Starting fall 2008, students at UC Davis will be able to declare a major in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies. The new major, approved fall quarter, 2007, completed the long proposal process in November, and students can now begin to take courses toward the major and meet with major advisers.
"I think this is really a watershed major because the ME/SA major was, from the beginning, driven by students," said Suad Joseph, anthropology professor and director of the program. "It started in 1998 when students passed an ASUCD resolution asking the administration to establish a Middle Eastern studies major."
Students worked to establish the major through ASUCD resolutions, contacting scholars in the field (including Joseph, who was in Cairo at the time of the 1998 resolution), and planning and research. In late 2004, a proposal for a ME/SA minor was approved, and students, along with Joseph, immediately began work on the major proposal.
"I think we broke all [time frame] records," she said. "By May 2005, we submitted the proposal for the ME/SA major."
In this application process, student support remained strong. More than 800 students signed a petition to apply for a Department of Education grant that added to the courses available at UC Davis. When the grant was awarded, the university was able to add Arabic and Hindi/Urdu to the languages offered at UC Davis, which increased the number of non-European language courses by 100 percent. Formerly, Japanese and Chinese were the only non-European languages offered.
Two years of language instruction in either of these two languages or Hebrew are required for the major. Students also take courses in religious studies, history, anthropology, art history, political studies and other fields to achieve a working knowledge of the area.
"This is a major with a national urgency," Joseph said. "Students fluent in Arabic are in high demand for governments, NGOs, corporations, universities, and other organizations."
Katie Bartscherer, a senior international relations and history major, sees the importance of the major as well.
"I think it's an important area of study, given the current international situation," she said. "I think the more focus dedicated to understanding other cultures, the better."
The major is unique in its combination of Middle Eastern and South Asian studies. Majors in one area or the other are common across the country, but few combine the two areas into one major, which is important for these studies, Joseph said.
"It makes sense to study these two regions of the world in relationship to each other," she said. "There are lots of connections in family, gender issues, religion, culture, history and language."
This major has attracted an increasing number of faculty in several areas in the last few years. When students contacted Joseph in 1998 about the major, she was the only professor on the subject. Since then, that number has increased to more than 20, and Joseph expects that number to increase to 30 in the next two or three years.
The major has received considerable support from administration and faculty in addition to students, and plans to add courses soon. The major office is located in 156 and 158 Everson, and the department holds an annual Hafla/Mela to welcome new students. Their next event will be a conference called "Rights Talk and Rights Work in the Middle East and South Asia" held Feb. 28 and 29 in the University Club. It will be open to all students, staff and faculty.