The Living Jerusalem course is an incredibly unique and hands-on way of learning about the various facets of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Jerusalem. We covered such a huge variety of topics, covering both political and economic issues, as well as gender and identity related issues. I appreciate that this course was not set up like any other history course at Indiana University: there were no lectures from Professor Horowitz, but rather the majority of the class revolves around student-to-student interaction through various media forms. We also had the incredible opportunity to interact with well-known and distinguished scholars, politicians, and activists relating to study within Jerusalem and/or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over all, I had a very positive experience with this course and would recommend it to anyone interested in Middle Eastern politics and/or culture; however to comment in more detail, I am going to break down the course into the following subjects: the readings, guest speakers, setup of the class, final project assignments, and recommendations for the future.
During the first few months of the semester, we quickly made our way through Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Armstrong is a religious scholar, so it was important to keep this in mind while reading the novel since this is the main aspect of Jerusalem upon which she focuses. The novel was extremely detailed in terms of names, dates, and events, arguably even to a fault. The further I got into the novel, the more confused I became with the growing and ever-changing list of political leaders, battles and wars, and dates of importance, since they continually piled up. As an academic source, Armstrong’s book was very well written, but for someone with no prior knowledge of Jerusalem’s three thousand year history, it was a bit too much to take in and digest all of the information she presented.
Complicating the matter further was the speed through which we were required to read the entire book. During the first few weeks of school, I was able to keep up well with the extensive readings since there wasn’t yet a lot of schoolwork being assigned; however, after the first month or so, I had a very difficult time staying on top of the reading. I used the weekends to my advantage in catching up on multiple chapters, yet during the week I became completely lost. In my opinion, having the reading responses due every Monday and Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. (shortly after many students are finished with classes for the day) was extremely difficult to keep up with. Because of my academic and work schedule, there was no way for me to complete the hundred or so pages of assigned reading and write a creative and well-written reading response in only 48 hours. Therefore, I was not able to read Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths as extensively as I would have liked; instead, I was only reading a section of one chapter and choosing important quotations upon which to comment in my blog posts.
Conversely, I very much enjoyed the assigned readings during the second half of the semester: partly because they were much lighter readings and partly because I found the content material to be much more interesting. It was easier to stay on top of these readings since we were no longer required to digest a hundred pages of material in the span of two days, but rather we were reading a variety of relatively short academic articles or looking around at websites of related organizations. I enjoyed this because I was interested about learning about present-day Jerusalem, its issues, and the ways in which people are responding. But, as discussed in class, it is necessary to examine and analyze Jerusalem’s past in order to have any hope of understanding its present. So for this reason, I understand why the semester was divided in this ways according to the reading material; however, I felt the first half was too intense while the second half was perhaps too light.
I feel very privileged to have listened to the work and experiences of so many renowned scholars and activists in this field, and I think I enjoyed this aspect of the class the most. I learned a great deal from each of the speakers because even though all of their studies and areas of interest relate to Jerusalem, they were still quite unique and covered a wide range of topics. Being assigned readings relating to each of the speakers before the video-conferences was a great way to become prepared so that we would have the opportunity to ask more in-depth questions as they arose.
I also really appreciated the variety of sources that were used: it was obvious that the course attempted to provide intellectuals’ opinions from numerous sides of the conflict so that we would be exposed first-hand to the various faces of Jerusalem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is what had the greatest impact on me. Learning about the opposite side’s feelings, opinions, and even justifications of the conflict from a neutral individual (a teacher, for example) is so very different than hearing these things from the individuals involved themselves. Personally, Sahar Vardi was this “face of the other,” so to speak, that truly opened my eyes to the Israeli viewpoint of the conflict to which I had no experience whatsoever before this class. After this video-conference, I realized that there are people on all sides of the conflict, but especially Israelis, who support the Palestinian people and hope for peace while simultaneously supporting the nation of Israel. Before this, I was naively thinking only in extremes and in very “black and white” terms.
As stated before, I really enjoyed the setup of this class, especially the unique use of media. Even though at times we had issues connecting with Ohio State University or with the speakers, it was a very cool experience to not simply be a single, isolated classroom, but rather connected with students learning about similar material hundreds of miles away. Likewise, the experience of videoconferencing with the guest speakers was so much more interesting and inspiring because we were able to see and connect with them one-on-one. It is nearly impossible to get this same kind of personal connection with someone through merely reading their materials or a biography of him/her. Therefore, regardless of the minor technical difficulties, the videoconferences are an essential component of this course because they allow students to see the “faces” of Israel and Jerusalem that would otherwise not be possible.
Additionally, the blogs were another unique and potentially effective way (depending on the individual) for the students to communicate with each other. I have had courses in the past that have been centered on blogging, yet it has always been through OnCourse which is obviously not the most organized or efficient way to communicate. Therefore, I really enjoyed the professional blog setup because it was so easy to navigate around the students’ blogs and the other sections. It was also really neat to be able to come up with the design and layout as a class. I think as a whole the blog was very successful both for the class and for me personally. I prefer to communicate with students via written media because I feel I can more accurately express my opinions, whereas I sometimes get nervous or do not express myself clearly in face-to-face, group discussions. For these reasons the blog was very effective for me: I was able to easily access others’ writings, opinions, and reactions, and I could also communicate quite easily and casually with my colleagues.
I have never been an extremely active in-class participator, simply because I feel uncomfortable speaking up about topics of which I am not very knowledgeable. Also, this class was so large that having class discussions was a bit intimidating because many of the people seemed to be so opinionated and well-informed about the issues at hand. Furthermore, I simply enjoy listening to students’ arguments and experiences because I learned a great deal from them. I think discussion is a very significant part of any course, especially one as “personal” as the Arab-Israeli conflict; however since this class was so large, it was rather difficult for everyone to share their thoughts. The small group discussions were a great way of responding to this issue since they generally allow people to feel much more comfortable.
I had heard in the past that students completed their final projects individually or with one other person, so I was surprised to learn that we would be doing group presentations. Yet, again, because of the class size, this was an appropriate way of adjusting. I was very happy with how my group’s presentation turned out and with all the logistics. I enjoyed being able to choose groups based on similar topic interests, because oftentimes professors assign groups completely randomly, which is does not always cause the group to feel like one, cohesive unit. Over all, I am very happy with the final projects and have no complaints concerning them.
I have very few recommendations for how this course could be changed in the future. In terms of the readings, I think Karen Armstrong’s book is appropriate for the course, but the chapter assignments should not be as heavy since they were nearly impossible to keep up with. Perhaps more could be assigned for Monday because of the weekend, while less could be assigned for Wednesday. Also, I think more rigorous teaching or discussion of the historical events would be helpful in class (the small groups often got off topic with this). Regarding the guest speakers; perhaps the class before there is to be a videoconference, we could prepare very generally in class and go over main topics and concepts to be aware of in the readings. I feel like this would be the most effective way to prepare for these speakers in case individuals did not have time to complete all of the readings. Also, I found the use of media to be very effective in encouraging creative ways of communication, and it kept the class interesting. Furthermore, I think both small-group and entire-class discussions are important for emphasizing and discussing/debating key concepts. Over all, I loved the course and learned so much from it, but I would have enjoyed listening to lectures by Professor Horowitz a bit more since she has so much experience in the field. It is true that as students we can learn so much from interacting with one another, but a mix between informal communication and formal “lecturing” perhaps would have been most effective in learning the historical, geographic, and political information surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.