My personal life, professional experience, and educational background have inspired and shaped my research agenda and teaching philosophy. They have helped me to recognize that a publicly relevant and accountable sociology must respond to the needs of communities in which we live; an endeavor that can be actualized by reflecting upon experiences of underrepresented students and the challenges they face.
As an Iranian with degrees from three different educational traditions, I have mentored undergraduate students in Iran, international students in England, and taught 13 courses at the University of South Florida with a very diverse student body. Additionally, I have worked as a journalist in Iran and England with colleagues from various backgrounds. These experiences have made me a culturally aware educator who sees diversity as a necessary, invaluable, and irreplaceable resource.
Leaving my home country, Iran, with its own ethnic variations, to go to England to earn my joint Master’s degree in Lifelong Learning from the Institute of Education, I learned how to adapt to new conditions, develop resilience, and respect different cultures. My journey to the US, however, exposed me to another conception and level of difference. In the US, I sensed and witnessed a clear discrepancy between the acclaimed multiculturalism and my own daily experiences. Additionally, I had to start to define and perceive myself in ethno-racial terms that were strange to me. I was an Iranian who is legally white but exposed to discriminatory behaviors in airports and laws such as the Travel Ban.
Despite these disheartening experiences, I observed, in movements such as the Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, protests to the Bathroom Bills and the Travel Ban, that cross-coalition building and pan-ethnic and multiracial collective actions are manifestations of embracing difference and using it as a source of inspiration and action. These exposures and deliberations have on the one hand inspired my research to study the movement by US citizens with Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds to be extracted from the white category on the US Census, and on the other hand shaped and nurtured my pedagogy which is based on mutual understanding and respect. My latest student evaluations in regards to the measure of respect and concern for students (4.95/5) testifies to this cultural awareness and its successful application in my classes.
To me, sensitivity and respect do not mean noncritical political correctness, as is often the case in the US, and diversity cannot be reduced to benign discussions of multiculturalism as was the case in my education in Europe. Commitment to diversity in my work means equal inclusion and representation, complemented by progressive social action against all forms of bias and inequality. The principle of diversity manifests itself in (1) the various worldviews that students hold and (2) various ways students learn. To help students to share and reexamine their worldviews, as a facilitator, I encourage open and respectful class discussions in a positive learning environment, with the goal that the learned knowledge will be carried over by students to their personal lives and translated into action in the service of our larger communities.
The second aspect of diversity can be promoted and encouraged through respecting various ways students learn. Diversity is not solely about ethnicity and race. It also concerns such things as age, class, religion, language, family background, learning styles, sexual orientation, gender, and ability. Incorporating various teaching techniques and assessment methods makes it possible to recognize, respect, and accommodate students with different learning styles and skills. From my own experience as both student and instructor, I have noticed that some students fare better in tests and some in writing assignments or group projects. Therefore, in my introductory courses, I use both writing assignments and tests. However, in my upper-level courses, where students are more advanced in their academic path, I put more emphasis on writing assignments and presentation skills. In my Ethnic and Racial Relations class, for instance, I ask students to facilitate sessions, write group reports, and produce reflective journal entries.
These measures are essential for exploring the challenges that students face and for taking steps to recognize, analyze, and work towards resolving them. These are crucial processes that bring hope to students, and help them to be able to imagine a more just world in which their ambitions are not doomed to die as impractical ideas but as achievable fruits of struggle and coalition building.