Digital Liminality and Cross-Cultural Re-integration in the Middle East


  • Gregory Stephens University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez


ethnography, curriculum reform, Middle East, liminality, rites of passage, journal writing


This essay develops a theory of “digital liminality” as a way to analyze the role of technology in the classroom, and in students’ lives. It is also a report on the ESL classroom as a site of intercultural exchange between instructors and Muslim students. The role of digital media in higher ed was a question I had to confront at a Middle Eastern University, where students exhibited a strong cell phone addiction. I theorized Saudi students’ immersion in their cells as a liminal phase during a university rite of passage. Digital technology exposed them to things that would be inadmissible when they were later reintegrated into a deeply conservative society. My students wrote about living between “Western freedoms,” and a world of submission, where most of them would work and raise families. In my Freshman English courses, a temporary cell-free zone was established, enabling students to defamiliarize their use of digital technologies. Students investigated their own role as “threshold people” on the verge of a new way of life, critically examining their own digitally mediated liminality. Students then did presentations about the challenges of re-incorporation in a Saudi context. Combining ethnographic fieldwork and ESL theory and practice, I integrate excerpts from student journals, providing a personal perspective on my analysis of digital liminality, and ESL classrooms as intercultural crossroads.

Author Biography

Gregory Stephens, University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez

Gregory Stephens is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, where his courses include Creative Writing, Post-Apocalyptic Literature and Film, and the “Romance of Revolution in Literature and Film.” Stephens has taught film, literature, and media/cultural studies at the University of South Florida (2010-12) the University of West Indies (2004-08), and the University of California. He is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley (Cambridge UP, 1999). From 2013-2014 Stephens was an Assistant Professor of English at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Publications drawing on experience in/study of the Middle East include “Recording the Rhythm of Change: A Rhetoric of Revolution in The Square,” Bright Lights Film Journal (May 2014), and “Rites of Passage in an English Class: Auto-ethnography and Coming-of-Age stories in Cross-Cultural Contexts.” Currently, Stephens is finishing a book project: Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning the Romance of Revolution in Literature and Film. Much of his scholarship, and select journalism, is available at: