Professor giving a lecture to students in old main

Virtual Exchange with Egyptian Students

When choosing their classes for this semester, first year students had the option of the humanities course “Exploring Middle Eastern Cultures”. Although this course has been offered in the past, the section this fall had exciting new additions to the curriculum including a virtual exchange with students across the world and the incorporation of a student preceptor. 

Skype Session with Al Azhar PeersOne of Wofford’s many unique and valuable draws to its liberal arts education is the first year Humanities program. Humanities classes at Wofford are designed for first year students only and fulfill a general education requirement. These courses are taught by professors from all disciplines on a wide array of seminar subjects, but all focus on honing analytical writing and reading skills and introducing students to college-level studies. During my first semester at college I took “Exploring Middle Eastern Culture” with Dr. Courtney Dorroll, and in the fall of my junior year, was honored with the opportunity to be a student preceptor for the same class. My interest in this area has only grown, as I have declared a concentration in the Middle Eastern and North African Program and will be studying abroad in Morocco in the spring.
As a student preceptor for this humanities course, I have been able to get to know many first-year students that I otherwise would not have, by encouraging and assisting in their academic interests not only limited to the MENA region, but to developing college skills overall. The integration of a student preceptor into a humanities class is something Wofford has not done since perhaps the Living Learning Communities in the 2002 to 2003 school year. When I was offered by Dr. Dorroll to be the student preceptor for her humanities class, I was honestly completely confused on what the role entailed. In some ways, a student preceptor is like a TA, or teaching assistant, but instead of helping in science labs, a preceptor acts as a liaison between the students and professor while also helping to design the course and assignments. Initially designed to be a LLC with the first-year Arabic course, students enrolled in both would live in a cohort on campus and participate in additional outside activities to motivate in-depth educational experiences with the cultures and language of the MENA region.
Although this proposed LLC did not end up working out, I retained my position as the student preceptor for the humanities class, and worked with Dr. Dorroll to devise the extent of my duties in and out of the classroom. I led class about once a week, graded any assignments to be turned in, and recorded the participation of students. Additionally, I hosted “office hours” in Milliken’s Acorn Café from 2pm to 5pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. In return, I earned 3 credit hours of a HUM 475: Independent Study elective course for my role as the student preceptor.

Student skyping with Al Azhar PeersA major part of this course in particular was the virtual exchange conducted with students from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. This formal exchange, integrated into several other classes at Wofford this semester, grew from a small-scale, no-budget project between Dr. Courtney Dorroll and Professor Doaa Baumi. Professor Baumi is a graduate of Al-Azhar herself, with a degree in theology and philosophy, but also studied and taught in the US for many years through impressive scholarships from the US Embassy, Fulbright, and the International Peacemaking Program.

Dr. Courtney Dorroll, the MENA Program Coordinator and professor at Wofford since 2013, was one of a few professors to receive the Stevens Initiative Virtual Exchange Grant from the Aspen Institute. The grant has allowed classes like this section of humanities to receive special attention and funding to pursue virtual exchanges around the world, and will contribute to research that compares the educational outcomes of classrooms that incorporate the use of virtual exchanges and student preceptors with control groups that do not have these components.

“A colleague at Wofford alerted me to the Stevens Initiative grant for Virtual Exchanges linking US and MENA youth. We applied and with the addition of Dr. Jed Anderson and his connections to Lebanon we were able to expand the virtual exchange to include students at the American University of Beirut. We also expanded to reach more faculty and students at Wofford by having four additional MENA Affiliated professors (Dr. Kim Rostan, Dr. Rachel Vanderhill, Dr. Phil Dorroll and Dr. Kimberly Hall) join the team, and our MENA Librarian, Emily Witsell, also created a fantastic library guide.” –Dr. Courtney Dorroll

The virtual exchange involved a private Facebook group that provided the interface of reciprocity between Wofford students in my humanities class and Al-Azhar students. The Al-Azhar students who participated are part of a student led club, Al-Azhar Club for English, which aims to encourage students to learn English through workshops and events. Part of the requirements for the Wofford students was to post at least 15 times throughout the semester on this Facebook page, including personal photos and videos that provide a reflection on American culture and foster a conversation with the Egyptian students to exchange thoughts in a safe environment. The Egyptian students shared videos of popular shopping centers in Cairo, local traditions surrounding religious holidays, and wrote about aspects of their dating and courting culture.

