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What a Hookah Taught Me About Higher Education

Learning in Beirut.

February 11, 2014

Yes, this photograph is of me smoking from a hookah.  I offer it not only to short-circuit any attempt at blackmail, but also to demonstrate that even in a country beset by violence – inherited from the external world and a factor largely of geography -- teaching, learning, and collegiality abound.  I was in a traditional Lebanese restaurant in Beirut when offered the hookah challenge.  I embraced it as I observed how my wonderful hosts at the American University of Beirut (AUB) embrace life:  with courage, curiosity, generosity and passion. 

February 7 and 8, AUB sponsored a conference on Effective Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.  I, together with three U.S. colleagues: Charles Bazerman, James Fredericks Volkweim, and Milton Cox, probably learned more than we taught from the experience of working with faculty, staff and students from both AUB and their colleagues at the Lebanese American University.

Men and women, Muslims and Christians, African-American, Jewish-American, and a mutt such as me (Italian, English and Irish-America), some wearing hijab, some in the U.S. middle-age school uniform (Talbots, that would be me) and some in the elegance of the “Paris of the Middle East,” all working together on common goals of effective teaching and learning, and with the same purpose: higher education’s missions.

I am grateful for what the hookah taught me: education is not a luxury.  It is an essential component of life.  It can transcend difference, create common goals and make friends out of perceived enemies.   It is a lesson that we in the United States, so caught up in complaining and debating this aspect and that about higher education, might do well to remind ourselves of and remember as we confront our own challenges.

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Tracy Mitrano

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