In the year since I have left the University Arabic program for the Midwest, a lot of people — mostly students — have raised some serious questions about where Arabic is headed. It's encouraging to see so many people concerned for the program and for the language in general. But it's also worrisome, because a lot of the statements suggest a great deal of ignorance about the University, the program itself and the pace of academia in general.
To say that Arabic is an academic staple at the University would ignore the fact that the so-called Middle East has never been a major regional focus here. Furthermore, it would not acknowledge the regretful fact that Arabic and the regions where it is spoken crawled out of relative academic obscurity in almost every American university only 10 years ago. That does not mean that the regions, people, its cultures and languages of the Arabic world cannot be studied in Eugene. It does mean, however, that there are obstacles to establishing a new area of study, and they have to be overcome whether we think it is logical or not.
Despite the odds, Arabic has gone from a self-study program at the Univeristy in the fall of 2001 with two students in it to a requirement-satisfying language program with dozens if not hundreds of students. Not only that, but the program has emerged from the World Languages Academy — an experimental incubator for less-commonly-taught languages — to what is arguably one of the only departments on campus that is working to expand the field of Middle Eastern Studies with faculty members dedicated to Arabic's cause. This has never happened before, and it can only further Arabic's legitimization on campus. It's true that they also teach classes about religions, including Islam, in this department, but why should that matter?
Ironically, those who are worried about such a collocation are highlighting something that they want to de-emphasize. Should we also be worried that hundreds if not thousands of Muslims study Arabic in American universities each year, some of them at the University? Simply put, Arabic should not be viewed differently just because it is associated with Islam. Wherever it is being taught, it is a net positive for those who wish to be more educated about the language and everything that comes with it. Oh, and the last time I checked, the primary textbook for the Arabic program was not the Quran.
It is naive to assume when a program moves or changes hands that nothing will happen. In this case, the changes to the curriculum have streamlined the program with many, if not most, of the programs in the country. It may not seem like it, but having some common ground with other programs and other students is a good thing. As for those who wish to study more dialect, they and their teachers need to find ways to do so but not at the expense of standard Arabic, since it — unlike colloquial forms of the language — provides them with the tools to engage far more than one particular strain of the language.
The laudable and insightful idea of assessing students with proficiency goals instead of chapter goals is certainly possible, but integrating that form of assessment into one where letter grades are assigned to students at the end of the term is not likely to happen soon. The easiest solution would be to make all language classes "pass/fail," but I doubt students would be on board with that idea given that language classes are credit heavy and can influence GPAs quite dramatically.
There have also been some comparisons made between this program and the program at the University of Texas at Austin. While I think it's fine to look elsewhere for motivation, comparisons and inspiration, I also think it's not fair to compare a nascent program like what we have at the University to one that has attracted many of the preeminent faculty and graduate students in the field, receives extensive institutional support and has more money at its disposal than most Arabic programs combined. A better comparison might be with similar programs that have failed where the University has succeeded.
To conclude, I think that everyone involved understands where these good-intentioned inquiries are coming from. Yes, it has taken a decade to get here, and we all want more — but look around. We are working within the dark, musty halls of the frustratingly medieval bureaucracy that is academia. That Arabic has managed to see the light of day at all is a testament to the progress that has been made.
Founder, U of O Arabic Program (2001-2010)
Lecturer of Arabic & Middle Eastern Geography, Cornell College (2011-2013)