Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom

I did not apologize to my students for the map I gave because I’m not in the wrong here.

An entire academic year has gone by since my first personal encounter with the so-called academic freedom in American universities.  My personal encounter has made me more experienced and a little less susceptible to the slogans celebrated in the USA. I had been for years enchanted by the Western academic freedom that allows students to freely learn about different cultures, opinions, ideas, religions and perspectives, thinking that there is an interest in creating a generation capable of thinking outside the box, critically, and creatively.  However, the episode has drastically changed my views.

It started with a text message from the department chair at San Diego State University, the university I work at, which said: “there is a group talking to the administration about firing you”. It was an unexpected message especially that it came a few months after being voted by students “Faculty of the Year” in the College of Arts and Letters that includes hundreds of faculty members from various departments. The text message was followed by a phone call from the department chair informing me that the university received hundreds of emails criticizing the map that I had distributed in class naming the geographical area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River “Palestine”.  The chair said that one of the students took the map to some organization outside the university. That organization launched a campaign against me that led to members of a particular organization exert a great deal of pressure on the university to either fire me or give the class another map.  Otherwise they would withdraw their financial support from the university. My response was that I’m neither a political science nor a political geography professor. I teach Arabic language and culture, and it’s my responsibility to show students authentic materials that reflect Arab ideology and ways of thinking.  More importantly is that I paint a genuine picture of how Arabs see themselves and present their ideas and beliefs, including their maps, as they see them and not as others see them.  If one of my students decided to travel to the Arab world they would have to be prepared for this and to understand the culture.  All maps in the Arab world including those in school textbooks and national curricula depict the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River as “Palestine”. The map I gave was reflected the course objective in the syllabus “Be familiar with the Arab World Map” and given within a context of a very clear exercise/worksheet that asked the students to write down the names of the various Arab countries. This is a learning experience, as students often made many mistakes, such as identifying Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and Indonesia as Arab countries.  It goes without saying that using authentic materials in language classes is a must and should be used in the teaching of all foreign languages, because that reflects the authentic image of the various nations and the reality of the people who speak those languages.  For example, if I decide to register in a Persian language class, I would expect that the professor would label the body of water that is located between Iran and the Arab world “The Persian Gulf” not “The Arabian Gulf.” Despite the fact this does not coincide with what I was taught, this is very natural and understandable from a professor of  Persian language. I would not think of taking this map, plaintively complaining, to an Arab organization in order to exert pressure on the professor to change the name, based on my point of view. On the contrary, I would be excited to learn about the culture, literature, thought, and language of this people, based on their point of view.

I would like to focus on the university’s stand, which I found to be the strangest aspect of this issue. I started my teaching career at the university ten years ago, and I have consistently received evaluations that are in the 4.70-4.95/5 range. I have taught students from many diverse backgrounds and not once has a student filed any complaint against me. What I find strange is that after the university was pressured from external sources, it issued a statement within 24 hours saying that “While SDSU encourages scholarly debate and discussion of varying opinions, presenting inaccurate information to students is not acceptable.” What do they mean by “inaccurate”?  How is it inaccurate and how does one define that?  Did any one of them travel to the Arab word and see maps used there in elementary, junior high, high school and college curricula? Did any one of them visit the restaurants and coffee shops there and see the maps hung up on walls?  I know that the map I gave is accurate because I was born in the Arab world, studied there and graduated from there.  The map is accurate from an Arab perspective, and an Arabic language perspective which is what I teach.  However, this same map is considered inaccurate by other groups from outside the university who have no connection to education whatsoever. I would have wished that the university had investigated the matter and researched what the maps in the Arab world look like before issuing their statement.  Even a simple “Google” search of “Arab World map” reveals the same map that I had been using.  However if I really was presenting inaccurate information, as this statement indicates, how could the department’s chair, the dean and the university president send me emails supporting me, thanking me and congratulating me on my excellence in teaching days after this statement about my “inaccuracies” in teaching was issued? It was very strange as well to receive an email from the university asking me if I had any political publications in the past.  I am not political or a writer, but what if I was?  Am I not allowed freedom of expression even outside the university if I am to keep my job?

Now, I would like to address some of the inaccurate statements that have been made in the media coverage of this event. First, what I shared with my students was not a map of the Middle East but rather an accurate map of the Arab world from the Arab point of view. Second, I did not ask my students to sit in groups to discuss political matters because I need every minute of my class to teach language and language only. Third, I did not apologize to my students for the map I gave because I’m not in the wrong here. It is within my full right to present to my students what I see as appropriate for them.

The media campaign against me led many others to personally attack me on their personal websites or on social media outlets.  The attacks were divided into three types:

  1. Foul mouth attacks which I find valueless and meaningless and that not deserve a second glance.
  2. Attacks that commented mostly on me being a Muslim, and cursing at Islam and Muslims, but what is truly ironic is that I happen to be a Christian with an Orthodox father and a Catholic mother.  I’m a practicing Christian who respects all other religions on earth including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism as all of them seek to lead human beings to goodness and peace.
  3. Comments that would say if I’m a Christian then I should be on Israel’s side.  Christianity as I believe in it, know it, and read in its holy book on a daily basis is not political. So please do not insert my Lord Jesus Christ in earthly conflicts.

In the end, this is not merely a case of a map that has been shared with all students–Muslim, Christian and Jewish–for years. It is also not the case of a student who did not have the courage to ask me directly about the map and his or her perception of the reasons behind it. Rather, it is a case of a serious breach of academic freedom.

This act of terrorism was declared not only on the educational process but also on the students who registered for the class, who hoped to have their eyes opened to the language, culture, and civilization of the Arab world. This control is both cultural occupation as well as colonialism. As for the cheap approach that was followed by this institution that has no connection to the university, via the distribution of thousands of emails, contacting the media, and paying two million dollars to the university: this will not frighten us. We are the supporters of academic freedom and we will continue to fight until we lead our students to the highest levels and open the doors of discussion in front of them.

Ghassan Zakaria
Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages
San Diego State University (SDSU)