James Madison University

Psychology Professor Teaches in Saudi Arabia

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: December 13, 2010

PHOTO: Jessica IronsOn Sept. 17, JMU psychology professor Dr. Jessica Irons hopped on a 15-hour flight from D.C. to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and embarked on the teaching opportunity of a lifetime.

Six months previous, a colleague from Auburn University’s psychology department, William Buskist, invited Irons and three other teachers to assist with teaching skills development workshops he organized for King Saud University, the oldest higher education institute in Saudi Arabia and the first to allow women’s education. One week before classes began, Irons joined forces with Dr. Elizabeth Yost Hammer of Xavier University of Louisiana, and the pair led preparatory workshops for the female faculty members on two campuses to improve their teaching skills while Dr. Regan Gerung of University of Wisconsin, Greenbay and Dr. William Hill of Kennesaw State University led similar workshops on the men’s main campus.

Irons explained that just like in the United States, having a doctorate degree in a specific field of study is the primary qualification needed to teach at a college level. Teaching skills are often learned separately, so at many universities, including King Saud, when hired the faculty often have little prior teaching experience or training.

“Most of them were older than me and had been teaching for many years,” Irons said. “If you don’t know any different you just do the best you can. They never had anyone to tell them or show them.”
 Irons explained that faculty in JMU’s psychology department, and the JMU campus in general, are slightly different with respect to teacher training. There is a lot of time and support here at JMU for helping faculty become better teachers.

PHOTO: Jessica Irons“Many of us [in the psychology department] trained at Auburn University, so in addition to our areas of interest, we also got teacher training.” Irons said. “JMU’s psychology program has become sort of a Mecca, forgive the pun, as a place that really appreciates teaching and research, so a lot of people who come here know that’s important.”

On the women’s campus of King Saud University, Irons experienced the gender segregation of Saudi Arabia’s social system. The university’s main campus is only for men, and many miles and high walls separate the women’s campuses. Only women are allowed inside the walls, and only female faculty members teach female students.

“If the women are outside where a man could see them, they cover pretty much head to toe, they wear the abaya [a long, cloak-like dress] that covers their body and most of them wear a burka that covers their face,” Irons said. “Many of them wear a veil so you can’t even see their eyes, but as soon as they’re in the walls of that campus, they can take it all off.”

During her two-week visit, Irons instructed six 6-hour seminar courses: Improving Student Learning with Motivation, and Assessing Student Learning, and Teaching with Active Learning. Eighty to one hundred fifty faculty attended the larger workshops the first week.  During smaller seminars the second week she worked closely with 25 to 30 women at each session.

“These women are all well-educated. I’m sad to say I was surprised by the fact that they were so dynamic, enthusiastic and energetic, because when you see women outside of the campus they keep their heads down and they don’t draw attention to themselves.  They  sort of ‘float’ along,” Irons said. “Outside of the campus all women look the same; they’re all wearing the black burkas, and you come to think of them with no distinguishing characteristic, which is completely wrong. They were amazing women, they were independent and funny and fun and opinionated. Some of them were loud and some were shy, so it was just like how my colleagues are here.”

Even after eight years of teaching in psychology, Irons felt challenged to teach peers who doubted her experiences because of her age. After gaining their trust, Irons helped faculty adapt her ideas to their own classrooms, within the confines of King Saud University’s administrative policies and their resources. Despite the noticeable differences in dress and culture, Irons observed how much she had in common with these women as teachers.

“I spent the majority of my time on the science campus, and they were chemists and physicists and oncologists and far brighter than I could hope to be.  They were so grateful to have us there,” Irons said. “So many things that the Saudi women said like ‘Oh, that won’t work in my class,’ or ‘‘I can’t do that for this subject,’ were things I’ve heard here in America before. It was so similar. But at the end of the day they put on a burka and abaya and maybe a veil, and they get into a car that they’re not allowed to drive. It’s a very dualistic existence.”

Irons also experienced that duality, because her excitement and enthusiasm to engage the women in her classes had to be left inside the walls of the campus. While in public, Irons said she had to work to not draw attention to herself and adjust to Saudi Arabia’s social norms, where it’s not considered polite to say hello to strangers on the street, or for women to make eye contact with men in many cases.

“I’m from the south, we’re friendly.” Irons explained. “If I’m standing in line with you at the store, it is likely that we are going to have a conversation. There it couldn’t be that way, [but] the women were super friendly and enthusiastic inside the walls of their campuses, where they could be that way, so we loved going to work.”

Culture shock wasn’t an issue for Irons while in her westernized hotel, but she had to adjust to small cultural differences outside of the hotel, like having a male driver who did not speak English drop her off on campus each day, and coping with minimalist public restrooms. Daily schedules operated around times of prayer, and people eat more frequently. Saudi Arabia does not allow open tourism, so while sightseeing in public places accompanied by men, Irons wore the traditional dress she and had to remain completely covered in the 110 degree heat while her male colleagues enjoyed their t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. This wasn’t always easy, especially in unfamiliar situations like eating while seated on the floor of a traditional Saudi restaurant.

“We haven’t done it our whole lives so we’re not that graceful at it,” Irons said. “You have to be aware of yourself in a totally different way. We weren’t used to having to monitor [in a new way] how loud we speak, or with whom we make eye contact or for how long, so it was very different.”

Even with different cultural norms in place, Irons encountered welcoming and gracious people who “remember God in everything they do.” She also connected with the women she taught over skin care advice, and their mutual love of high-end designer sunglasses, bags, and shoes.

“It was such a beautiful culture so different from ours, and in many ways it makes me so happy that I don’t have the restrictions that they do, but at the same time, look at how successful some of these women are with those restrictions,” Irons said. “They’re working, and they have children and they’re balancing all these things like women do here, and on top of that they have these restrictions. Many of them don’t mind that, many of them do.”

Irons thinks that many Americans perceive at Muslim culture in a negative way, and that is a result of limited exposure to the culture.

“Personally I think it was really important to understand the similarities and to understand why the differences are there,” Irons said. “I may not agree with them, but understanding why they are in place and to know that it functions for their culture, gave me a great respect for it.”