David Azartouz remembers talking with friends about the Middle East when he was an undergraduate in Michigan in the 1980s. Much was left unsaid.
"Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to say something about the Middle East in a group really there was no patience, especially in reference to the Palestinian versus Israeli issue," said Azartouz, who was then taking classes to understand the change in his native Iran when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.
Now 45 and back in school to earn his master's degree at the University of Delaware, Azartouz is finding fewer limits to the discussion in a post-Sept. 11 world.
"We are trying to reduce the prejudice that existed in the past and we are trying to look for the different perspective," he said. "You can talk about some things that probably couldn't be talked about before."
Around the nation, college students are enrolling in classes, filling lecture halls and stacking waiting lists for courses focused on the Middle East, hoping to understand the region and take advantage of potential career opportunities. The number of courses and programs is increasing, with many universities adding faculty with expertise on the subject.
The University of Delaware began offering Arabic two years ago, and a group of professors here hopes to build a degree program in Islamic studies.
Culture, politics, religion and U.S. policy in the Middle East are sources of impassioned debate in government halls and at breakfast tables across the world.
Those same discussions are taking place on campus.
How well educators are dealing with them, however, is a point of contention. Even as UD and other schools are working to build new programs, some scholars wonder if more is necessarily better.
"Certainly, Middle East Studies gets more scrutiny than most other area studies on college campuses across the nation," said Judith Tucker, a history professor at Georgetown University, and part of the faculty at the university's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
"I think it has to do with a certain polarization in the country about whether or not we should be doing the things we're doing in the Middle East," said Tucker, editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.
"It has to do with very strong feelings about Israel and American support for Israel and is that appropriate or is it appropriate to even talk about it? So I think everybody in the field has felt this kind of scrutiny or felt that we are under scrutiny."
The scrutiny comes because many Americans have a reason to care about the region, said Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Either because their children are serving overseas or they somehow became impacted by the politics or lost a loved one, Americans are now much more personally involved in this discussion than, say, 30 years ago when it wasn't quite so pervasive," she said.
Greater involvement in the region also increases demand for expertise from students, the government and the news media.
Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at UD, jokes that his doctoral seminars have grown so large that "it looks like I need (teacher assistants) for grading." The workload also has increased in other ways: Khan attends about 10 conferences a year, gives dozens of lectures and gets called at all hours to speak to news reporters across the world.
"There's a lot of demand on people to do a lot of outreach," said Khan, who is also a fellow at The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Educating the media, educating the government. I've spoken to some organizations many times."
Georgetown University's master's of arts program in Arab studies used to enroll 25 students a year from a pool of about 80 applications. Now, 28 or 29 students are chosen from a field of more than 200.
"You feel badly for people because they do everything right, they're well prepared, so qualified -- and they can't get in," said Judith Tucker, who runs that program. "It's a very competitive field now."
At least one scholar thinks Middle East studies remains a small field -- and not necessarily welcoming to new viewpoints. Martin Kramer, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, and author of books on the subject, said many university programs suffer from a lack of diversity.
"Other views on the Mideast tend to be located more outside universities and in think tanks and government and in the corporate world because people who do have other views know they would never find academic careers," Kramer said. "I think we need to bring some of that back in there. If (students) are only given Third Worldist activism as a vantage point on the Middle East, they're not going to find jobs."
Khan, however, said advocacy of a one-sided view on the region is coming more from critics like Kramer and from government officials who don't want their policies criticized.
"Professors are accused of being anti-American because they are against Bush policy," he said. "We know the debacle in Iraq is clearly the result of the intellectual challenges of this administration's policy. You begin to realize knowledge is knowledge and ideology is ideology."
The views of educators are as diverse as those of the public, Kashani-Sabet said, but the goal is not to take sides.
"Our best hope as educators is not to guide people toward a particular opinion or point of view or require them to sort of take a particular stand," she said. "We give students as much information as possible across a broad spectrum and allow them to draw their own conclusions."