As the first professor of a subject that has never been taught at Bowdoin before, Russell Hopley has a lot to live up to. He has to convince his Elementary Arabic students that getting up for a 9:30 class five days a week is worth it. Additionally, he must satisfy those students who are too advanced for the beginner class and attend a weekly informal, not-for-credit seminar on Fridays. He also must show the administration that Arabic is not a passing fad or, as he puts it, "just a flash in the pan."
So far, things seem to be going well. The beginner class is full and Hopley said he is pleased with his students, who are motivated to learn despite the initial challenges presented by studying a language vastly different from English. Hopley acknowledges that Arabic can be challenging at first.
"There is no real carryover from English or another language," he said. The language is full of "odd, non-Western sounds" that challenge English speakers. Progress is slow," Hopley said. "We're in the fourth week of class and we're still covering the alphabet."
Though Hopley has taught Arabic before, he is most interested in North African and Berber culture and literature, a subject he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton. Hopley's interest in Arabic and North Africa began while living in Libya for two years when he was 10 and 11. His father worked for an oil company and the family moved around frequently, spending a significant amount of time in Indonesia. Despite the moves, Hopley remained intrigued by North Africa. He said he was drawn in by Arab culture because of how "different the culture is but just as robust, as strong as our Western tradition." His interest stuck with him into his college years when he began to study Arabic again at Northwestern University.
Hopley has visited the Arabic world many times. He studied at a university in Jordan and took a job in Syria at the American Cultural Center in Damascus. He describes his job there as "coming at an interesting time," as Syria and Great Britain had just had a diplomatic "falling out." As a result, the government was looking for Americans to replace the British as English teachers.
"They were desperate to hire Americans," he said.
Hopley continued his stint teaching English in Fez, Morocco, a city with "virtually no foreigners." Despite standing out, Hopley said that he didn't feel like an outsider then as much as now.
"There's more of a distance now than before. People are more suspicious, before they were more impressed [to meet an American who spoke Arabic]," he said.
Hopley attributed the change in reception not only to current United States involvement in the Middle East, but also to the presentation of Americans by Arabic media. He commented that 15 or 20 years ago there were very few Arabic television stations but now there are many—including the well-known Al-Jazeera—and they "influence how people are thinking about Americans." Additionally, Hopley said that the recent influx of Americans studying Arabic causes residents of Middle Eastern and North African nations to be suspicious of American interests in the region.
The increased interest in the region and the language has affected how Arabic scholars are perceived at home as well.
"Prior to 9/11, being an Arabic scholar was seen as being a bit eccentric, but now it's seen as a lot more relevant," Hopley said.
According to Hopley, Arabic scholars have evolved in the past decade. He noted that in the past, students of Arabic were people with "a strong interest in long-term graduate programs or Ph.D. study. Now people are more foreign service and business oriented than before."
Hopley said that unfortunately people increasingly study the Arabic language only and neglect the culture and religion, despite the fact that the three are extremely interconnected.
"Arabic can't be divorced from the two," he said.
Students of Arabic "are going to have to deal with the Koran," he said, describing the text as "a cornerstone of that culture."
While Elementary Arabic is just language study, Hopley noted the importance of hiring Robert Morrison, an Islam/Judaism specialist who also joined the faculty this fall. Students with interest in the Middle East now have an opportunity to study the language and the religion, although the number of classes about the region is still small—only three class are available this fall.
The students who are most adamant about the establishment of a Middle Eastern studies department recognize that adding faculty positions takes time, and seem to be content—for now—with the addition of the two Middle Eastern specialists this fall.
"It's a great first step," said Pack Janes '09, who studied abroad in Jordan and is in Hopley's informal intermediate seminar,
"It can and should only grow from here," Janes said.
While supportive of the Elementary Arabic class, Janes was frustrated that there are no formal opportunities for intermediate students of Arabic to continue studying.
"Not getting credit and meeting only once a week is hard. You can't learn Arabic unless you're over there or studying five days a week," Janes said.
Fatouma Kunjo '10 enjoys the beginner class but said that she wishes there were more out-of-class support for the language.
"There's no language table, no department, just class and homework. There isn't any Arabic typing software yet," she said.
Professor Hopley said he understands the College's reservations about offering a second year Arabic course right away, but he finds that teaching intermediate Arabic only one day a week is challenging.
"Meeting only one hour a week, it's hard to make progress," he said.
At the same time, he said that students' willingness to attend a not-for-credit class indicates to him that "there has been interest building up for a while."