At the Sunday, Feb. 24 Student Government Association meeting, a motion to recommend the establishment of a Middle Eastern Studies Minor to the Academic Affairs Committee was passed unanimously.
Patrick Boland '09 (East Quad) proposed the motion after two seniors currently enrolled in Arabic independent studies approached Boland. He noted that the two students recognized that the motion would likely not benefit them during their remaining senior year of study at the College, however the long-term benefits for the school were of utmost importance.
One of the students, Kristen Kouttab '08, was actively involved in setting up last semester's short-lived ML111 Arabic independent language study. The shortcomings of that former program, combined with student interest and contemporary relevance of the subject matter led her to ask Boland to propose the motion to SGA. "The Middle East is such an important [area] nowadays, it should really be a critical part of the curriculum [at the College]," Kouttab said.
Currently, there are courses offered in history, religious studies and government that cover Middle Eastern topics. Assistant Professor of History John Turner, who teaches courses such as "Foundations of Islam" and "History of the Modern Middle East," reiterated Kouttab's assertion that Middle Eastern topics are of great importance and will continue to be so in the future. "The Middle East's relevance is clearly not going away, as it is of strategic and tactical importance to the United States," Turner said. Furthermore, the presence of "1.4 billion Muslims in the world" must be recognized on campus.
Turner and Government Professor Guilain Deneoux are likely candidates to teach within the minor, should it come to fruition. However, to create a comprehensive minor, Turner and Kouttab agree that new faculty positions must be set up to allow for the legitimate incorporation of a Middle Eastern language program.
Teaching a Middle Eastern language, such as Arabic or Farsi, presents unique challenges. Most native languages spoken in the Middle East are quite complex and vastly different in both script and grammar from Romance or East Asian languages. According to Kouttab, it was because of these challenges that the formalized independent language study program failed last semester. Tutors hired by the College failed to meet the standards of performance and comprehension that language departments expect of faculty.
In addition to creating a faculty position for a Middle East language professor, Turner hopes that courses will be offered in Middle Eastern literature, an oft-forgotten aspect of Middle East culture in the politically focused post-September 11 era.
However, Turner recognizes that the events of September 11, 2001 helped spark an academically-driven interest in the region. "In the 1990s, almost nobody was doing Islamic or Middle Eastern studies, and it really took 9/11 to shake people's understanding of the world enough that they began to view understanding the Middle East and Islam as important," Turner said. Before 9/11, "there was a profound gap in American basic knowledge [of the region]."
Kouttab hopes that if the minor is established, it will eventually grow into a full-fledged major at the College. She foresees a comprehensive major with its own regional concentrations, such as "Middle East-Levant," and "Middle East-North Africa."
Before the minor can be officially established, however, a faculty member must write, submit and argue a proposal before Academic Affairs Committee. Boland is afraid that there will be "no short term plans, as [the College has] no way to fund a new professor right now."
Even in light of this, Turner and Kouttab remain hopeful that a program will eventually be established. If trends at other colleges and universities are any indication, Middle Eastern studies programs are here to stay.