A number of students majoring in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) are expressing frustration at the dearth of contemporary Middle East course offerings at Yale, prompting concerns that the University, which prides itself on being at the vanguard of scholarly activity, is failing to keep pace with comparable institutions that offer comprehensive programs in Middle Eastern studies.
Current political events in the region have sparked a rise in student interest, and some say the small department is having trouble meeting that demand. "The fact is that Yale is not providing students with access to knowledge of an area of the world that is so central to this nation's foreign policy," Timothy Arnold, JE '06, an NELC major, said. One student who asked to remain anonymous put it even more bluntly: "You can graduate from Yale as a NELC major and know nothing about the Mideast."
The problem does not just affect NELC majors. "It's not necessarily a problem with the major, per se," Arnold said. "I really view it as a university-wide problem. Outside of the religious studies department, there really aren't any classes on the modern Middle East." While recent additions to the NELC department do cover modern Arab topics, they tend to focus on cultural, linguistic, or literary themes, rather than on current political or economic issues. Furthermore, both the history and political science departments each employ only one full-time professor who focuses on modern Middle Eastern studies. As Arnold said, "There are too few professors and too few classes."
This apparent resistance to change may stem, in part, from the department's origins. Historically, NELC faculty have focused primarily on the ancient world, thanks in part to a long-standing gentleman's agreement between Yale and other Ivy League universities. Benjamin Foster, William M. Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature and a former chair of the NELC department, explained that this agreement was solidified in the early '60s when an intercollegiate committee recommended that Yale continue to focus on the ancient Near East, leaving Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania to develop more modern programs. "The department was in the hands of relic antiquarians," said Harvey Weiss, an archaeologist and professor in the NELC department.
The department's faculty was itself opposed to modernizing its ranks. "The University wants to keep the focus on medieval times because they are trained medievalists," Bassam Frangieh, a senior lector in Arabic language, said.
Regardless of the root of NELC's focus on the ancient Near East, students are beginning to find it cumbersome, especially in light of the region's prominence on the world stage today. "The ancient civilization requirement of the NELC major is kind of ridiculous because what I'm interested in is modern Middle Eastern conflicts," Elisabeth Bosley, ES '06, said. Many students have expressed a desire for courses concentrating on modern Mid East conflicts—a far cry from NELC's more traditional offerings, such as "Egyptian Monastic Literature in Coptic."
Although most admit that Yale is making progress in updating its Middle Eastern programs, some argue it is too little and too slow, citing limited funding and ideological conflicts as major obstacles. Indeed, piecemeal improvements have marked the recent journey of Yale's Middle East programs. Last year, the Yale Center for International and Area Studies (YCIAS) Council on the Middle East won a government grant under Title VI of the Federal Education Act, allowing it to expand Arabic language offerings and create Turkish and Persian language courses within NELC. "A lot of these different steps are already in the works," NELC Professor Beatrice Gruendler said. "We have a task force within the department to come up with a proposal, and probably by the end of spring semester, we'll have something concrete to offer that can then go through the University's steps." The task force, however, will only address language-related issues.
One major step toward modernization was the appointment of Hala Nassar, who specializes in the role of women in modern Arabic culture and arts, as DUS of the NELC department. As professor of "Modern Arab Thought," Nassar teaches one of the more popular contemporary Arab classes at Yale; needless to say, she is a strong advocate for the modernization of the department. "Yale is the only campus without a strong modern Mideast program. I know the intentions are there, but they need to be realized sooner rather than later," she said. Nassar argued that one way to strengthen the department would be to open senior, tenured positions as a way to draw the strongest scholars to Yale. "Of course, that would need a lot of lobbying, financing, and coordination between departments," she said.
Issues of funding and interdepartmental cooperation have long been sticking points for the NELC department. "Our requests for expansion in the area of modern Near East were systematically and routinely turned down," Foster said, referring to the department's expansionary efforts during the '70s. According to him, "Requests from other departments to expand in the modern Near East were honored," allowing the history and religious studies departments to add full professorships. "It was cool to do modern Middle East studies, but the only place you couldn't do it was in the Near East department," he said.
Yet departments like history and religious studies, given their broad scope, have limited openings for fully-tenured faculty who specialize in a particular region or area, meaning that most of the professors at Yale who focus on Middle East topics are employed as adjunct or visiting professors. The transient nature of these positions has inevitably hindered the creation of a coherent program at Yale. Furthermore, it can be difficult for NELC majors to get into popular courses outside of the NELC department. David Nitkin, ES '06, said that it is "nearly impossible" to get into popular history seminars as a NELC major, even if the seminar is directly related to NELC studies. NELC majors have also had trouble finding senior essay advisors.
Foster thinks the problem is ultimately tied to funding, the lack of which plagues the deparment, despite growing popularity among undergraduates. "In the struggle for resources, we are still considered a small department with small enrollments," he said. "If you want to know where all the money is being spent, take a walk up Science Hill." Given that recent expansions in the NELC department have focused on the language program, which is what the YCIAS grant specifies, it seems any changes in the department are directly tied to financial constraints. "I see less likelihood in our expanding in history and civilization than expanding in languages and literatures, which is really what we do," Foster said.
To complicate matters, there seems to be a lack of consensus about who is best-equipped to solve the problem—students, faculty, or administrators. "There's only so much we [students] can do," Arnold said. "It has got to come from the top down. It would have to come from the Administration, because I'm not sure how much professors themselves could do." Frangieh, however, insists that the progress made so far has come from student pressure. "The University is not doing it," he said. "The students are doing it."
Bosley offered a different view, saying that faculty can also play a critical role. "The DUS and professors are the ones who are going to end up pushing for new classes," she said. Nancy Ruther, Associate Director of YCIAS, pointed to faculty leadership within the Center. "Faculty from various communities come together in the councils and discuss what they need to expand their expertise," she said. According to Wiess, the changing composition of the department's faculty should facilitate these efforts. "Now that the department has been removed from the hands of relic antiquarians, I think the University will be quite responsive to NELC needs," he said.
With faculty and student enthusiasm on the rise, it remains unclear why the Administration seems to be hesitating. Beatrice Gruendler, a professor in the NELC department, said that bureaucracy could account for the relatively slow movement of change. "A major is a degree in the University, and if you want to expand a major or create a new program, you need to go through specific steps," she said. "But I'm not saying it takes ages."
Although he declined to speak specifically on Middle Eastern studies, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey expressed the Administration's commitment to strengthening the program. "If we are lacking in courses in this area, we should make every attempt to provide them," he said. "In general, we are engaged in an initiative, recommended by the Committee on Yale College Education, to increase the number of courses focused on international relations."
While Nassar is dedicated to expanding courses and faculty that cover modern Middle Eastern topics, she has her mind set on higher goals. Pointing to more focused Middle East programs at other universities, such as Columbia's department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Nassar says a similar program for Yale "is my future vision." She, too, wondered why, in the face of strong student and faculty support, Yale has moved relatively slowly to implement such reforms.
Frangieh has also argued vehemently for a new focus. "With wars, destruction, everywhere, every day, this is a new reality," he said. "It ought to change the nature of courses offered at Yale and everywhere else."
In the meantime, students and faculty feel they must wait for the University's next move. As Nassar put it, "If nothing is going to be created for students [interested in modern Arabic studies], they will go elsewhere."