Courtesy of Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Attention is often devoted to Yale’s largest departments and most popular majors. Less visible are the University’s “tiny departments,” many of which are upheld by a smaller but mighty faculty. In the first part of a series exploring Yale College’s smaller departments, the News dove into the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department. 

The Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, or NELC, has staged a comeback.

Seven years ago, the department was in a dire position — it was facing criticism for its work environment and was being rocked by a high-profile scandal. NELC, which covers both modern language studies in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish, as well as ancient studies in Assyriology, Egyptology and other cultures of the Middle East, hemorrhaged faculty members and struggled to replace them. In 2014, the University installed an outside chair from the Classics Department and established a committee to evaluate NELC’s possible future.

Today, however, NELC has rebuilt its national standing, restructured the undergraduate major and expanded its course offerings. The News spoke to three faculty members and two administrators, who attributed the change in part to an infusion of new faculty. 

“We’re firing on all pistons,” said Shawkat Toorawa, NELC Chair and professor of Arabic literature. “Many universities can’t afford to carry departments like ours. Yale can and does, and it’s a great benefit, not just to the department but to the world.”

Toorawa arrived at Yale in 2017 as part of the new generation of around seven hires, which includes two in brand new positions. In the years since his arrival, NELC has brought on a professor and two lecturers of Egyptology, a second professor of classical Arabic and new lecturers of Turkish and modern Arabic. Toorawa attributed the expansion to administrative support and demonstrated interest in the department among the student body. 

NELC has historically been graduate-student centric, Toorawa added, but the department introduced a restructured undergraduate major that allows students to specialize through either the “depth” or “breadth” track. Graduate students also now attend department meetings and organize through their own committee.

Also among the department’s new hires are a wife-and-husband duo in Egyptology, a program that in 2014 had no specialized faculty available to advise graduate students. Professor Nadine Moeller and her husband, lecturer Gregory Marouard, arrived at Yale in 2020 from the Egyptology program at the University of Chicago. Together with newly-hired lector Lingxin Zhang, they made it possible for the program to provide courses in ancient Egyptian texts, language, archaeology and material culture, a rare level of breadth in an already rare field. 

“We have actually become one of the strongest programs — and I’m not exaggerating — in the country, because we can offer so many different avenues for our students,” Moeller told the News.” 

Both Moeller and Marouard will lead regular expeditions with students to field sites in Egypt. 

NELC remains small, with around eight or nine undergraduate majors at a time. Toorawa said that this does not bother him, and that it contributes to a more intimate community with the department. 

Director of Undergraduate Studies Kathryn Slanski concurred, noting that professors often create informal reading groups to cater to students’ specific interests. Course content is designed to connect with contemporary issues, and often asks students to challenge the Western-centric, often exocitized views of the Near East.

“Because we are small, we are able to be nimble and respond to our students’ interests and curiosities to a great extent,” Slanski said.

The department’s small size, she added, creates a cohort of extremely enthusiastic undergraduates. Jack Sullivan ’23 is double majoring in NELC and linguistics, and he is currently taking his third year of Akkadian and second year of Sumerian. 

“That’s the fun of it — trying to crack the code and understand what’s going on,” Sullivan said.

Megan Lee ’22, a NELC major with a “depth” focus in Egyptology, said that she had originally planned to major in political science or history, but landed in “Introduction to Classical Middle Egyptian” her first semester at Yale. 

Since then, she has continued to take courses in the major.

“Over the next few semesters I found I kept coming back to NELC courses,” Lee wrote in an email to the News. “History generally is still interesting, but I think NELC just turned out to be a better fit, since it covers so much with language, history, and culture. I’m still able to build writing and analytical skills here, but with a greater focus.”

Both students agreed that the department’s small size makes it easier for students to connect with other students and professors.

Many of the department’s newest offerings, such as “Ancient Empires” and a to-be-announced course on ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian visual culture, are designed for students with no prior experience and often see high enrollments from non-majors. 

Yale is also a particularly fertile ground for the study of the Near East, Slanski said, because of access to original texts and objects accessible in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, as well as the Sterling Memorial Library. Moeller noted that the new Peabody Museum will feature classroom spaces where students can interact with its ancient Egyptian collections.  

The department still faces challenges, Toorawa said. Both the graduate and undergraduate handbooks are being rewritten with diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiatives in mind. Additionally, students and other faculty often do not know that NELC exists or what the acronym stands for — problems Toorawa said he is trying to address.

As with other regional-specific departments, NELC hires a large number of instructional faculty to teach modern languages. Instructional faculty are respected and included in department decisions and discussion, according to Shiri Goren, a senior lector and the director of NELC’s Modern Hebrew Program.

“I can say unequivocally that we feel part of the conversation,” Goren wrote in an email to the News.

The faculty excitement in NELC seems to be matched by administrative enthusiasm. Dean of the Humanities Kathryn Lofton described the department’s new culture and community as a “joyful story” within her division. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler wrote in a statement to the News that NELC’s strength is part of a wider investment in the humanities. 

“NELC is but one of the departments where the FAS has made significant investments in recent years,” Gendler wrote. “In addition, recent new faculty arrivals across the humanities have bolstered our traditional strengths and positioned us to continue our intellectual leadership in the decades to come.”

NELC was founded in 1841 and is the oldest department of its kind in the nation.

Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He covered transportation and faculty as a reporter and laid out the front page of the weekly print edition. He co-founded the News' Audience desk, which oversees social media and the newsletter. He was a leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, Isaac is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.