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Rice wraps up Conversations on the Middle East series, looks to fall semester

Attendance was as low as 2 people, though sessions were intended to be small, provost said

William Liu / Thresher

By Prayag Gordy     4/16/24 11:08pm

With the final session rescheduled to Wednesday April 17, the Conversations on the Middle East series is coming to a close.

Introduced by Provost Amy Dittmar in early March, the five-part series intended to facilitate difficult conversations about the Israel-Hamas war and the larger crisis in the Middle East. Five faculty members from four different departments — political science, history, sociology and religion — led sessions presenting their insights to undergraduate and graduate students.

“At Rice, our richly diverse, international community, deeply grounded in a culture of compassion and understanding, can serve as a model for having crucial conversations,” Dittmar wrote in her announcement. “We are hosting a series of educational events where faculty members will present topics that provide background and perspectives on the current conflict and that are related to their scholarly work.”

Abdel Razzaq Takriti, the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair in Arab Studies and an associate professor of history, will lead the final session, “Anti-Palestinian Racism and the Politics of Scholasticide,” on April 17.

The first session, held March 21, introduced game theoretic models of deterrence and was hosted by T. Clifton Morgan, a professor of political science. Morgan discussed the balance between a country convincing its adversaries that it will respond to an attack while showing that it will not attack if not provoked.

A week later, Nathan Citino, the chair of the history department, led a talk about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociology professor and the director of the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, ran a seminar the following week titled “Islamophobia and Antisemitism in the U.S.” Instances of Islamophobia and antisemitism have increased dramatically since Oct. 7, 2023.

In the fourth session on April 9, Matthias Henze evaluated multiple definitions of antisemitism and offered guidelines for detecting it. After the talk, titled “What is Antisemitism?” Henze, the director of Rice’s Jewish Studies program, told the Thresher that a first step in combating antisemitism is to recognize it.

The conversations about deterrence and foreign policy each had about 15 attendees, the faculty who led them said, while “Islamophobia and Antisemitism in the U.S.” had approximately half a dozen. Two students attended Henze’s talk. Students were required to RSVP for the talks in advance, and sign-ups were limited to 25 per session.

“I was very surprised by the low attendance,” Henze wrote in an email to the Thresher. “I understand that the other Conversations were also poorly attended. Similar events at other universities were much better attended. Traditionally, Rice students have not shown much interest in politics, at least not compared to students at other university campuses. This lack of interest is disappointing, for so many reasons.”

Dittmar said that the sessions were intended to be more intimate. The goal was to model the feel of a Rice classroom, she said, in which students could be comfortable asking questions and sharing their opinions on hot button issues. Each session ended with a question-and-answer period, which often took the conversation beyond the allotted hour.

There were many possible reasons for empty seats in the room, Dittmar said. Some are simple: the time of day and time of week of the session. Others are inherently related to Rice: one session was held two days before Beer Bike and another three days after. A few students also registered for sessions but did not attend. Broadly, Dittmar said, there were constraints when scheduling five sessions between spring break and the end of the semester.

“To me, it’s engagement because it’s offering the opportunity,” she said. “Would I rather have had five sessions and lots of people? Maybe, but that’s not where we are as a university. I wanted to offer this to the students. It’s also possible that some of these spur students to sign up for the classes next semester. There’s a lot of things that can produce engagement that might not be the people in the room.

“Obviously, two [attendees] is far from 25. Is 15 far from 25?” Dittmar added. “I don’t know.”

Citino said he was happy with the smaller group setting at his session. “That word ‘conversations’ is in the title, not ‘lecture,’” he said.

“I actually think this kind of smaller setting was probably the way to go,” Citino said. “I think it worked. Of course, the downside is you can only engage with relatively so many folks.”

Dittmar said another benefit of the restricted attendance was respectful dialogue. Many other universities have faced heated dialogue surrounding the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“From the actual discussions, or the issues, you could imagine this could have gone very differently,” Dittmar said. “And it didn’t. People were quite engaged and interested in what they were talking about … I mean, it really speaks really highly of Rice students.”

Rice’s response to the Israel-Hamas war

The Conversations on the Middle East were the latest part of Rice’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

In her announcement of the conversations, Dittmar highlighted a November panel discussion with two fellows from the Baker Institute. Later in an interview, Dittmar pointed to a series of faculty- and student-led events over the last six months.

“I think it’s added to the conversation,” Dittmar said about Rice’s administrative response. “I don’t think it was ever meant to be the whole conversation, but I think it has added to the conversation.”

The Conversations on the Middle East series came out of a faculty advisory group the president and provost formed in December 2023. Dittmar wanted to highlight the scholarship of Rice researchers and the content from classes offered by Rice faculty to students who may not want to take a full three-credit course, she said.

According to Citino, the university also wanted to show students how to engage academically with a “really difficult issue” like the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“For students, there’s been a lot of conversation about rights, free speech, right to petition, right to assemble, right to be free from harassment and intimidation and things like that. All of those things are really important,” Citino said. “With this series of conversations, it’s also important to showcase the opportunities that students have on a university campus when dealing with an issue like Israel-Palestine … to see opportunities for understanding by engaging with different academic disciplines on campus.”

“What can we learn from the debates that historians have had about the history of this conflict?” Citino added. “What can we learn from social sciences, from the conversations that are going on in philosophy or in the arts?”

The role of the university, Citino said, is to show students how to address difficult subjects from an academic perspective.

“I think that the job of the university is to give students tools, and I primarily mean intellectual tools, for understanding, for coming to their own educated engagement,” Citino said. “To create and to foster a space where people can have intellectual pluralism … and to tend that environment is probably the most important thing that universities can do.”

Dittmar said the Conversations on the Middle East can inform Rice’s approach to contentious world events beyond the Israel-Hamas war, pointing to the upcoming 2024 presidential election that will likely see a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Series like these are part of an “ongoing commitment to developing an educated campus citizenry,” she later wrote in a follow-up statement to Thresher.

“Thinking about how we make discourse in this way a part of the overall Rice experience and part of the fuller co-curricular curriculum is an important thing for Rice to focus on,” Dittmar said. “I think it’s important for every university to focus on.”

“My real hope in being involved with that series of talks was to get students to see this as part of their education, not extracurricular … to see those issues not as outside or alongside what students are studying, but as an integral part of their education at the university,” Citino added.

“If this kind of critical engagement doesn’t happen at the university,” Henze wrote, “then where will it happen?”

News Editor Sarah Knowlton contributed reporting.

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