Students who have taken Prof. Atshan’s courses talk about radical dehumanization.
Students who have taken Prof. Atshan’s courses talk about radical dehumanization.
We are thrilled to announce that Dr. Sa’ed Atshan’s visiting position in the Peace and Conflict Studies program has been converted into the program’s first full-time tenure-track position.
In his first year-and-a-half at the College, Prof. Atshan has made a tremendous impact both in the program and at the College. His dynamic teaching has drawn students across all cohorts into new and regular courses:
Dr. Atshan has also provided important programming. He has brought a steady stream of outstanding speakers and sponsored two film festivals in conjunction with his Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course. That course also includes an exceptional 10-day trip to the region.
Dr. Atshan graduated from Harvard University in 2013 with a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies. He holds an M.A. in Social Anthropology from Harvard, an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a B.A. in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies from Swarthmore College. Before taking up a visiting position last year, Prof. Atshan held a post-doctoral fellowship at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
While a graduate student, regularly taught “Introduction to Peace and Justice Studies” in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Tufts University, where he also taught courses on “The Arab Spring and Nonviolent Strategic Action” and “Gender, Sexuality, and Human Rights in the Middle East.”
Dr. Atshan designed and taught courses at Harvard and Brown on social movements in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, among other topics. He earned four of Harvard’s excellence in undergraduate teaching awards along the way.
Sa’ed has been the recipient of multiple awards and fellowships from important organizations that include the National Science Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Social Science Research Council, and the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation, and in 2009, he was awarded a Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace.
In addition to his work on humanitarian politics and aid intervention, Atshan has conducted research into nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian social movements, countering old characterizations of nonviolence as foreign to the region. Instead he discovers and reveals “co-resistance” or coalition and joint struggles for social justice between Israeli and Palestinian activists.
Professor Atshan has worked with a range of organizations that include Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Seeds of Peace International Camp, the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, and Medical Aid for Palestinians, all indicating his commitment to the practical pursuit of peace and justice to which our field aspires.
The creation of Prof. Atshan’s position is truly a historic moment for the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and for Swarthmore College, where the first peace studies course in higher education was taught in 1888.
by Isabel Knight
This story originally appeared in the Daily Gazette on 16 February 2016.
This past winter break, students in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict class taught by Dr. Sa’ed Atshan ‘06 went on a trip to Israel and Palestine for 10 days. The trip, funded by the Lang Center, the President’s Office, and an anonymous donor, was offered for an optional .5 credits. Of the 24 students in the class, 19 decided to go. Students in the class described the trip as an emotional experience that humanized the conflict after a semester of learning about the conflict from an intellectual standpoint.
Professor Atshan made a point in his class to de-exceptionalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having taught at Harvard and Brown, he regularly brings classes of around 100 students on a trip to Israel and Palestine during spring break. This trip, the Swarthmore group, chaperoned by Religion Professor Yvonne Chireau, spent about half their time with a group from Boston College.
“I guess I expected to see what was there, but I think it really hit me once I actually saw everything, like the separation barrier and how it’s higher than the Berlin Wall,” said Yein Pyo ’16, a member of the class.
Students described scenes of tear gas canisters hung as decoration and entire villages reduced to rubble. One Palestinian woman who organized a weekly protest of the Israeli soldiers took the class into her home and treated them to a home-cooked meal while she showed them footage of her brother being shot in the chest with a tear gas canister and killed.
“Personal narrative was emphasized throughout the trip. We went to a theater company, a man who studied to be a pharmacist and then he started his own theater company. And it focuses on teaching Palestinian children to use an ”I” narrative instead of a “we” narrative, because a lot of times personal stories get clouded by the collective Palestinian narrative,” Killian McGinnis ‘19 said.
Emily Audet ’18 described a scene when the class visited Hebron, Palestine, in which the class was walking in an open-air market in the center of the city. Local Palestinians told them the market was usually bustling, but Israeli settlers had moved into adjacent second-floor apartments and had recently begun throwing trash such as glass and feces out their windows onto the shoppers below, leaving the market deserted.
When asked about the dynamics of teaching such a politically charged topic, Atshan remarked on the importance of creating a safe space that welcomes all points of views. He said he always gets very excited when students in his class volunteer to play devil’s advocate.
“While at Swarthmore, I was a Mellon scholar and a Lang scholar. The Mellon Scholarship is all about becoming good academics so I wear the academic hat, and the Lang scholarship is all about doing good in the world, so I care deeply about research, teaching, scholarship, but also about activism, and engagement in the world. But in my classroom, the classroom space is not about creating activists as much as it is about creating an intellectual environment.”
