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On Teaching About the Modern Middle East


By Danielle Kinsey and Laila Parsons

In 2014, Professor Parsons, a specialist in the history of the twentieth-century Middle East at McGill University, was the recipient of the Noel H. Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching and in 2017 she was awarded a Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Professor Parsons teaches courses on the history of Arab-Israeli conflict, modern Egypt, anti-colonial rebellions in the modern Middle East and North Africa, and women, gender, and sexuality in the modern Middle East.

How has your own work on the modern Middle East informed the way you teach? 

I am a political historian of Palestine, with a particular focus on 1918-1948, the period of the British occupation. I work with primary sources in Arabic in an attempt to get away from the dominance of the colonial archive (British and Israeli) for understanding political change in that period. When you immerse yourself in the Arabic sources, colonial actors inevitably become more distant as characters in the narrative. Conversely, relying on Arabic sources leads you to draw the Palestinian and/or Arab side in a more subtle and complex way, so that you bring to life the human details of Palestinian politics during the period of British occupation. I try to integrate this method into my teaching, by assigning primary sources translated from Arabic and making sure they are the bulk of the readings in my courses. For example, I teach a large lecture course at McGill called “The History of Modern Egypt.” Rather than plodding through a chronology and using a textbook, I devote each week to a leading Egyptian intellectual, and I require the students to read the writings of that person before coming to lecture. My lectures then provide the context for the readings and help the students tease out their meaning. At first this can be challenging for some students, who come to class with no background in Egyptian history, but over the course of a few weeks they gradually understand that while they may not be getting a comprehensive understanding of the Egyptian past they are getting deep insights into how certain Egyptians, at a given moment, lived through a number of key transitions.

What needs to be done at the level of teaching and learning to foster more engagement with history in universities and more broadly? 

Students often come to the university classroom with a sense that history is boring and conservative. This could be the product of how history is taught in many schools, where students are required to memorize facts from textbooks. I think it is important to show the students who are willing to take a history course at the university level, that history is an exciting discipline with a lot at stake, politically as well as intellectually. From the outset, students should be exposed to central historiographical debates and controversial primary sources, so that they can sink their teeth into the complex task of representing the past, while remaining mindful of the importance of historical representation for the present. The older I get, the more doubtful I am of the benefits of broad undergraduate survey courses, which can leave them feeling that they have just flitted across the surface of events and places without being given the space to really grapple with anything in depth. Would it be such a terrible thing to replace these broad surveys with more focused themes? Why not teach a large first-year undergraduate lecture course on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011? Or on the 1948 War for Palestine?

Do you have a favourite website you want to recommend for folks interested in teaching and learning history? 

For Palestinian history there are two excellent websites that give students direct access to primary sources and the contexts from which those sources emerged. One is Palestinian Journeys, https://www.paljourneys.org/en, a joint project of the Palestine Museum and the Institute for Palestine Studies. So if you are teaching the Palestinian revolt against British rule in 1936, this website provides key primary sources in translation, such as a Palestinian petition presented to the British High Commissioner signed by hundreds of Palestinian officials working for the British government, and a famous nationalist poem written by a rebel leader in the countryside. For the later period in Palestinian politics, the website The Palestine Revolution http://learnpalestine.politics.ox.ac.uk/ focuses on Palestinian resistance politics from 1948-1982. This website contains video interviews with dozens of members of the PLO, revolutionary songs, articles from Palestinian magazines published in Beirut in the 1970s, and so on. These sources are carefully presented by a team of historians with the training and knowledge to understand their immediate context. The Palestinian Revolution is also a bilingual Arabic/English online learning resource. This means that students who read Arabic can access these fascinating primary sources in the original, while students who do not read Arabic also have access to them in translation. One of my greatest pleasures as a teacher is listening while Arabic-speaking students in my classes explain to their peers — who have only been able to read the English or French translation — subtle shades of meaning or usage in the text that we are all discussing.

Prof. Parsons can be reached at laila.parsons@mcgill.ca.