The third and final day of the ACRPS’ Arab Graduate Student Conference was held on Monday, 26 March. More than 80 Arab graduate students based in Western universities took part in the first-of-its-kind conference. The final day began with a panel of Doha-based academics offering their assessment of the challenges and difficulties facing Arab academia. Moderated by ACRPS Researcher Dana El-Kurd, the panel offered insights from Arab academics who had studied in Western universities, and how they viewed their place in Arab academic institutions.

Coming to Arab Academia from the West

Ayman Dessouki, a Doha Institute professor of comparative literature, was the first speaker on the panel. Dessouki focused on the role of institutions in defining the role of “student as researcher” and the redefinition and redrawing of the field of knowledge. According to Dessouki, academic disciplines in the Arab academe were characterized by historically justified traditions; students, in these settings, continued to be seen as “disciples” who received instruction and were encouraged to view the disciplines in which they studied as static bodies of knowledge. Universities in this sense acted, said Dessouki, were tasked with training students to be able to produce knowledge leading, the speaker said, to a “genuine dilemma” resulting from the narrow disciplinary focus in Arab academia.

Dessouki also touched on the need to address the question of the Arabic language as a language capable of producing its own terminology, and not merely one reliant on the translation of terms from other languages. Dessouki ended his intervention by pointing out that the Doha Institute had set out for itself the pioneering work of attracting students from across the entire Arab region allowing, he said, an opportunity to understand the reality of the Arab academy in its full complexity and geographical range, through direct interactions with the students. The Doha Institute, he said, afforded a fertile ground for researchers seeking to understand the complexity of Arab academia.

Following Dessouki was Imed Ben Labidi, a lecturer on the Media and Cultural Studies programme within the Doha Institute, who offered a personal perspective on working among this diverse group of Arab students, in an institution which he said had worked to attract the most academically capable students from the Arab region. One result of this, said Ben Lebidi, is that the level of discussions held within the classrooms and elsewhere on campus was very high, giving him the task of preparing course material which challenged the students adequately.

Ben Lebidi also added that the high level of preparedness of students was met by the select group of faculty members, who rose to the challenge of interacting with their students in a meaningful, robust ways and as individuals. Ben Lebidi also expounded on how the difficulty presented by showing up in Doha before the Doha Institute’s campus was more than made up for by the reward of joining an ambitious Arab academic institution.

Next up was Mohammed Hamas Almasry, Associate Professor in the Media and Cultural Studies, who compared his experience of academic work between the United States and the Arab region. Almasry’s experiences in the Arab region extend to his lecturing work at the American University in Cairo, Qatar University and (most recently) the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Almasry’s comparisons touched on four key areas, contrasting them across the Arab region and the United States: the use of the English language as a language of academic instruction; the ratio of administrative work to academic work; remuneration of academics in the Arab region; and academic freedom.

Almasry pointed out that the fact that the preponderance of research materials related to media studies were in English meant that students whose preferred language of instruction was Arabic were at a severe disadvantage. The speaker went on to suggest that, based on his own experiences, that time-consuming administrative accounted for a far greater proportion of the time of Arab academics than their North American counterparts. Almasry attributed this to the claim that academic institutions in the Arab region continued to be in a foundational phase, necessitating that even academics contribute to the administration of these institutions. In contrast, said Almasry, funding for academic research was more available in the Arab region than in the United States. Finally, Almasry offered that academics in the United States enjoyed far greater freedom than academics in the Arab region, notwithstanding the fact that even in the United States, there were some “red lines” which cannot be discussed even in academic discourse.

The final speaker on the panel was Dana Olwan, an Assistant Professor on the Sociology and Anthropology program at the Doha Institute, whose presentation focused on issues of moral, language and psychology. Olwan cautioned against an overly “romantic” view of life in Western academia. Speaking as a Palestinian woman who had previously worked at North American universities, Olwan cautioned that a vision of North American universities that was undeservedly positive had an adverse impact on the morale of Arab academics. Olwan further suggested that continuing to cling to such comparisons, and constantly holding North American universities up as paragons, had become in itself an obstacle to the institutional advancement of Arab universities. Olwan suggested that academics who wrote critically of the US’ imperialism in the wider world found themselves under constant attack; she described this as a structural issue affecting US academia both before and after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

Day Three of the Arab Graduate Student Conference: Political Science, Media and Cultural Studies, Linguistics, and Psychology

The final day of the Arab Graduate Student Conference included seven panels where participants discussed topics including political science, media and cultural studies, linguistics and psychology. The sessions, divided over a morning and an afternoon, gave a total of 13 Arab doctoral students studying at Western universities the opportunity to discuss their research work.

The first legal session offered a discussion of the concept of “temporary asylum” and its impact on international law. The session also offered participants the chance to explore the concepts of international protection and the “right to peace”. The first linguistics panel covered two main topics: how Arabic grammars were used to help reconstruct a proto-Babylonian language; and the problems arising from the use of Englsih as a medium of instruction in Arab educational institutions. Finally, the panel devoted to psychology was given over to a discussion on the relationship between “borders” and willing travel to conflict zones, in an effort to understand what drives such personal choices. The same panel also explored the topic of adolescent girls joining violent jihadist groups, and sought to understand the appropriateness of existing psychological models for understanding these behaviors.