By Matthew Jaber Stiffler

The Reclaiming Identity website was envisioned and created to be a resource for the general public and a reference for students and researchers. But it can also serve as an effective tool for educators at the high school and college level.

For the fall 2011 semester, I was a lecturer in American Culture at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I taught an Introduction to Arab American Studies course with more than 50 students. I knew that I wanted to incorporate Reclaiming Identity into the class. On the syllabus I dedicated three lectures to the stereotyping of Arab Americans. Even though most scholars of Arab American studies, at some point, touch on stereotypes of Arabs in popular culture and the media, there is no single definitive text on the subject. There are some great works on stereotypes in Hollywood (books and articles by Jack Shaheen and Evelyn Alsultany) and stereotypes in textbooks, but nothing succinct on the stereotyping of Arabs in general. I compiled a few articles and excerpts for a coursepack, but I wanted something interactive and more visually appealing as well. For one of the lectures, the only reading I assigned was the Reclaiming Identity website. I was expecting the students to spend an hour or two on the website, reading the blog posts, the main text under each heading, and a sampling of the videos. Essentially, I was hoping the students would treat the site like a book.

During lecture on the day we discussed the website, I had the students talk about their favorite items. The majority found the videos of the students sharing their own experiences to be the most powerful. They appreciated the textual analysis of Orientalism and other concepts, but it was the immediacy of the videos that really grabbed their attention. Personal experience is an effective way to teach about stereotypes. Seeing the direct and indirect effects of stereotyping on individuals leaves a lasting impression. Further, a web-based format can be a great tool for teaching difficult concepts, because it juxtaposes text and multi-media, reaching students with varying learning styles.

Of all the lecture topics throughout the semester, stereotyping seemed to interest the students the most. The idea that the shows and films they grew up on may contain embedded messages about other cultures and intentional/unintentional racist depictions was fascinating to them. When it was time to select topic for the final group project, almost every group tackled the issue of stereotyping.

The final project required students to collaborate and produce an original multimedia piece. Some groups chose to do “zines”, others created and shared slide presentations, but most groups decided to produce videos. One video, entitled “University of Michigan: Arab-American Diversity on Campus,” was especially effective.

See video

Inspired by the videos and blogs on the Reclaiming Identity website, the students in this group wanted to share with viewers the real Arab American experience on the University of Michigan’s campus. They interviewed professors and leaders of student organizations. They also included footage of Arab American events on campus, including a “midnight breakfast” study break, complete with traditional Arab foods. There is also footage of a student-led protest, showing how Arab American students at Michigan express themselves culturally and politically. Of course, the video is bookended by images of Michigan football. Even Arab students love their Wolverines!

I enjoyed teaching the course, and I especially enjoyed reading and watching the final projects. If I teach the course again, I will find more ways to incorporate Reclaiming Identity. I am open to suggestions, so if any of you develops more uses for the website in the classroom, please let me know!