Teaching and learning in the shadow of uncertainty

By Carmen Geha, associate professor of public administration at AUB, deputy director of Khaddit Beirut and Najat Aoun Saliba, professor of chemistry at AUB, executive director of Khaddit Beirut
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

The explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, changed our lives forever. We were instantly catapulted into a new reality—one in which malignant negligence produced an event so grossly destructive as to be utterly base and immoral. This cataclysmic crime and its terrible aftermath pose a fundamental question to educators: How do we go back into the classroom after this? As teachers it is incumbent upon us to find new ways, new skills, and new tools to navigate a new reality for a devastated community facing an unknown future. So far, our experience tells us that students are learning while coping with overwhelming feelings of insecurity, unseen dangers, and uncertainty. As teachers we must open up the classroom to new ways of connecting and learning while also staying connected to the reality of life in Beirut at this moment.

Like a multitude of disasters and crises that have plagued the citizens of Lebanon since the country’s inception, the explosion was man made and avoidable. On August 4, when 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate ignited, schools, hospitals, healthcare centers, businesses and homes—whole neighborhoods—were reduced to rubble. What was not obliterated in the blast was the spirit of the Lebanese people. Although we are all tortured with a sense impending doom, we are fighting hard against hopelessness. On September 10, more than a month after the blast, when clouds of smoke arose from the port and continued for the next two days, residents panicked not knowing whether to close their windows to avoid inhaling the smoke or keep them open to prevent the shattering of glass in the event of an explosion. That sense of uncertainty and panic—the essence of post-traumatic stress—is now our new normal.

As educators and professors, our job is to shape young minds to think critically and face the extraordinary challenges of these times, locally and globally. We cannot do this job if we shield students from their immediate environment. The ivory tower must now be relegated to the past. As citizens of a democratic republic we have more than a right to speak out; we have an obligation to make sure that our voices are heard. As educators we need to provide a foundation for our students to become tomorrow’s leaders—civically minded activists prepared to fight against forces that weaken our society—corruption, sectarianism, aid dependency, and victimhood. Our students need a safe environment to ask questions that they have never been permitted to ask. They have a right to bring up topics that are considered taboo or unfit for the classroom. As professors we need to help our students develop a broader and deeper understanding of their world through the humanities, research, and science. As educators in this institution we must be as brave and forward-thinking as we are asking our students to be.

The day after the explosion a number of AUB professors came together and founded Khaddit Beirut (the shake-up) as a national initiative working towards an evidence-based, community-led, and locally driven roadmap for the recovery of Beirut. The journey begins with an acceptance that we know very little about our new reality and that we cannot excuse ourselves from the exercise of trying to build a better model of our devastated city. Our hope is that a combination of resolute intention, careful preparation, confidence, and humility will propel us toward the breakthrough our country so desperately needs.

Two examples of courses focused on building tools to help navigate life after the explosion:

Analytical Chemistry
This course analyzes standards of safety and explores methods to identify potential chemical hazards at the port. Through evidence and scientific analysis, recommendations are formulated for what needs to be done. This process promotes an awareness that can be shared outside the classroom to curb public fears. Evidence is used to promote public advocacy and to petition for information about the government’s plans to manage potentially hazardous material at the port.

Gender and Policy
This course examines the increase of gender-based violence and the marginalization of women’s issues in the wake of the explosion. It explores existing approaches by the international community to providing aid and the shortcomings of the state in gender-equality. The course uses research and the formulation of new ideas to ensure that any aid advances gender-inclusive, rather than exclusive and polarized, policies and societies.

This cataclysmic crime
and its terrible aftermath
pose a fundamental question to educators.