citizenship”, “leadership”, and “profession” in the statements. Both statements note citizenship and leadership. Gettysburg notes “effective leadership” and “socially responsible citizenship”, whereas AUB notes “leadership” and “civic responsibility”. While this could speak to more buzzword-type phrases relevant to the time when these statements were drafted (AUB 2019) and (GC 2016), it could also speak to what each institution views as needed for the wider societies.

Lastly, the AUB statement makes no mention of “professional”, whereas the Gettysburg College statement notes “personal and professional fulfillment” as one of the intended student outcomes. This could speak to the variance in the notion of “professional” for the institution’s students or in the wider fact that as an undergraduate and graduate university would opt to underscore research or academic-oriented credentials.

This could also speak to different interpretations of what potential roles could be available to graduates. AUB stresses “life-long learning”, but makes not mention of professional preparation. This could be in part, due to the aim to ensure that the statement addresses graduate students aiming for professional advancement within higher education.

In total, I took away that the language within the statement matters. It both reflects both the current situation as well as the aspirations of the university or college.


American University of Beirut

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is an institution of higher learning founded to provide excellence in education, to participate in the advancement of knowledge through research, and to serve the peoples of the Middle East and beyond. Chartered in New York State in 1863, the university bases its educational philosophy, standards, and practices on the American liberal ​arts model of higher education. The university believes deeply in and encourages freedom of thought and expression and seeks to foster tolerance and respect for diversity and dialogue. Graduates will be individuals committed to creative and critical thinking, life-long learning, personal integrity, civic responsibility, and leadership.

Gettysburg College

Gettysburg College is a residential, undergraduate college of the liberal arts and sciences that prepares students from across the nation and around the globe to pursue lives of personal and professional fulfillment and to engage the complex questions of our time through effective leadership and socially responsible citizenship.

This statement is grounded in the core values of the institution:

  • The worth and dignity of all people and the limitless value of their intellectual potential;
  • The commitment to a diverse and inclusive learning environment;
  • The power of a liberal arts education to help students develop critical thinking skills, broad vision, effective communication, a sense of the inter-relatedness of all knowledge, sensitivity to the human condition, and a global perspective, all necessary to enable students to realize their full potential for responsible citizenship;
  • The enrichment of the traditional liberal arts and sciences curriculum with the most promising intellectual developments of our time;
  • The free and open exchange of ideas and the exploration of their ethical and spiritual dimensions;
  • The value of a lifelong commitment to service, and the role of the College in both providing an example of public service for students and fostering a commitment to service among our young people;
  • The value of ethical leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and directed towards effecting change for the greater good;
  • Our conviction that a residential college best promotes the sense of community, central to a liberal arts education, in which personal relationships between students, faculty, and staff can flourish.