“It has been really interesting to learn that some students Facebook chat with the Egyptian students on their own time so in this way connections beyond the classroom and beyond my assignments are organically occurring,” said Dr. Dorroll.
We were also able to Skype with the Al-Azhar students and Professor Baumi three times throughout the semester, after surmounting obstacles like the time difference, Air Terrier’s ongoing difficulties, and unavoidable technological complications that are bound to occur when communicating live with a classroom 6,184 miles away. Our Skype sessions generally lasted 45 minutes and functioned by alternating between a Wofford and Egyptian student to give everyone an opportunity to participate. While the first session centered on general introductions and hobbies, we prepared for the second Skype session by exchanging lists of questions to the Al-Azhar students in advance who prepared answers that we would discuss, ranging from topics like American stereotypes to coming-of-age ceremonies to family values.
In addition, we had out of class activities including three movie nights throughout the semester, where students watched a film that tied into our studies and posted their reactions on a WordPress blog. The Egyptian students watched the same films and posted their own reactions to the blog as well. These movie nights were also open to the general campus and other students in the MENA program. Additionally through the LLC grant, we had funds that allowed us to have a luncheon catered by a local restaurant specializing in Mediterranean fare, the Cuzina Grill. Students trying middle eastern dishes

Although just an introductory course and not a fulfillment of the requirements to complete the Middle East and North Africa Studies program, the humanities class is an overview of many methods, disciplines, and area studies that students may later elect to take in order to pursue the MENA program. The MENA Program was a brand new addition to Wofford’s liberal arts catalogue in 2015, and departments ranging from Religion to English to History have added courses that enable students to pursue this focus. A major indicator for the success of the MENA program lies within the success of students enrolled in the Middle Eastern Culture humanities class, who may be introduced to this subject or approach for the first time but are encouraged to continue their study of the MENA region past their first semester of college.

“In its first year we had 17 students declare to be part of the MENA Program and 23 additional ‘interested’ students. Last year we had 2 MENA Program graduates and this spring we are looking to have between 6-8 students complete all their requirements for the MENA Program,” says Dr. Dorroll.

Being able to participate in a trailblazing course such as this has been a very rewarding experience, and I am excited for the new possibilities it can bring to the Wofford community on all levels. Dr. Dorroll plans to continue the virtual exchange with her Religion 263 class in the spring, which five of the students in the humanities class have signed up for. The success of our humanities course, in comparison to its counterpart offered previously, lies within the ability of students to connect and engage on a personal level with their MENA peers through tangible activities in which they devote real passion and creativity to their virtual interactions.

Breck Peterson
Class of 2018

To learn more about the MENA Program, Dr. Courtney Dorroll, or the Virtual Exchange, please visit:

https://www.wofford.edu/woffordtoday/summer2016/professor-begins-virtual-exchange/

http://www.wofford.edu/religion/courtneydorroll/

http://www.woffordoldgoldandblack.com/2015/09/22/mena-the-new-middle-eastern-studies-program-at-wofford/

 

About Breck Peterson:

Breck Peterson MENAI am a junior from Jacksonville, Florida majoring in French with a minor in Chemistry and the MENA program. In addition, I’m a member of Wofford’s cross country and track teams and the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. With one year left at Wofford after studying abroad in Rabat this spring, I hope to attend veterinary school after graduation and (somehow) also incorporate my interests in intercultural studies, Arabic, French, and the MENA region.