Middle East studies in the News
Middle East Studies Sees Rise in Student Interest
by Chris Beam
With fears of another Sept. 11 on the rise and war looming in Iraq, the eyes of the world is focused on the Middle East. Such interest is anything but new at Columbia.
Over the past decade, both the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department and inter-departmental Middle East courses have seen steady increases in student enrollment. With several recently-added professorships and plans for even more expansion in the future, Middle Eastern studies is one of the fastest-growing fields at Columbia.
In 1997, 36 students were enrolled in Professor George Saliba's Major Cultures List A course "Contemporary Islamic Civilization." By this semester that number had increased to 187, and next semester Saliba expects to cap it at 214.
"Since 1994 we have been on an ascending curve," Saliba said. While Saliba acknowledges that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the war on terrorism have contributed to increased interest, he believes that their effect on enrollment is only part of the growing popularity of Middle Eastern studies.
This trend may also be a result of increasing diversity in the student body, according to Arabic language Professor Taoufik Ben Amor.
Ben Amor pointed out that students study Arabic for a wide range of reasons, but "maybe there's a growth in the kinds of students who would take Arabic," such as Muslims or Hebrew-speakers seeking to study a related language.
Last fall, Professor of History Richard Bulliet began teaching a new course, "America and the Muslim World," which was introduced specifically in reaction to Sept. 11.
"That course had the highest enrollment of any course I've ever taught," Bulliet said. "So there was clearly a demand for more teaching a little bit more focused on a post-9/11 outlook."
Though Bulliet's was the only course added to the curriculum in reaction to current events, some professors have shifted the focus of pre-existing courses to cover timely topics.
Professor Richard Betts, who teaches a course on U.S. foreign policy, has dedicated more class time to terrorism and unconventional warfare since Sept. 11.
"I also make efforts to use events in the headlines to illustrate theoretical points about international relations and policy whenever appropriate, to make the relevance of theory and history clearer," Betts wrote in an e-mail.
Other courses, such as Tanisha Fazal's "Current Issues in International Security," are designed to focus on hot topics. In a series of lectures, Fazal discusses larger security issues using current events, as well as historical examples as context.
"I tend to structure the class by getting general arguments down and applying them to a case drawn from current events," Fazal said.
Some professors, however, think current events get in the way of clear historical perspective. According to Saliba, much of his "Contemporary Islamic Civilization" class is now dedicated to dispelling students' misconceptions about the Middle East.
"Now we have to do a lot of 'de-teaching'--taking away the images that TV and The New York Times put out," Saliba said.
"Classroom instruction is not to respond to Fox News or a Times article ... it absorbs these things within a much wider historical context," he added.
Sometimes the very presence of the phrase "Middle East" in a course's title can give students the wrong ideas about the course's goals. In reaction to this assumption, Professor Hamid Dabashi, the MEALAC chair, removed the phrase from his course previously titled "Sociology of Middle Eastern Cinema," and now calls it "Cinema and Sociology in Asia and Africa."
"Sometimes the phrase 'Middle East' can be distracting," he said. "Now students come to class without the added baggage of Middle Eastern politics. Of course these issues still come up, but the spirit of the course is not about Middle East issues. ... In a sense, I liberated the course."
Over the past few years, rising student interest in Middle Eastern studies has been accompanied by a growing amount of attention from Low Library. A departmental review of MEALAC in 1998-99 paved the way for a substantial endowment--a chair created for an already-existing position--for Arabic instruction and a search for a senior Sanskrit instructor.
Both projects were completed over the past year. This spring the department plans to request a search for a junior professor in South Asian studies.
These developments reflect MEALAC's "internal growth" separate from student enrollment, Dabashi said.
The history department has seen similar signs of growth in past years, a trend that is expected to continue with the arrival of history Professor Rashid Khalidi from the University of Chicago in the fall. Khalidi will also serve as director of the Middle East Institute.
Though Khalidi does not know exactly which courses he will teach, he expects to rework some of his U. of Chicago offerings. Possible additions include a course on modern Middle Eastern history, one on the Arab press specifically geared toward Arabic-speaking students, and "Orientalism and the Historiography of the Other," a course discussing nations whose histories were written by other countries.
Bulliet said Khalidi's arrival would attract even more students to Middle Eastern studies.
"Because he is a very prominent historian among Palestinians, those courses will probably have very good enrollments, and those enrollments will be related to concerns of Columbia undergraduates that have existed before 9/11 and have perhaps accentuated since 9/11," Bulliet said.
The hiring of Khalidi is only part of the history department's expansion plan. The department is now seeking authorization to conduct a search next year for a new assistant professor of Middle East history. This position has been held vacant for several years, most recently pending Khalidi's decision.
"If we were going to have a distinguished senior professor of modern Middle Eastern history, then he should play a central role in choosing who the junior person is in the field," Bulliet said.
If the administration gives the go-ahead, the search will begin next fall. By 2004, Columbia would have three full-time historians specializing in the Middle East.
Road Blocks and Second Chances
Despite the nearly continuous success of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, the road has had its bumps.
In 2000, Columbia lost its Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships for graduate students. The application for renewal, formulated by Bulliet, then director of the Middle East Institute, was rejected for the first time in 15 years. The institute has reapplied for this grant and is now awaiting a response.
One reason for the FLAS application's rejection in 2000 may have been the state of Turkish language studies at Columbia. Since 1997, students interested in learning Turkish have been forced to commute to New York University for classes three times a week.
Dabashi disagrees with such a black-and-white explanation. "I seriously doubt that one item can be a determining factor," Dabashi said.
Nonetheless, the team formulating the new FLAS application has made sure to include a budget for Turkish teaching should the fellowships be granted, according to Dabashi.
Before the 2000 FLAS application review, Peter Awn and Lisa Anderson, professors in the religion and political science departments respectively, were elevated to administrative positions in the School of International and Public Affairs.
Bulliet cited this shift in duties as another possible reason the renewal application failed. "It was noted ... that two of our deans were not teaching very actively," Bulliet said.
According to Bulliet, the application's failure "led to worries about the vitality of the program here."
"I began to wonder whether we were slipping behind some of the other Middle East programs," he said.
This incident was especially disappointing after the overwhelmingly positive departmental review of MEALAC just a year before.
"Why ... the [FLAS fellowship] was not granted really has its own logic. ... It is not a reflection of the department," Dabashi said. However, most are confident about Columbia's chances for success.
"The people who did the proposal this year may have a more robust view of things ... because things have changed," Bulliet said.
"I am elated about how we've been expanding," Dabashi said. "We now have an extremely cogent, potent program."
Bulliet also suggested that the presence of Khalidi in the Middle East Institute might help the application's acceptance.
The Next Step
In the event of a war with Iraq, Dabashi expects to see teach-ins at Columbia similar to the one he organized in October 2001 during the military action in Afghanistan.
"I'm sure there will be people putting together events," he said, although as of now he has nothing planned.
Academic offerings may also adjust depending on the occasion of war, Bulliet said.
"If the war materializes next month, I would expect to find courses in the fall discussing the war to some degree. Certainly in my own course 'America and the Muslim World' the war would play a role." Khalidi expressed hopes that students will continue to learn about the Middle East both in the classroom and elsewhere.
"This is an area where there's a great deal of misinformation and a great deal of emotion," he said. "Ignorance and emotion are a bad mix. Like gasoline vapor and oxygen, they are explosive. I hope that ... more knowledge will decrease the ignorance quotient, though it may not necessarily change the emotional quotient."
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