Cultural Studies Course Uses Cyberspace to Advance Understanding
By Rashad Mulla
Exactly how and how much do social media sites impact unfolding political events in the Middle East? In the spring semester 2012, Mason professor Peter Mandaville and a group of advanced master’s and doctoral students attempted to answer this question by examining the very environment at its center: cyberspace.
Mandaville, a noted expert on Islam and Middle East politics, taught a course titled “#Jan25: Technology and Contentious Politics,” which was was cross-listed as both a government course and a cultural studies course geared toward upper-division graduate students.
January 25, 2011, marked the day that residents of Egypt rose in huge numbers against the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, conducting demonstrations, marches, rallies, and other acts of nonviolent civil resistance. Social media, in the form of Facebook, blogging, videos, and Twitter, played an important role in the events surrounding these actions, allowing activists to more easily spread information and to organize their activities.
The hashtag (essentially a # sign followed by a particular term) in the course title evoked the prominence of the social media site Twitter in the political developments throughout the Middle East. On Twitter, including a hashtag in a post allows readers to view a multitude of recent posts that share the same hashtag. Mandaville’s students considered social media within the larger context of revolution.
“We wanted to look at the Arab Spring through academic literature, and of course ask how important social media was to these uprisings,” says Mandaville, who is also the director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at Mason. “But we are also trying to get at a set of bigger questions. What impact do various forms of new and social media, information technology, and communication technology have on the way people think about collective action, social activism, and resistance politics?”
For the first half of the semester, the class investigated the effects of social media and technology on resistance politics. To explore the impact of technology on global events, the students read works by a variety of scholars. These readings were meant to help students understand the changing modalities of collective action, political mobilization, and the alternative methods of resistance devised by oppressed populations around the world, not just in the Middle East. Mandaville hoped to explore the systematic traits of resistance politics, and how much of these theories were transferable to the Arab Spring.
“We started by recognizing that the events of the Arab Spring are one instance of a wider phenomenon,” says Mandaville. “You can point to the events around Iran’s elections of 2009 as the events that first got people paying attention to the role of social media. There is a precedent.”
By exploring the ever-evolving political climate in the Middle East, Mandaville wanted to help his students understand how these precedents influenced the present. In this course, the best way to study the present was to have his students actively involved in curating it.
Each of the 12 students in the course maintained a Twitter account and updated it on a frequent basis with material pertaining to the class. In order to create a digital archive of class material, the students signed each of their posts with the “#cult860” hashtag.
By the end of the course, the students collected more than 100 stories.
Diana Sweet, a political science PhD student, thought the class stood out for its unique curriculum and Mandaville’s assignment creativity.
“I do not think it is common to be able to study something so recent or, in our case, to use the recent events in the Middle East, some of which may still be unfolding, as a case study,” says Sweet. “We were asked to create what was called a ‘social media analytics/methods paper.’ I used Storify to create a piece about two competing–and sometimes violent–social campaigns in Indonesia and illustrated it by compiling YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and tweets.”
She adds: “While it still required hours of research, it was a much more creative exercise than we generally see.”
Mason PhD student Shahnoza Nozimova thought that the course’s dynamic subject matter made for a very rich classroom experience.
“What stood out about the course was the fact that we were able to study political processes as they were unfolding, and our discussions were very contemporary and relevant,” says Nozimova, who is also studying political science. “I liked the fact that every student had his or her own area of interest. [Topics ranged from] the Arab spring, Eurasia, East and South Asia, and cultural aspects and gender politics of the technology-facilitated social movements. I learned something new during every class, both from Professor Mandaville and fellow classmates.”
Tom O’Keefe, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in political science, found the mix of traditional and current material exciting.
“What stood out the most with this course was the fusion of traditional studies about revolution and popular uprisings with the growing literature looking at the role of new and emerging forms of technology,” says O’Keefe. “The really interesting debates in class centered around whether the infusion of these new technologies was actually changing something substantive about the ways in which popular uprisings were occurring or if they simply represented new tools to more effectively organize protests or campaigns.”
“This was a different kind of class,” says Mandaville. “It was incredibly fun, and also rigorous and intellectually cohesive.”
Mandaville, who served as a Middle East policy adviser for the U.S. Department of State, has been highly sought after as a consultant in his 12 years at Mason. He has conducted research around the world, is the author of several books, and has written stories in a variety of top-notch journals and print publications.
Still, he found something about this recent course uniquely fulfilling.
“When you’re in government working on these issues, you are driven by short-term pragmatic questions, so you never have the opportunity to step back and work as thoroughly as you’d like through a given question,” he says. “It is wonderful to have the luxury of both time as well as 12 supersmart colleagues in the class.”