Why does this project matter right now at Denison and in the larger community?
I wanted to give the Arab—American community some cultural visibility that introduces their values, norms, and customs to a wider audience, especially in light of the negative stereotyping of immigrant communities in general. We interviewed people who have been in Columbus for more than 20 years because we really wanted to focus on their contributions to the community. Most people, nowadays, think of refugees when they think of Arabs, particularly Syrian refugees in light of political events going on. But Arabs have been here, and they have been partners in the community for a very long time.
I’ve always wanted to do something to connect my Arabic students to the Arab community in Columbus. I want to expose students to real opportunities to use the language outside of the classroom and to help them learn more about the culture and traditions of the Arab-American community. I want them to dig deeper into the question of identity formation and how the Arab-American community—as a hyphenated community—functions both back home and in their new home.
It also made sense for me to give MENA students a deeper opportunity to have community-based learning. The project helps them meet one of the program’s requirements, which involves either a research-based experience in a Middle Eastern community or a study abroad experience.
How are Denison students involved?
This is a student-centered project, and I have six students working with me. They conduct face-to-face interviews and videos that will be digitized and archived to highlight the lives, activities, and cultural practices of the Arab-American community.
We divided the team into four categories. We have the interviewers, who are a combination of beginner-level and intermediate-level Arabic students, who collaborate on asking the questions. Then we have transcribers, and translators, and the fourth category is the digitizers.
One of my team members is a cinema major, and the other is a theatre major. They’re both interested in documenting. They had taken beginner Arabic with me for a language requirement, but then they were fascinated by the idea of connecting their majors in theater and cinema to a community learning project, so they jumped into the project. They are our filmmakers, digitizers, and archivists. The rest of the students conduct the interviews, so they are trained in asking questions.
What is that like?
Cheryl Johnson (instructional technologist for modern languages) and I had a two-day training for students on proper interviewing techniques and technical training on filming and digitizing the interviews. We talked about the protocols of following the oral history tradition, how to ask questions, how to think critically, and how to avoid dehumanizing people. And we had a special orientation on cultural interactions, for example: What to do when you enter the house. If it’s a man, what do you do? If it’s a woman, what do you do? Do you take your shoes off? In class, you can certainly theorize about these things, but actually going into the context itself made a huge difference to the students.
What types of questions do students ask?
The interviews are conducted in both Arabic and English. We interview people about mobility and migration. We ask them identity formation questions about their cultural practices, family, food, clothes, houses, all of that. Bear in mind, the team I have working with me are all intermediate students, with the exception of two who were first-year. And first-year students can’t really ask functional and deeper questions, having finished only one year of Arabic. So the warm-up questions were asked in Arabic by first-year students. You know, Hi, how are you? How long have you been in this area? Where did you move from? What is your original country? Do you have relatives here?
The more advanced students ask the deeper questions in Arabic. Some of them are interested in international studies. Others are interested in economics. For instance, I had a student who was an economics major. Most of his questions were things like, What was the economic situation like before you left home? Was that a driving factor for moving? Essentially asking the question of why people migrate. For my international studies major, she was more interested in identity formation and hyphenated identity. You know, When you introduce yourself, do you say, “I’m an Arab; I’m a Muslim; I’m an Arab-American?” What comes first in your identification and why?
How do the stories finally come together in a collection?
Once we conduct the interviews, the digitizers make them ready for their team members, the transcribers. They listen and transcribe in Arabic if the interview is in Arabic. If the interview is in English, they transcribe in English. Once the transcriber’s role is done, it moves to the translator’s role. If the interview was conducted in Arabic, they translate it back into English and vice versa.
How do you plan to share these stories with others?
Once we’re ready, we’ll put them on an open resource webpage, where we will create a common section to guarantee interaction with the Arab community, with students, and with majors in interdisciplinary science, religion, economics, international studies, and history.
What stories do the students have to tell after being a part of this project?
I ask my students to write reflections on every interview we do. So, at every moment, they find something that’s really enlightening. One student came into the interviews saying, “I expected most of these interviews to be political.” Yet that same student was really, really surprised to see how Arab-Americans are empathizing with the American community they’re living in, that they wanted to come to the land of freedom, work hard, and be successful despite all the obstacles they had to overcome.
It makes sense for me, as an Arab teaching Arabic at Denison, to want to have this opportunity outside the classroom for my students while having it serve as a platform for Arab-American communities, to let their voices and their dreams and aspirations be heard.