Faculty discussing potential Middle Eastern Studies concentration

By Angela Whited

Increased student interest and recent donations to the college have opened the doors for the formation of a Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Civilization concentration.
On Sept. 8, an ad hoc committee co-chaired by Political Science professor Andrew Latham and Religious Studies professor Ahmad Ahmad presented a proposal to Education Policy and Governance (EPAG) committee suggesting the formation of just such a concentration.

“People, basically, could already collect five or six classes in Middle Eastern studies,” Ahmad said. “What we’re doing is formalizing it.”

The committee has proposed that a concentration be formed requiring seven classes, one of which is a capstone that deals with the Middle East or Islamic civilization. Three of these courses will focus on the Middle East and three will focus on Islamic civilization. In addition to the curricular component, the concentration will require competence in one language spoken natively in the Middle East or the Islamic world.
A number of steps remain before the new program can be realized. EPAG must approve the proposal, circulate it among the faculty 10 days prior to a meeting, and the full faculty must vote to adopt it.

The proposal represents the combined sentiments of faculty members from multiple departments as well as students Denna Millet ’06 and Sherazad Hamit ’07. It was drafted by Latham, who received feedback from EPAG on Tuesday.

“The tone I got from EPAG was that ‘we think this a great idea, and here are some constructive, probing questions,'” Latham said. “I don’t think there’s any opposition to this.”
Classics professor Andy Overman was also a member of the committee.

“It’s an exciting development for the students at this college,” he said. “There’s no question the Middle East is a point of interest. What we’re missing, the piece we don’t have is Arabic. Too many Mac students are having to go down the street or to the U to get their Arabic.”

Provost Diane Michelfelder announced at Wednesday’s faculty meeting that she will commit to hiring someone to teach introductory and intermediate Arabic next fall. The college recently received a $500,000 donation to be applied to a Middle Eastern studies fund, according to Deb Chaulk, Director of Donor Relations. Last year the college received a $100,000 Ford Foundation Grant that will support an on-campus conference on the Middle East as well as the ongoing architectural excavation run by Overman in Omrit, Israel. The Ford Foundation will also partially fund a Summer 2008 faculty development seminar in the Middle East.

According to Latham, the money and intention to hire an Arabic instructor predated the proposal of the new concentration. Faculty and students have expressed growing discontent with the quality of Arabic offerings available in the Twin Cities.

Ahmad, who taught Arabic as a second language for six years at Harvard, described what he thought to be an adequate Arabic language program:
“One semester of Arabic is 75 hours of contact requiring 150 hours of homework. The class is conducted in Arabic as early as you can, usually starting the second week or so. The standard book, Al Kitaab, ends in one year.”

“St. Thomas does between 50 and 60 percent of that,” Ahmad said. “We hope to go up a notch.”

“Because St. Thomas just provides a little bit of money, the program is not as developed as it should be,” said Sherazad Hamit ’07, who took two years of Arabic at St. Thomas. “The teaching scope is limited. There’s a limited amount you can learn in one class a week.”

The members of the committee, including Ahmad and Latham, said they hope to get the proposal to the full faculty this semester to allow for students to begin working within the concentration next fall. There are, however, logistical questions that EPAG wants to consider before presenting it for a faculty vote.

According to Latham, there is debate over which department will house the Arabic instructor, since he or she will be teaching modern and not classical Arabic. EPAG also questions the ability of the concentration to have a language requirement, since a student beginning the study of Arabic would be taking four semesters of language instruction in addition to seven Middle Eastern or Islamic studies courses, a total of 11 courses—an amount that exceeds the required coursework for many majors.

Latham is content that the current difficulties can be dealt with easily, and that the committee will not have difficulty getting the proposal to the full faculty on time.
Latham said he hopes the proposal makes it through EPAG in time for the November faculty meeting. “If it came up in February, it wouldn’t be end of the world. If it came up in March it might be close to the end of the world.”