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Teaching American History in Qatar

Residing outside the United States provides a host of opportunities and challenges for an American historian and teacher. The benefits can be great, both personally and professionally. Despite occasional difficulties, the obstacles often provide excellent, useful lessons for college-level instructors in any social or academic context.

Several years ago, while looking into a faculty position with a community college back in the United States, I came across what I then considered a curious posting on their online jobs system. The American-based community college sought an instructor of History to be sent overseas to Qatar. Back in 2010, the Qatari Government sought professional assistance and advisors to establish an American-style community college in Doha—the capital of the emirate. Over a course of five years, administrators and instructors from the United States were sent to Qatar to advise and teach at the locally-established and operated Community College. Intrigued by the possibility, and excited about the prospect of living and teaching abroad, I applied for the post. Within the span of a few months, I received a contract, flew across the world, and suddenly found myself distributing syllabi to my new, female Qatari students across two sections each of American History and Modern World Civilizations.

What courses do you regularly teach to undergraduates?

In the first several years, the Community College’s course offerings effectively copied the catalog of the community college back in Texas. Therefore, the administration assigned me to sections of early (up to the Reconstruction Era) and modern (since 1877) American History. To support the needs of the College, I also taught Modern World Civilizations (anything since the Sixteenth Century).

Since then, the offerings have necessarily changed. The College has always ultimately been owned and operated by mostly local Qatari leaders, and so they have gradually tailored its courses to local desires and needs. This has led to, for example, a shift away from American History. Within the last two years, I have been called upon to develop and teach the History of Qatar—which takes up the majority of my instructional time. In part, this resulted from two major factors: In the past several years, the government has sought to place greater emphasis on elements it considers the hallmarks of Qatari identity—Arabic language, Islamic religion, and local history. At the same time, the College has somewhat shifted away from the originally Western-leaning educational system. At its founding, students would complete an Associate’s degree with the intention of continuing on to a bachelors-level program at one of the American universities in Qatar (like Georgetown or Northwestern), or to institutions in the United States or United Kingdom. Now, students find it increasingly difficult to transfer credits, even for American History, to Western schools—either in Qatar or abroad. Instead, Community College graduates are encouraged to attend Qatar University (as most of their credits will automatically be accepted there), which is considered more in tune with Qatari social goals.

This situation has affected the scheduling of American History courses. The early history of the United States remains on the schedule every semester, with at least two sections available in the Fall and Spring. Modern American History, while still in the course catalog, no longer finds a place on the annual schedule. This derived largely from the fact that, while Qatar University will accept the credits for first half of United States History, it will not accept the latter.

Sex-segregation also affects what courses get scheduled each semester. Islamic-influenced Qatari social mores do not encourage interaction between men and women outside the familial or marital setting. The College, therefore, maintains two separate academic campuses adjacent to one another (though I do teach at both). The Community College has a significantly higher female population, and so they often receive a wider offering of courses and number of sections (as compared to the men). In the Fall and Spring semesters, there are usually three history courses available on the ladies’ campus (one each of early American History, World Civilizations, and the History of Qatar), and two on the men’s campus (one American and one Qatari)—though it sometimes changes slightly due to interest and enrollment.

What kinds of core assumptions about American history do you encounter among your students?

All the students at the Community College are citizens of Qatar—a prerequisite of their admission. As such, they generally hold a set of political, social, and cultural norms informed by their Islamic and Gulf Arab identity. One might be surprised, then, to read that Qatari students are, in many ways, similar to their American counterparts. While significant differences exist—especially regarding cultural and social values, prior knowledge of the American past, and so on—the general dynamics of the student-teacher relationship, expectations, and performances are largely the same.

Similar to American students, Qatari pupils enter their courses with a few preconceived ideas about U.S. history. The prevalence of the United States in the region, popular media, and even readily available iconography contribute to these ideas. Names of the various states are easily identifiable, as well as the most notable historical figures—like Washington. Most have a mental picture (though often inaccurate), and therefore passing familiarity, with aspects of early American heritage, Native American peoples, and the like, which can be gleaned from motion pictures and television. Even personalities like Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson are relatively accessible as their images appear on internationally-recognizable currency. Despite the occasional inaccuracies, it still enables the students to access the cultural language of the American narrative, and provides them with a sort of framework in which I can begin to construct a more historically-accurate presentation.

