New online resource offers teachers wealth of Middle East material

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Students in high schools and colleges around the country can get a much richer look at the history and culture of the Middle East through a new online resource, Teaching the Middle East, which includes articles written by University of Chicago faculty on topics ranging from prehistory through the development of modern states.

Teaching the Middle East Website

“It has never been more important for Americans to understand the Middle East, and the ways that its history and religions have shaped — and continue to shape — the modern world,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. The Oriental Institute developed the site in collaboration with the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and its eCUIP Digital Library Project, as a result of a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Stein said the website “provides an invaluable tool for secondary school teachers as well as college faculty to develop courses and curricula about this crucial region. The essays on the website are written by some of the world’s leading experts on the Middle East—they present clear, well-written overviews of the most important topics that will be of use to teachers throughout the country.” 

The resource is divided into modules and designed as supporting material for teaching classes in world history, said Wendy Ennes, Associate Head of Public Education and the Project Manager for the Oriental Institute, who helped prepare the site. In addition to essays by University faculty members, the resource also has lesson plans and guiding questions created by Chicago-area high school teachers. 

“We got the idea about six years ago as high school social studies teachers were telling us that there just wasn’t anything available in one place on the Internet to teach the history of the Middle East,” said Ennes. “What was out there was fragmentary and seemed to be written from a particular point of view. We wanted to create an online resource that would be comprehensive and also objective.”

A working group of faculty from the Oriental Institute and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies decided on topics to cover, drawing heavily from the broad expertise at the University, and a group of top-notch high school teachers were identified to serve as advisors. In addition to the essays, the site has links additional resources from across the Web including books, primary sources, maps and interactive items. Each module in the resource also includes a bank of 15 copyright-free photos that are available for use by teachers and students for educational purposes.

The modules included in the resource are “The Geography of the Middle East,” “The Origins of Civilization,” “The Golden Age of Islam,” “The Middle East as a Net Exporter of Religion,” “Writing and Literature,” “Rulership and Justice,” “The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion and Gender,” “Empires to Nation-States,” and “The Middle East as Seen through Foreign Eyes.”

Because so many of the misunderstandings about the Middle East emerge from stereotyping, most of the modules have an essay addressing and dispelling specific stereotypes. Fred Donner, Professor in Near Eastern Studies and Director of the Middle East Studies Center, wrote essays on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the module, “The Middle East as a Net Exporter of Religion.”

In the essay on anti-Semitism, he explained why Christians developed negative attitudes towards Jews and how the establishment of the state of Israel fueled anti-Semitism among Muslims. His essay on Islamophobia traces the origins of hostility towards Muslims to the Middle Ages when Islamic advances threatened European nations.

Another essay by John Woods, Professor in History, and Alexander Barna, Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, looks at the threat perceived oil wealth of the Arab world has on Americans and points out that some people feel that wealth contributed to the events of 9/11.

One of the teachers who contributed to the Middle East teaching resource was Laura Wangerin, who provided lesson plans as well as insights from an instructor’s perspective when she taught history at the Latin School of Chicago.

Wangerin wanted visual material for her students and also liked being able to connect them with original sources.

“Students tend to be trusting of the Web, and there is quite a bit out there of various degrees of reliability. You could send them to do research on a cylinder seal, for instance, and they could come up with a wide variety of entries. I think it’s important to have someplace on the Web that is reliable,” said Wangerin, who is now a graduate student in medieval history at the University of Wisconsin.

Wangerin said the site is also useful because it provides the historical background students need to understand contemporary issues. “We would have discussions about the Middle East and students would wonder which side was right when both sides claimed to be right. This site helps students understand where nations are coming from with their positions.”

Source: EurekAlert! [March 01, 2011]

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