Major on Mideast proposed

The possibility of a modern Middle East major inched closer to reality Wednesday when a proposal was presented to the Committee on Majors for preliminary review.

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department chair John Darnell, who met with the committee yesterday, has been collaborating with political science professor Ellen Lust-Okar since the beginning of the academic year to design a major to satisfy the vocal student interest in the modern Middle East. Committee on Majors chair Pericles Lewis said the committee tentatively favors the proposal, and after a more thorough review, the document will be sent to Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who can bring the issue up for a faculty vote late in the semester.

The major was presented as a track within the NELC major and will be overseen jointly with the MacMillan Center’s Council on Middle East Studies, said Lust-Okar, who chairs the Council. The groundwork for the major was established by former NELC Director of Undergraduate Studies Hala Nassar over the past several years, Lust-Okar said, and was picked up again in the fall when Lust-Okar and Darnell began discussions with the NELC department as well as the University administration.

Lust-Okar said the University needs a formal Modern Middle East major in order to accommodate many students who, in past years, have attempted to create such a program for themselves by taking classes in a number of different departments. She said a more formal system will attract a larger pool of students and provide both students and faculty with a greater attachment to the department.

“The downside to an informal system is that not all students can figure out how to [create their own track], and faculty are not necessarily investing in a program to the extent that they would,” Lust-Okar said.

She said the major is possible now because of the recent expansion of University resources in the field of modern Middle East studies. The review of the proposal is beneficial not only in making a case for the major but in analyzing the strengths of and gaps in the University’s current course offerings in the study of the Middle East, Lust-Okar said.

Lewis said the University already offers a number of area-specific majors such as Latin American Studies and East Asian Studies, and the committee thinks study of the Middle East is important as well. While the committee is generally hesitant to add to the University’s roster of more than 70 majors, he said, it recognizes the need to update the curriculum from time to time.

“We think it’s important as part of the globalization of the University and making it a truly international University to consider these areas [of the world],” Lewis said.

Lewis said the committee will review the University’s resources in Middle Eastern studies in upcoming weeks in order to assess whether this major can be sustained with existing faculty resources and to consider how to appropriately balance the social studies and humanities components of the major.

Elise Pfeiffer ’08 — a political science and international studies major concentrating on the Middle East — said she would have been a modern Middle East studies major if it had been available earlier in her Yale career. Because NELC focuses primarily on ancient studies and many of the courses pertaining to the modern Middle East in other departments cannot be counted towards the NELC major, she said, students interested in the modern period tend to shy away from the department.

“There are lots of great modern Middle East classes offered at Yale, they just never cross-list them,” Pfeiffer said. “I’m sure this major will be great, because they don’t bring in a lot of specialists on the modern Middle East, so more specialists would be nice too.”

Nassar said after she was hired by NELC as a modern Middle East specialist, she began introducing more courses and opportunities in the field, including a senior seminar and a lecture series featuring speakers from all over the Middle East. She said she is very pleased that plans for the major are moving forward, but the University needs to hire more scholars in a number of departments in order for the major to be a success and for Yale to be a leader in the field of study.

If the current proposal is approved by the faculty, the major will be housed in the NELC department but administration and course selection will be handled by an advisory committee made up of faculty from NELC and the Council on Middle East Studies.

A separate proposal for a South Asian Studies major was presented to the committee last month, and will also be forwarded to Salovey’s office and then to the entire faculty upon Salovey’s approval. Salovey said student interest in both majors has been made clear to him repeatedly in the past and he looks forward to hearing the recommendations of the committee soon.

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