When it comes to the broader contours of U.S. History, I have found an effective blank slate upon which I can instruct—uninfluenced by either overt patriotism or intense pessimism. I feel this leads to much more dispassionate discussions on subjects which, inside the United States, often carry a fair amount of emotional weight—slavery, Indian removal, the Civil War, and so forth.

Did you adapt your approach to teaching American history when you began teaching in Qatar? If so, how?

The methods used and materials covered have required some adaptation. Arab culture has, and in many ways continues to be, predominately oral in nature. Therefore, I have had to focus far more on guided, in-class discussion, and rely heavily on a Socratic method of dialogue. Further, local education on the primary and secondary levels do not promote critical thinking skills, but instead emphasize memorization. Students in my courses must then be constantly pressed to think about ideas, cause and effect, and how events relate to one another, rather than a list of facts they “need to know” for an exam.

Undergraduates at the Community College usually have little knowledge of the early history of the United States coming into the classroom, as one would expect. Their elementary and secondary schooling naturally preferred Qatari national history. While many learned some aspects of American politics, personalities, and its past, much of this was cursory coverage. Additionally, systems of monarchical government in the region differ substantially from Western democratic-republicanism. As a result, much of the United States narrative and even terminology from colonization to the Civil War is truly novel to the average student. I have often found it necessary to explain more than just the events. Class discussions of the early republic, for instance, require a more in-depth dialogue on the definition of the word “constitution” and its meaning in the American context, not just mention of the mere fact of its existence. The same holds true for many topics.

What are the most challenging topics in American history for you to address to students in your country?

These same subjects have often proven difficult to fully convey, especially regarding motivations inherent in historical events. Lectures on the background and reasons for the War for American Independence provide such an example. Many in the United States may more easily identify with the grievances usually presented for colonial opposition to the British Government in the period after the French and Indian War: increased taxation, limitations on personal liberties, and restrictions on local, semi-autonomous governments. Qatari students do not fully relate to these concepts due to differing political and social norms: for the most part, taxation is effectively non-existent; views on personal liberties derive from non-Western sources, and so do not always align; and most are taught suspicion of democratic institutions.

It then becomes advantageous to focus on a broader outline of events throughout the course.

Has living outside of the U.S. lent you a perspective on American history that is perhaps different from historians who live and work in the U.S.? If so, how?

Teaching abroad has not fundamentally altered the way in which I view our past, but it has provided new perspective. As an American, instructing Americans on their own history allows one to become somewhat insular. Presenting the country to foreigners inspires new insights on its successes and errors. It has enabled me to see the United States and its story in a more comparative fashion, and maybe even understand some of the events in new ways. Through them, a more objective view emerges: neither celebratory of successes nor condemnatory of errors.

I also believe my experience in Qatar has caused me to adjust the assumptions I make about those I teach, which I anticipate will affect my methods of instruction when I ultimately return to the United States. Teaching non-American students has forced me to set aside notions regarding prior knowledge regarding the past. Each semester, I must paint an entire, complete picture upon a blank canvas, and make sure that no essential detail is left out or unexplained. These are cultural, historical, and linguistic vagaries that even students in the United States may similarly lack. It is then advantageous to provide take a more holistic approach, with no element unexplained, and develop an inquisitive atmosphere where students feel comfortable asking even questions on minutiae.

Ultimately, my primary goal has remained unchanged: get students to think about and understand American History, and perhaps internalize its lessons.

Lucas Nogales is an Instructor of History in Doha, Qatar at the Community College. He holds a Master of Arts in American History, and his work has appeared in a wide range of media outlets. Nogales has presented several conference papers covering various issues in Anglo-American diplomatic relations and military affairs, and an article on the application of military justice during the Second Persian Gulf War.