Someone you should know: Wellner debunks Middle East misconceptions

By Thomas Pardee

Every other week, The Chronicle will profile people on campus who are doing interesting or important things.

We’re always watching for faculty, staff and students with a story to tell.

Here’s someone you should know.

Growing up in southwestern Wisconsin, Regina Wellner knew the world was bigger than her small-town lifestyle would suggest.

Wellner, now a Columbia instructor and staff member, was always attracted to learning, discovery and the political process.

She grew up and moved out of Wisconsin to start her career as a teacher. She came to Columbia in 1996 and has been teaching Asian and Middle Eastern history classes ever since. She also married a Syrian, further exposing her to Middle Eastern culture.

The Chronicle spoke with Wellner about her fight against stereotypes that often pervade the subjects she teaches-stereotypes that she says perpetuate discrimination.

She knows it won’t be an easy victory.

The Chronicle: Who usually enrolls in your class?

Regina Wellner: In more recent years, it’s been students who come with more knowledge and are much more aware of the Middle East. They’re coming because they want to be better informed in terms of understanding current events. When I started, people took it because it was what was left in the course catalog. Now, it’s a destination. The history of the countries and the history of the region are now very relevant to us. Especially with regard to Iraq, students want to learn what happened and what’s happening now.

Middle Eastern students are curious to learn the history of the region itself, and how that informed their family histories. So, that was great for me to see where people can make really personal connections to the class.

One student in the spring did some genealogical research for his project. In the process, his extended family decided to do a big family reunion. And it was his project in this history course that spurned this. I’ve seen him since, and he said it was amazing.

That’s a really good example of how it really applied to this family.

What do you hope students get out of your class?

RW: An understanding of U.S.-Middle East policy-what has transpired over the decades in terms of formulating policy and how U.S. policies and their histories have ramifications today. We look at external factors like Western colonization and imperialism for students to understand the events that are happening aren’t happening in a vacuum. You begin to understand what is happening, both the good and the bad, and the impact these events are having on students in the United States.

What’s the most important lesson you teach your students?

RW: One of the things that’s really important to me is that the course works to break down the stereotypes that students have about these regions and the people who live there. For many, Aladdin is the point of reference if you’re of a certain age. We want to move away from that. The Middle East is not all about Aladdin and Jasmine on their flying carpet. The course is about getting students to see this region not as a stereotype or a sound byte. It’s very complex. In the midst of war and destruction, people live their lives and are capable, productive individuals.

What do you get out of the class?

RW: I really like helping people see how the past informs and shapes the present and the futureg. I have them do portfolios, and it’s really exciting to me to have students use their talents-filmmaking, audio engineering, whatever-to illuminate and interpret Middle Eastern history. I tell them, I have the content, but I don’t have the media that you guys do. So take the content I’ve exposed you to and present it in a new way for the 21st century. You have to sell people on the merits of studying history. One of the things that Columbia students are potentially able to do is create new mediums able to do just that.

How have your life experiences shaped your view on the subjects you teach?

RW: Where I grew up, there were more cows than people. Before you did something, everybody knew about it. There was no anonymity, no place to go to be yourself. So, what I did from a very young age was find ways so I could escape that. Studying the rest of the world and knowing there was more to life than cows and the Green Bay Packers was one way.

Wanting to discover things, being naturally curious and being open to all of the possibilities all informs what I do in class. . It was so exciting for me as a young person to discover things and I wanted to present that to my students. They can be better informed and they have better decision-making abilities.

Why do you think an accurate knowledge of Middle Eastern culture is important in today’s political climate?

RW: When any people is construed as not being real to the point that we’re imposing our ideas on it, it’s easier for us to not treat that people as human, or as equal to ourselves. Whether they’re people in the Middle East or homeless people in downtown Chicago, if you somehow diminish their humanity, it allows people in power to make decisions that are detrimental to all of us. We’re all human. We need to find ways to recognize that.