Area studies fields planned

Two new area-specific majors are on their way to joining the curriculum in 2007 — South Asian Studies this semester and Modern Middle East Studies in the fall.

Both majors were presented to the Committee on Majors this semester in response to student interest and administrative support. A proposal for South Asian Studies has already been drafted for submission to the Dean’s Office and will likely be put to a faculty vote in May, but there are still issues that need to be addressed before the Modern Middle East proposal is ready for official approval, committee chair Pericles Lewis said. Faculty and students applauded the proposed majors as a direct response to evolving student demand, but there remains a debate about whether area-specific majors should be offered independently or only as second majors.

If implemented, the two majors will be administered in conjunction with regional councils based out of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said there has been a consistent and vocal interest in both South Asian and Middle East studies in recent months and that the University has attempted to be responsive to such student opinion. The most persistent challenge faculty members face when putting together a proposal for an area-specific major is ensuring that it is sustainable over a long period of time, which requires a thorough review of existing resources and often results in faculty searches in specific subject areas, Salovey said.

“What the Committee on Majors really wants to ensure is that we have enough faculty strength across the departments to keep the major going even if a key person should be on leave or should leave the University or if the major proves to be even more popular than anticipated,” Salovey said.

Lewis said developing a strong proposal for the Modern Middle East major — which was originally proposed as a track in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department — will require an expansion of faculty in the field and a further review of the curricular structure to strike a balance between humanities and social sciences.

“NELC mainly works on culture and civilization, which is a very important part [of the field], but many students are interested in Middle Eastern society and politics and we need to make sure the major addresses those as well,” Lewis said.

Associate Professor of Political Science Ellen Lust-Okar — who crafted the original proposal with NELC Department chair John Darnell — said that while concerns over faculty strength and disciplinary balance are valid, a number of changes have been made since the initial proposal, including the hiring of two junior political science professors studying the modern Middle East. NELC is also looking to hire two new faculty members, Lewis said.

MacMillan Center Director and Political Science professor Ian Shapiro said that although there is a lack of faculty currently studying the modern Middle East, the Center is actively working to commit more resources to the field.

Lewis said the hurdles the Modern Middle East major is currently facing are similar to those that were considered with regard to the proposed South Asian Studies major and the existing area-specific majors, including African Studies, East Asian Studies and Latin American Studies.

Tarana Shivdasani ’08, president of the South Asian Society — which played a significant role in the initial push for the creation of South Asian Studies — said Yale is the only university in the Ivy League that does not have a South Asian Studies major and that its approval next month is important because it will allow interested students to study the region in depth. Although she said she is confident the major could stand alone, she would rather see it implemented as a second major for a few years as the program expands. Shivdasani said she expects that after the major is established, SAS will play a role in providing student feedback about how to improve it.

Salovey said that while faculty have traditionally agreed about the importance of responding to students’ area-specific interests, they have not always agreed about how this type of study should be administered.

“I think there is a reasonable debate around which faculty don’t always agree and that is, is it better to study an area from a disciplinary perspective or to dispense with the disciplinary perspective and be deliberately multidisciplinary or even trans-disciplinary?” Salovey said. “Some people feel that majors that focus on areas of the world should be second majors, so that one has a first major that brings to bear a disciplinary perspective and the second major broadens that perspective and reveals ways to apply it to the world.”

Kerri Price ’07, who originally planned to double major in Political Science and African Studies, said she thinks it is essential to accompany an area studies major with a more theoretical major like history or political science in order to create a foundation for the interdisciplinary nature of the second major.

“To really get an understanding of what is going on, you really have to have a wider philosophical knowledge of the systems involved,” Price said.

She said in her case, having political science as her primary major was necessary because of the limited course offerings of the African Studies program. She recently dropped her second major entirely.

But East Asian Studies major Will Nguyen ’08 said he does not think students who choose to major in an area-specific field are compromising the depth of their educations, because all students can take courses outside their major requirements and are encouraged to be well-rounded. He said he thinks South Asian Studies and Modern Middle East Studies in particular should not be overlooked.

“I think both of those areas have extremely long histories and those are considered the cradle of civilization, so to neglect those area studies would be a travesty,” Nguyen said.

A new major has not been added for a number of years, although several majors have recently been reviewed and overhauled, including literature and some of the engineering majors, Salovey said. Environmental Studies was approved as a stand-alone major in 2001 and the Cognitive Science major was created in 1999.

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