After several years of steadily increasing enrollment in Arabic language classes and growing student interest in the Middle East, the University is considering plans to create a new undergraduate major in modern Middle Eastern studies.
Following a recent proposal by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations to create a new modern track within the NELC major, a new task force will begin developing plans for this new major, administrators said. It has not been decided whether a new modern Middle East major would be housed within NELC, and professors said any new program will have to incorporate scholars from other departments.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he has been aware of student demand for classes on the modern Middle East since he became dean, and he thinks it is important to create a program that incorporates faculty from relevant fields, including NELC, political science and economics.
“What is particularly exciting is the idea that Yale could become a leader in the study of modern Middle East by bringing together interests and faculty resources across a range of departments and programs,” Salovey said.
Deputy Provost Charles Long said the Steering Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — which includes Salovey, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler and Provost Andrew Hamilton — asked the Divisional Advisory Committee in the Humanities and the NELC Department to assemble a task force to review ways to structure and staff the major. Courses on aspects of the modern Middle East are currently scattered around a number of different departments in the University, including History, Political Science and Religious Studies.
The Council on Middle East Studies at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies already brings together faculty from across the University to offer a certificate of concentration in modern Middle East studies to graduate students enrolled in other degree-granting programs. Other councils in YCIAS, including the Council on East Asian Studies, offer their own undergraduate majors.
But such majors are not housed within a specific department, so they rely on faculty members’ willingness to teach classes suitable for the major, NELC professor Benjamin Foster said. If the proposed modern Middle East major is a track of the NELC major, the NELC department will be responsible for making sure courses are offered consistently in the program, he said.
To do so, the NELC Department will need additional faculty slots for scholars of the modern Middle East, Foster said. Foster, a specialist in Babylonian literature, currently teaches the department’s only course in contemporary politics of the Middle East.
“The faculty is 100 percent behind it,” he said. “[But] we honestly cannot do it with our present constellation of talent.”
History professor Abbas Amanat said he hopes to see greater public discussion of how to organize the major, and he expressed concern that a modern Middle East major housed in the NELC Department would not be sufficiently inclusive of faculty from other departments. If the modern major is too focused on language rather than interdisciplinary studies, it will be too close to the existing NELC major, Amanat said.
“It seems to me if you want to have a successful major, you have to have history, you have to have political science, you have to have religious studies,” he said.
But Foster said the NELC Department is eager to work with faculty from other programs, and he stressed the department’s willingness to accept courses from other fields for credit in the NELC major.
NELC has traditionally had a strong program in the ancient and classical Middle East, a legacy of a 1960s-era “gentleman’s agreement” with Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, Foster said. Yale decided to focus its resources on the ancient period, while Princeton and Penn would concentrate on the modern Middle East. As a result, other departments hired faculty members who specialized in the modern Middle East, but there was no coherent program at Yale for undergraduates interested in the modern period.
NELC major Tammer Qaddumi ’06 said he thinks the current NELC program is “totally outdated” due to its emphasis on ancient and classical studies. But he described the classes on the Middle East in other departments as “trigger-word” classes along the lines of “Terrorism 101” that study Middle East issues from a U.S. perspective.
“What you want is classes that deal with contemporary political issues in the Middle East but that do it from an organically Middle East perspective,” Qaddumi said.
Foster said he thinks a modern Middle East track within the NELC major should include intensive language study and a broad knowledge of history, so that it would not be focused on conflict between the Middle East and the West.
“We tend to teach unity and fundamental values, not clash of civilizations,” Foster said.
Foster and Amanat both said the University should commit more resources to modern Middle East studies. Long said the Provost’s Office has not yet decided whether to fund new faculty positions, although the NELC Department has requested two new professors in the area of modern Middle East studies. YCIAS is also currently conducting a search for a senior professor in modern Middle East studies.