Zen and the Art of Teaching in Iraq

 “How do I tell if I am connecting with my students if they are Munaqaba?” The question was followed by somewhat stunned silence and then a good answer that, like most Zen problems, required some inner reflection.

This was the most difficult question of some 100 that we got in two days of plenary and workshop sessions on classroom and faculty assessment: how to do it and why it matters. We also kept score and of our five scholar rescue conferences, this one generated by far the most participant engagement, which is a very hopeful sign. Faculty want to connect with and do better by their students and administrators are beginning to encourage this. Feedback and assessment are important first steps toward embracing a student-centered learning approach and encouraging critical thinking, which is not the way things have been done here. 

As our American presenters and facilitators were learning, there is a lot about the assessment process that can indeed translate across cultures. Until we got the Munaqaba question.

This is the term for the cover that some women wear where only their eyes are visible (and sometimes not even that). Hard to read body language (unless, I guess, you can see if the eyes are actually closed). And in societies where women are increasingly opting for being covered, it is a challenge to confront. The answer, it turns out, is not to abandon the tradition but to encourage a classroom environment where the professor can ask “How am I doing?” or “Did you understand this new concept?” And the student feels free to answer.  Munaqaba, we learned, is not a silencing device. 

I was profoundly impressed that the question was asked. It shows how seriously academicians here are trying to build a real higher education system and adapt best practices from many cultures. The whole experience made all of our minds a little bit more open to the world we share. A bit, for me, like contemplating what the sound of one hand clapping is.