At the same time, students said they had to strike a balance between that intellectual space and the fact that they were learning about the lives of real people.
“[In class], it can seem very theoretical but to actually talk to the people and carry their stories and to visit the sites puts a very real and human face to the pain and suffering and injustice,” Mosea Esaias Harris ’17 said.
Many students described the trip as one that they will likely never forget, filled with intense emotions and heartfelt stories. It left them thinking about how they had been changed and how they would go about their lives once they returned to Swarthmore.
“It’s really tempting, after you have seen all this, to want to change everything and be the activist and be the voice on campus or in the world, but I was encouraged by the solidarity of my classmates, just knowing that there are little issues within the conflict that you can focus on,” McGinnis said.
Many students expressed a desire for for more trips of this type to be incorporated into humanities and social sciences classes to give them an experiential component, similar to labs in natural science courses. According to Atshan, this type of learning is called “embedded study abroad” and brings vibrancy to the kinds of experiences that humanities and social science students can usually only read or watch videos about.
“Humanization was a huge objective of the trip,” Atshan said. “We are very privileged to be able to sit in the ivory tower and turn people and their struggles and realities into objects of our analysis, and I think it is really important to restore the humanity of those subjects to see them as fellow human beings.”
Posted by Anna Weber ’19 January 21, 2016 on her Voices of Youth blog (Reprinted with permission)
I walked into my Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies class unsure. I was unsure if I had any of the answers to the conflicts we would study, unsure of the conflicts in my own life, unsure if this class would help me or leave me to continue to spin towards answers I couldn’t name. But the most eminent question once I walked into the class was where I was going to sit—front and invoke the possibility of having to speak or back and hide from the questions.
I changed my seat three times that day. The truth, however, was that it didn’t matter where I sat. Professor Atshan would have reached me all the way in the back corner because his passion is limitless. He quickly walked in the room, a smile spreading across his face, books and laptop in hand, spouting a metaphor about how this class was an airport and once it starts it is as if the plane has taken off. Trust me, you want to be on that plane.
Professor Atshan lives a life of incessant learning. He started college in the same place as me, Swarthmore College. He then graduated from Harvard University for his Ph.D. in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies. Next, he taught at Brown University as a post-doctoral fellow. Now, he is back at Swarthmore teaching students like me. Within his studies, Atshan has won multiple awards and fellowships including the National Science Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Social Science Research Council, the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation, and a Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace. But really beyond his awards, it is kind of inexplicable to detail the impact Professor Atshan has on students. I can’t name it, but he stirs up some notion that tells us to partake in activism for human rights of all kinds; even if we are not personally affected, we have the power to lift the voices of those who are.
So, without further ado, I present you Professor Atshan and perhaps I’m also presenting a passion that he will bring out in yourself.
What do you do, and perhaps more importantly, why do you do it?
I am a professor of Peace and Conflict Studies. I love working with young people and supporting them in thinking about how to make the world less violent and more just.
In the first day of your Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies class, you asked students to tell the class what they are tokens for, what they are often asked to explain or represent. What are you a token for?
I often have to explain what it means to be gay, to be Palestinian, to be Quaker, and am often met with a generosity of spirit, but every now and then I have to deal with all sorts of prejudices. But I do my best to remain patient and compassionate.
Can you explain where you come from and where you are going? This can be literal or metaphorical if you’d like.
I have always been a bookworm. But I try to escape the protective shell of libraries and to be engaged in activism in the real world. I hope to help build bridges between theory and practice.
As a Peace and Conflict studies Professor, can you tell us what the word “peace” means to you?
Peace is not only about the absence of physical violence—it is also about addressing structural violence. Positive peace, in its truest sense, takes intersectionality into account—understanding how all forms of oppression are interlinked.
What is one thing you hope your students will take away from your class, whatever the class may be?
I hope that they find their unique voice. That they recognize their value and their ability to make a difference in whatever domains they are passionate about. That they are the future—and that they give us hope.
As a student at Swarthmore, you scheduled every minute of your day to maximize studying. You then went to Harvard University and then taught at Brown University. How did you find the motivation to accomplish all of this, study so much, achieve success at some of the best institutions for learning in the United States?
I feel so privileged to have had access to these institutions and resources. With this comes a responsibility to help give voice to those who are voiceless. I try to ensure that my pursuit of knowledge is as ethical as possible and that it helps enact change in the world.
What advice do you have for your students beyond college?
I think it’s tremendously important to be true to yourself. Follow your heart, follow your gut, don’t be afraid to be fabulous, treat others with compassion, and recognize your own gifts and power.