The USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences launched a new major in Middle East studies Monday night with a film screening of "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt."
The new major, which will be housed in the School of International Relations, draws on courses from 10 different departments at the College, including history, classics, economics and Judaic studies.
It offers two tracks of study, one involving a foreign language requirement and the other waiving those courses to open up the major to a larger number of students.
Faculty from the collaborating departments spent two years preparing the program's curriculum before it was officially approved last week, said Laurie Brand, director of the School of International Relations.
Students will be able to declare the Middle East Studies major or minor when they register for their fall 2008 classes, Brand said.
Professors whose research focuses primarily on the Middle East largely served as the driving force for the creation of the new major, she said.
"The idea to have a major in Middle East studies grew out of the fact that there were a number of hires that really bolstered the offerings in many departments for classes about Middle East studies," Brand said. "We have a strong intellectual basis for the major and now we can offer it to students."
Professors who will teach in the Middle East studies program said student interest also served as an impetus for the program's development.
"Student input was critical in moving the process forward," said Ramzi Rouighi, an assistant professor of history. "I was approached by a number of undergraduates with inquiries about the possibility to put together a Middle East major. After discussing the matter with other colleagues, it became obvious that we needed to capitalize on the availability of already existing classes."
In this respect, the program differs from others at the College, particularly because its architects chose not to create new courses for the curriculum.
Since the major spans several academic disciplines, it has no formal department or faculty chair of its own.
Sarah Gualtieri, a professor in both the department of history and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity, said the unconventional aspects of the program keep it in line with USC's academic mission.
"I think there is a way in which the program is attempting to implement the USC vision, which is one that emphasizes interdisciplinarity," she said. "It is pioneering in a way, but it's also building on the strengths of other programs."
The interdisciplinary nature of the program follows the example of other area studies majors at the College and, like other universities, USC wanted to offer students the opportunity to study the Middle East, Gualtieri said.
"There is generally across the nation a rise in interest in issues related to the Middle East, and students are thinking that a major in Middle East studies may help them understand this area better and make them more marketable," she said.
Students present at the program's launch event said they were excited about the new major.
"I didn't know anything about Islam, but [Rouighi] made it interesting for me," said Maki Hattori, a junior majoring in international relations who took one of Rouighi's classes. "I definitely want to continue; it's something I care about and it's become very relevant for me."
Gloria Shin, a graduate student in critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said she is appreciative of the Middle East Studies program because it will provide resources for students of all levels at the university.
"I'm glad this department is here because part of my dissertation is about the Middle East," she said.
Only 10 people attended the event, but despite the modest turnout Monday, Rouighi said he and other faculty members remain optimistic.
"It's the first time, and maybe Monday [at] 5 [p.m.] is not the best, but we got 10 people on our mailing list," he said. "Students have come to my office hours and e-mailed me asking about the major, so we have a lot of interest on campus. We're hoping to build this into something that'll grow."
As students learn more about the Middle East, professors hope they will gain a deeper understanding of the region's cultures in both an ancient and modern context.
"For our students to have a well-rounded and reasonable view of the world they live in, they need to be able to think intelligently about all regions," Rouighi said. "Obviously the Middle East has been a special region for longer than students realize. Current affairs being what they are, it makes it even more critical for our students to develop informed and intelligent ways of thinking about the region."
As for the future of the program, its coordinators hope to offer a wider variety of foreign language courses, such as classes in Farsi or Turkish and more advanced courses in Arabic, Brand said.
A film series, which started with the showing of "Umm Kulthum," will continue throughout the semester to generate student interest about the major, and programs focusing on youth culture and multiculturalism in the Middle East are planned for next year, she added.