Our generation has seen turmoil flare up between the Middle East and the United States ever since the fatal day of Sept. 11, 2001. While an unjust battle rages in the Middle East, a battle of blasphemy and stereotypes also continues here in the United States. Many students at the University want to understand the world many know little about, but the school has significantly decreased resources to this knowledge and causing turmoil inside the Arabic program.
Now, more than ever, our University needs a Middle Eastern Studies minor, and potentially a major, to ensure students are provided the opportunity to develop an understanding of the Arab world.
In 2009, political science teacher Ken DeBevoise found out he was being phased out of his teaching position. DeBevoise is the only teacher in the political science department who teaches courses that specially focus on the Middle East and North Africa. The phasing out of DeBevoise, scheduled to completed by 2012, also means these courses will no longer be available to students.
But it didn't stop there. Last fall term, the Arabic program moved from the Yamada Language Center to the Department of Religious Studies. Initially, the move was a positive step forward. Being in a department gave the Arabic program stability, opportunities for research and the potential of offering upper-division courses. Students want to be recognized for the work that they have put into Arabic and other Middle Eastern classes.
The Department of Religious Studies has expressed interest in creating an Arabic minor, yet students such as Beshara Kehdi, a University senior and member of the Arab Student Union, believes it is not unreasonable to also have a Middle Eastern Studies minor at the University.
"The demand is here to learn about the Middle East, and so are the classes and professors."
Moving Arabic into Religious Studies reinforces stereotypes. The Spanish language isn't under Catholicism, nor is Chinese under Buddhism. The Arab world is much more than a language and a religion.
"Arabic is a broad culture, constantly changing," Kehdi said. "It is not just connected with Islam."
After University sophomore Zachary Shivers' repetitive meetings with the heads of the Department of Religious Studies, Shivers decided to schedule a meeting with the Associate Dean of Humanities, Judith R. Baskin. He learned that under the department, it is unlikely that there will ever be a minor or a major. The only way to do so is through a Middle Eastern Studies program, something the University has the potential resources for.
The resources are available; in 2008, Arabic instructor Mohamed Jemmali tried to introduce a Middle Eastern Studies program to the University. It only needed one more signature.
While the potential Middle Eastern Studies minor hangs in limbo, students from the Arabic department have rising concerns since Arabic has come under Religious Studies.
David Hollenberg, assistant professor of Arabic language, asked the instructors to speed up the pace for the first-year Arabic students. The students would now learn the textbook, "Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds," in six weeks instead of 10. This new pace is the same as University of Texas at Austin's, one of the top Arabic programs in the nation.
The idea was to make Arabic a more competitive program. But what's the cost?
In the fall of 2010, there were 160 students enrolled in Arabic. Today, that number is 95. There is a class with only five students enrolled and another with only three. First-year Arabic students Kevin Mataraci, a University freshman, and Sam Wadman, a University sophomore, have watched their classes slowly dwindle in size.
"At the beginning there were 20 plus students in our class," Mataraci said. "This term, the enrollment has totally fallen apart. Some kids have dropped out because the workload is just too stressful."
Culture has also been extracted from the program. The Department of Religious Studies no longer gives the Arabic department the resources to have an Arabic Day, something teachers and students used to look forward to.
"Learning a language is becoming part of a new community," Shivers said. "Denying the culture is denying us the chance to the learn the language."
Students also worry that dialect will begin to taper off from the program, as Modern Standard Arabic would be the main component of speaking.
"Learning MSA is good," senior John Adamson said, "but speaking it to native speakers is like someone speaking Shakespearean English."
Now, students are taking action. After sending a petition around to all the Arabic classes about reforming the program, Shivers has signatures from 75 of the 95 Arabic students. The order brings modifications students believe to be essential, such as proficiency goals instead of chapter goals, emphasis on both MSA and dialect in the classroom, as well as the need to incorporate Arabic culture back into the curriculum. A few students have also started a Facebook page called "Save Arabic at U of O."
Arabic instructors have also been distressing for students. One instructor's contract will not be renewed, and the other's contract is in jeopardy. And though the Department of Religious Studies has communicated time and time again that no changes will be made besides structural ones and "behind the scenes," the Arabic students, instructors and program are the ones affected.
Understanding the Middle East is vital. It is essential for students to obtain as much knowledge from all different areas as possible including, but not limited to, language, religion, culture and politics. With the turmoil continuing across the world, we cannot afford to be not be educated in the matter.
It is no wonder America ignorantly got itself into multiple wars — look at how we choose to educate ourselves on Middle Eastern policies, language and culture.