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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Studying at AUD

AUD is the Troy University of the UAE in a couple of ways.  The academics here are simply not that challenging and a lot of students give the impression that they are just paying for their degrees.  You really stand out here if you are caught carrying books, studying, or coming to class early.  There are major exceptions.  There are some very brilliant and hardworking students here, and  I'm personally challenged in both my Arabic and Religions of the Middle East courses—I’m just speaking of the overall atmosphere.

AUD is the most expensive university in Dubai.  The student parking lot is full of BMWs and no small number of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, mostly owned by the Emirati students and those from wealthy expatriate families.  If you are 18 and driving a Lambo to class, it’s going to be hard to motivate you to study or offer much respect to your professors and colleagues. 

The student body is also somewhat immature.  There are cliques, people are loud, and the encounters between males and females are often downright hilarious.  Many of the students at AUD have led very spoiled and sheltered lives, so the freedom on campus, which seems minimal to us Americans because of all the guards and curfews, is definitely going to a few of their heads.  Our campus has a large smoking area outside where students will hang out all day.  The boys will play cards and the girls will come by to sit or stand by the boys, laughing loudly and squealing in mock skirmishes with the boys or with their girlfriends.  Others, male and female, seem to most enjoy staring down the American students as we walk by.  I get this a lot and do not really know how to respond.  Usually I glance back, interested in seeing one of my own acquaintances to have an excuse to enter the Cool Kids Club myself, but sometimes I am a bit more hostile and stare back with the same dissecting gaze I’d been receiving.  One thing is clear from these encounters: everyone knows who I am.  Any time I introduce myself on campus or to an AUD student in a club, I am cut off when I start to say I am American.  They know.  The other day, I was wearing a Deadmau5 shirt that, granted, was kind of out of place on a campus of Hermes scarves, and I met a friend outside Starbucks to study.  One of his Arab friends approached and I introduced myself.  He responded that he knew I was American and remembered my shirt from earlier, when I had crossed the grass from the dorms to the campus buildings in front of the smoking section.  This just struck me as an odd way to make conversation with someone you just met, and it only solidified my feeling of constantly being watched.  To all my attention-loving white girlfriends from home, this place is for you.

The Students
There are a few interesting groups of people on campus; I will list a few:

I.) The Overly-Glamorous Girls
These girls have money and really flaunt it.  They come to class dressed in designer clothes and carry an arsenal of beauty supplies in their designer bags and set up major touch-up operations in the bathrooms in between their classes.  These are usually not the loud and fawning girls of the smoking section.  Most wear a hijab and very many wear the abaya.  These garments are also gorgeous and only accentuating the beauty of the wearer.  A significant amount of these girls are clearly not wearing their Islamic garments out of religious obervance.  The pieces are so ornate, they are obviously not worn out of modesty.  Some girls wear an abaya every day but do not even close it, showing off their skinny jeans and trendy silk blouses.  The effect created is some brand of Hogwarts/Oxford chic, though I'm not sure which institution would be better suited for them.  These girls, I assume, are either told to wear the abayas to school against their will and so they rebel in any way possible, or they are trying to convey to the rich young men at our university that although they are modern and sexy, they can conform with a Muslim family as a wife--at least that's how I see it. 

II.) The Good Ole Local Boys
First, these guys are rich, and they know it.  Second, now is a good time to say that I have not had a conversation with a single Emirati on campus.  These people are not rude, but definitely not approachable.  I would also say that the most immature people I've witnessed were Emirati boys.  

III.) The Expatriates
These people are Westerners or Russians, but they have completely molded with Dubai culture.  They embrace the party lifestyle, study little, and talk about being anywhere other than Dubai.  I don't know if they'll ever be content where they are.  

IV.) The SE Asians
These people are much like us, just louder.

V.) Us
I don't think I could give a very objective opinion on how the study abroads act, but it's clear we aren't yet ingrained in Dubai culture.  We make friends easily and are very open, just observing and making the most of our time.  

The Professors

As a whole, courses at AUD are easier than anything else I've ever taken.  Even so, students and professors are constantly conflicting over grades and workload.  Our professors have therefore gotten worn down and have lowered their standards.  Many professors have taught nowhere else other than AUD, but luckily my professors have studied and taught outside at other institutions.  As a sampling of what an incoming study abroad should expect and to give a general picture of AUD academic life, I'll give a little rundown on each of my current professors.  I'll add their names AFTER I've gotten back my grades.  

