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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Samah Elbelazi

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As many of you know, Dr. Samah Elbelazi has accepted a position at the University of Utah and will be departing PWR at the end of spring quarter.  We thought it fitting to give her a send off by featuring her -- and her inspiring story -- as this issue's Teacher, Writer, Scholar.

Tell us about your experience as a Libyan rhetoric scholar and teacher

I feel my identity as a Libyan Muslim scholar enriched my teaching experience and connected me to student's identities and challenges. I feel so privileged to occupy this unique position in my classes. Many students have heard conflicting news about Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa; however, very few get to meet one. This position makes my responsibility harder because I represent my country and my religion. I always feel I need to do my best, so students see my country as a progressive state, not only a country sinking into civil war. When I start my classes, I love telling students about my family, country, and research to create a common ground. I talk about my research about Libyan women and how I used my position here in the U.S. to amplify their experiences and explore their lives over time.

When I came to PWR as someone from such a unique background, I proposed themes that represent these epistemologies to facilitate the voice of all students, especially the underrepresented. For example, in the past three years, I taught three different themes: the rhetoric of ocial justice: writing about marginalization and oppression; cross-cultural rhetorics and global literacy, and visual rhetoric. While the first theme focused more on the unheard struggle that many people experience silently, the last two themes focused on international issues that should prepare students to become successful global citizens. My aim is that when students finish this class, they are equipped with tools and knowledge that prepare them to talk to people across the globe.

Having the cultural rhetoric training at PWR, along with my identity being a multilingual and multicultural scholar, helped me navigate many challenging topics and help students to make a connection between their voice and international surroundings. I emphasize decolonizing the western text by acknowledging the richness of other cultures such as indigenous cultures, African Americans, Latino, or Muslims. We unpack such concepts by focusing on “what does 'the issue' mean in x culture?” instead of looking at how Aristotelian rhetoric might interpret it. For example, “repetition”: what does it mean in the given context, and how does it perform? In response, such discussion inspires students to write about their family heritage, immigration, refugees, Xenophobic rhetoric, politics, gender, and more. Coming from a marginalized background, I promised to dedicate my power to help the unrecognized voices in my classes.

In terms of my research, I focus on trauma-informed pedagogy that is very much needed amidst pandemic and police violence against the black community. The idea of this pedagogy started while working on my dissertation data. Through my research methodology, poetic ethnography, I created poems out of Libyan women's narrative. These poems accurately represented their experiences during the hardship and trauma they endured due to ongoing war back in Libya. When sharing the poems with the participants in my study, they mentioned that reading the poems made them re-live the experience positively. They felt sharing their stories and then reading them helped them reflect and heal from this trauma. Some women asked me to continue this work even after I finished my data collection. For the women, the process of revising and reading the poems was beneficial. In regard to teaching, I use poetry writing workshops in all my classes to help them reflect on their experience and connect with their peers in class. Before coming to Stanford, my students were producing poetry books, and here at Stanford, I present poetry in the first week to help students connect together.

Tell us about your teaching and interesting students' projects

As an art(s)-based researcher and a rhetorician, I perceive writing as a method of inquiry. Therefore, in class, I use creative writing genres and arts such as poetry and fiction to promote voice and to understand human experiences. I have a lot of exciting teaching moments and students' projects. For example, when teaching the transition from TiC (Text in Conversation) to RBA (Research-Based Argument), I had students draw a map of the research road. I do believe in the power of arts in recognizing the details that some writing may not capture. In this activity, students endorse that whoever follows the map can get to RBA. This means they need to think of the writing process, revisions, writing center visits, editing, conferencing, and more. Another exciting activity was in my visual rhetoric class when I asked students to find a meme that discusses COVID-19 in different cultures. Students post their memes on Harmonize (a discussion forum in Canvas), and then we talked about each meme's rhetorical situation and the choices made on a global scale.

In terms of students' projects, one of the most memorable was a tactile shuttle map using the braille method for low vision people that a student created as the genre/modes assignment for her research project on the same topic. Another student created a 3D book with a list of diverse children books that she will present in her school district to help local teachers diversify children's literature in predominantly white schools. I like it when students take their projects beyond PWR class to benefit their community.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I feel very fortunate to have this rare opportunity to teach at Stanford University. The university that once was a dream became a dream that came true. While it breaks my heart that I decided to step out of PWR and Stanford, I am very excited to join the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah as an Assistant Professor. This position will allow me to continue my work in teaching writing and research to amplify the voice of minorities in the U.S.

During the past years, I was the first and only Libyan female who made it to teach at Stanford University. I feel so grateful that my education in Libya and at Indiana University of Pennsylvania has prepared me to be on the frontline with other prominent scholars in the U.S. I hope my experience inspires many women around the world to trust their hard work and apply to teach in such elite universities. Students in those schools need to hear from us that we are more than what the media is saying about us. By "us," I mean all minority scholars in the U.S. 

Finally, I want to say goodbye to my PWR family and my former Stanford students. I learned so much from all of them that helped me improve my teaching and research. I will miss you so much, and I hope you remember me and remember to recognize the marginalized voices in your classes, your community, and on campus. As Stanford faculty, you have the power to magnify these voices by giving them the tools that support their intellectual and emotional well-being.

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