Bringing Experience In Activism to the Classroom

December 19, 2013

Veronika Edwards

She knows because she was there.

When it comes to learning about current issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Oberlin College students have a rare resource in Associate Professor of History Zeinab Abul-Magd, whose classes range from survey courses of Islamic states to seminars focused on the recent Arab uprisings.

Going home to Cairo each year, gives Abul-Magd an insider’s look at the pulse of the city, as well as greater Egypt, allowing her to provide her students with personal insights about her experiences in Egypt and, thanks to her close involvement with the Egyptian public, provide up-to-date information on the sentiments of the Egyptian populace.

While Abul-Magd was in Cairo during her fall 2011 sabbatical leave, revolution began in Egypt. She then took leave for the entire 2011-12 academic year to stay in Cairo, protesting in the street, involving herself in sit-ins and marches while working to mobilize youth groups in her hometown.

At the start of the revolution, Abul-Magd was involved solely in street-resistance. But quickly she realized the value of her knowledge as an academic. “So I thought, this should be my contribution to the revolution,” she says, “…to use my knowledge and to use my research and writing abilities to resist the existing military regime.”

When she returned to her Oberlin classroom, she found that her experiences during the revolution caused a dramatic shift in her teaching methods. Because of the weight of the Egyptian revolution on the country’s greater history, Abul-Magd felt that historical classes ought to be brought to the contemporary moment. Living through the events of the revolution in Egypt pushed her to revise the material she typically assigns in her classes. “It forced me to find more lively material, more up-to-date material, material that really reflects what is happening in the region … [to] help the students make sense of things today.”

Abul-Magd believes firmly in the importance of on-the-ground research . “You’re not just sitting in your office and reading articles, reading books. You actually see things for yourself, touch things for yourself, you talk to the people who make the history … the people who create the course of change.” Speaking of her many interactions with Egyptian activists, Abul-Magd says that an often forgotten but crucial element in historical and political research is involvement in activism. She feels that is crucial to build more nuanced and complex opinions on political issues.

Elizabeth Kuhr, a senior history major with a MENA studies minor has experienced this shift in Abul-Magd’s teachings. “I took her class on the Arab Spring and for almost every single country she covered, a huge section of it would come from her own experience.” Kuhr does not take for granted her advantage in being able to take Professor Abul-Magd’s classes as a MENA studies minor at Oberlin. “To have someone who has an experience who is willing to share it is very special and rare.”

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