I.) Egyptian Literature and Intermediate Arabic II
This professor has much experience outside of the UAE.  He's Egyptian and I believe he studied at Princeton and taught at Brown.  He very clearly misses the more focused and talented student base at Ivy League schools as opposed to the slack and unmotivated group he has here.  He remains active writing and collaborating on research projects.  His most known work is America in an Arab Mirror, which is a compilation of Arabic writings about the United States, translated into English.  This book, specifically his translations on Sayed Qutb, were cited in the US Commission Report on 9-11.  A combination of his sense of worth and general student apathy has made him a little unresponsive to his students outside of class.  He will occasionally cancel class arbitrarily (not complaining here!), will not respond to emails, and will not remember to write you a recommendation letter.  As long as you recognize this you can learn a lot from the man.  He is rather educated and teaching makes him happy.  He also really likes us Americans.  My Egyptian Lit class is decent, promoting discussion in class without requiring much outside reading.  It is in this class that he complains the most about our work ethic.  In my Arabic class, every single student comes from a completely different background in Arabic.  He is doing a great job in bringing in outside lessons so that both the advanced and inexperienced students stay engaged.  The class isn't very demanding, but that gives us ample time for independent study.  My only critique in that class is that he doesn't teach in Arabic even though we are all intermediate learners and really need that kind of challenge.

II.) Middle Eastern Politics
This professor is probably the most unlike anyone I would study under at Troy.  He is French; I don't know his education or previous work background.  He dresses like a caricature, on the first day wearing a black and white striped long sleeve shirt with his jacket tossed over his shoulders, only lacking a beret set jauntily atop his curly hair.  He frequently gives his opinion on politics and the Middle East--something that you can often detect in American professors but is never stated outright.  He is very anti-Israel and anti-West (with a few exceptions given for French endeavors in the Arab world).  Our first class consisted of a speech on our responsibilities as students and how he is not our 'father.'  I know that this was for the benefit of the Arab students with less developed work ethics, but his continued and constant referencing of due dates and things is getting a little out of hand.

The class is neither suitable for a student well-versed in political science and the politics of the Middle East, nor good for the student completely new to political science.  Lessons are too unfocused for either.  To give you a taste of the work required for this course, the first assignment is a position paper on a topic selected from a list.  It is due at the end of February, no citation style is required, and it is to be 1000 words.  Some students are already stressing about this.

III.) Islam: Historical and Societal Aspects
This course is taught by a very nice and well-meaning individual, but it is more of a philosophy course than its above title suggests.  I'm the only Westerner in the class, but I'm still pretty well-versed in Islam.  The first few classes were all about "Western misconceptions of Islam," when she railed against the West, epitomized by America, for fomenting Fox News-y (my term, not hers) opinions about the Arabs.  She proselytized  to the nodding heads of her students, about how Westerners viewed and still view Arabs as backward, how they hate Islam out of ignorance, and how they have in turn, through this orientalist perspective, ravaged the East through imperialism.  Now, I agree with Edward Said on his key points as much as the next person, but this woman's generalizations about the West were just as inaccurate as the Western generalizations about her people.  She also spoke of the trends in Orientalist thought of the Romantics as still the norm today--the only counter-balance being the Arab Americans writing today.  This view is supported by the required textbook for the course.  I recognize that I am a bit unique in the US, especially Alabama, in my desire to learn about and live among the people of the Middle East, but I am not alone, and many people, though they may not love this place as I do, still respect the Arabs and recognize our faulty policies and misguided aggression in the region. 

Regarding the study of Islam itself, she does not focus on anything that is interesting or unknown, saying instead that it is too complicated and above our heads.  This is incredibly frustrating and fueling some of the speed behind my fingers as I type tonight.

IV.) Religions of the Middle East
This is my best professor.  He's half French, half English, and is married to an Egyptian and converted to Islam, but I only know this from other students.  He is challenging and holds his students to a high standard.  I'm learning a lot about the three Abrahamic faiths.  He's not afraid to tell students they are wrong but is still very encouraging.  He's the closest thing I've found to a Dr. Welch at AUD (though by that comparison, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired)--maybe from their shared connections to English education.  I think I need to get me one of those.

Censorship in the Classroom

The UAE is a rather censored society, and even on a college campus, perceived threats to either Islam or the government have harsh repercussions.  My politics professor will not put his notes online for fear of being questioned about the content of his lectures or opinion.  My religions professor actually ran into some trouble after hosting a guest speaker--I believe he was a Jewish rabbi--onto campus to talk about some aspect of Judaism.  Other students not in his class heard this and caused trouble through the leadership of the school, assuming that the guest was propagating unIslamic values.  This overarching feeling of censorship makes students nervous if they near the topics of politics and religion, and they tailor their assignments to not raise any suspicions.  I recently attended a TEDx talk on campus.  The 'x' indicates that the event was not organized by TED itself, but the hosting campus.  The speakers were certainly not as illustrious as the TED speakers I've viewed on Youtube, but this was not the biggest issue.  The speakers were apparently instructed not to talk about anything religious or political in nature.  As a political science student in a region where these things are absolutely fascinating, I was very disappointed and only sat in on one complete talk.  I've even been hushed while talking in cafes, when my conversation was as far from revolutionary as it could have been--though this might be more for dramatic purposes only.  I have definitely taken some freedoms in the US for granted until now.
My next few posts will definitely include some pretty pictures and cultural outings

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.