Mamadou Diouf came from the University of Michigan to Columbia in 2007 as a Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department professor who would teach African studies and direct the Institute of African Studies. But he noted the awkwardness inherent in teaching Africa in a department nominally devoted to the Middle East, suggesting that, in due time, the department would include his continent in its name. Perhaps MEAALAC, he proposed—though he conceded that the triple vowel could be cumbersome.
Two years later, Diouf has received his wish. Columbia's MEALAC, is proposing to change its name to the department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies. MEALAC, the department hopes, will soon become MESAAS.
According to MEALAC department chair Sudipta Kaviraj, the name change comes as a response to curricular changes over time. The switch was officially announced late last semester.
"Formerly the department mainly studied the Middle East—both its research and teaching. Now, although its Middle East part has been strengthened, it has scholars working on two other important regions—South Asia and Africa," Kaviraj said in an e-mail.
He also said that the department had shifted from a focus on languages, cultures, and literacy studies to study of the history and social sciences of these regions.
"The name change is necessary to reflect these two types of change: the regions—to include South Asia and Africa explicitly—and to reflect the inclusion of social science, history … by widening the disciplinary coverage from 'languages and cultures' to 'studies,'" Kaviraj said.
Muhsin Al-Musawi, a professor of Arabic studies, said that Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks had been discussing the alteration with Kaviraj and the past chairs of the department.
"A few years back the project began and it took time to implement many, many things and changes," Al-Musawi said, adding that Dirks and the chairs had a vision for the department which is "almost realized now."
But what's in a name? Kaviraj said that the new title will not bring about any new changes for the department and will just give "a more accurate picture of what it does." The department's teaching and research already reflects the shift, he said.
While some professors said they thought the name switch would leave MEALAC in the same place, Diouf sees the name switch as more of a game-changer for the department.
"The name is reflecting a kind of new agenda for the department … We are developing a much more comparative approach to the question we are dealing with," Diouf said.
Others in the department agreed these adjustments will herald a change in MEALAC.
"We're more inclusive," MEALAC professor George Saliba said. "Now we can do things that we've never dreamt of doing before."
Al-Musawi said that the transformation is not all smooth sailing for the department. "We need to also maintain depth insofar as these cultures are concerned," he said in regard to the curricular expansion. He added that the department must "sharpen conducive theoretical frameworks that will help students better connect past, present, and the future."
"We don't want something to be minimized or maximized at the expense of the strengths of the department itself," he added.
But the change does not necessarily seem to have reached students in MEALAC.
"It is interesting to me because I plan to focus more on North Africa [in my studies]," said Molly Gordon, CC '12, who plans to declare a major in the department. She added that the alteration will not change any courses that she will take this semester.
Gordon said that most students have not heard of the switch but that she felt that it will "bring to light the fact that the department doesn't just focus on Middle Eastern studies." Still, she added that the change seems "arbitrary and bureaucratic."
MEALAC has already launched a new website reflecting the shift.
According to Kaviraj, MEALAC is waiting for approval from the University Senate to fully adopt the new name.