Through completing this research process, I not only learned a good deal about the existence of pre-modern Orientalism, but also about the nature of liberal arts research in general.
Regarding my academic project, I discovered a lot about the historical factors that have contributed to the misperception of the Middle East that I feel has prevented a lot of cultural interaction in the past. The formation of social stereotypes and caricatures about the Arab people have definitely played a role in the perception of Middle Eastern people, both in pre-modern Europe and in the nations that evolved from it in the New World. Although both arab society and european society grew out of the Roman empire, it is interesting to see how these two groups of people diverged from one another as competition for regional power, religious dominance, and sentiments of superiority trickled down through all levels of society over time. The European superiority complex especially appears to have contributed to the degradation of Islam and of the Arab people that took place in the early renaissance period. Hopefully, as students and professional are increasingly faced with Middle Eastern culture and social issues as the Arab spring develops and as economic interaction continues, the West will finally be open enough to really try to understand the way of life for people of the east.
Now for my reflections on the research process as a whole. As you can probably glean from reading my blogs, I have never conducted non-scientific research before. Needless to say this process has been a little more challenging than I had anticipated. Having said this, I do feel that I learned a great deal about how to conduct research projects in the future [provided I take on this challenge again!]. If, and when, I decided to jump back into this arena, these are the things that I will remember to think about as I formulate my next project.
1) Keep you questions simple and realistic. I initially bit off much more than I could physically research. “Orientalism.” That sounds like a great thing to research, and it is. But I could spend 12 lifetimes trying to understand this abstract concept.
2) Ask for help. Research 101, I know, but it is something that I honestly was uncomfortable with for a while. I thought that asking for help would make it seem like I was incapable of finding answers on my own. However, by asking for help about what texts to look into, and what authors I should check out, I was able to get a lot more substantive and relevant research done that I would have on my own. Also, it feels good to talk to someone who knows you and your project when you are working through this process. It helps you feel like you are actually moving in a solid direction [whether it is the right one is up for debate].
3) Have an anchor. Do not forget what you are trying to look for, and where you have been. I often read in circles because I would discover something new about life in the pre-modern world and run with that idea. Then I was left with two half researched ideas to try to reconcile. Remember what you are trying to look for and return often to your focus to ask yourself if what you are doing is worthwhile to not. When you dive into a stack of books without an explicit goal in mind, it is easy to find yourself lost and drowning in the sea of information out there.
4) When you think of a cool new idea, make a note of it and come back to it later. This is related to the anchor point, but instead of following every lead, stay on your path and save the new projects for follow up research. Simple enough, but easy to forget.
5) If you can talk about it without notecards, you probably know it pretty well. I noticed that once I was at the expo and in the position to talk to people about my project, I really came to understand what I had internalized from my studies and what I had not. It is different when you can refer to your book or computer screen for information to explain something, but when you are asked a question on the spot and have to come up with the answer, realize just how much of the reading that you did actually made an impression.
Well, these are a few of the main things that I took away from this experience. I really got a lot out of my time researching, and I hope that those of you who took the time to read through my posts learned something along the way.