Thursday, May 13, 2010

Earth Calling the University of Oregon...

Arabic Literature (In English) is a wonderful blog about what Arabic literature can be found for those of us who love it but don't read Arabic well enough to be able to read it in the original. The title here links to one of those head scratching posts about people and places whose logical processes seem to be missing a few cogs. The University of Oregon has an Arabic language department that is being moved to the Religous Studies school. Huh? I live all day in Arabic and never talk about religion at all. You can follow the connection in the blog post to the original student news report about the switch and the confusion it has engendered.

Arabic is a language spoken in many, many dialects and accents in many countries in this world. Classical Arabic is the form that is the Arabic of the Quran and the Arabic that all countries recognise as being the purest form. It is, however, not just a language of religion. The comment from the university that "Arabic is being folded into the religious studies department because the department can support Arabic students reading advanced literature and documents, most of which are Islamic in nature" totally ignores the fact that Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and that there are many marvelous novels being written and published in Arabic all the time. To assume that "advanced texts" are religious in nature demonstrates a total lack of comprehension of the the Arab world.

Gongratulations, University of Oregon. You win this month's dolt award.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani


Anonymous said...

I absolutely could not agree with you more! I studied Arabic at the UO for three years. This move to the Religious Studies Dept. is a HUGE mistake on the part of the UO. It further promotes the idea that Arabic, Islam, and Middle East are synonymous terms, which further promotes the gray cloud of ignorance that blankets the American public when it comes to all matters concerning the Arab world.

Furthermore, I find it distressing that, once again, the UO has put a non-native Arabic speaker in charge of the Arabic department. Not only will this guy be the head of the department, but he will instruct in classical Islamic literature.

The world is not short on intelligent, educated Arab men and women, who are qualified, capable, and willing to teach at American universities.

Chris Holman said...

So you know, I'm currently the non-native program coordinator of the U of O Arabic program.

Here's the question that's not being asked: Where else does Arabic go? That is, if Arabic is going to be normalized as a program and cease its existence in the unstable, experimental ether of the World Languages Academy? It's not like the U of O is the bastion of Middle Eastern Studies. It's also worth noting that no one has viewed this as the perfect or ideal move. It's just what works for now given that the university wants to give Arabic more institutional legitimacy.

I understand the fear that moving it to Religious Studies could promote the idea that Arabic, Islam and the Middle East are synonymous. However, I think that this fear is overstated somewhat and seems to imply that there is no relationship there. In any case, moving it to Religious Studies is not changing our language curriculum. There is one added course in classical texts that is cross listed in the schedule and available as one option for 3rd year students. There may be changes down the road, and all good programs evolve, but I'm leaving this year so I can only speak to what I know of (basically the story of Arabic at the U of O from 2001 until now).

As for advanced texts, I can assure you that this move does not mean that the only texts our students will read are classical, religious texts. The classical texts, as I noted, have their own class that students can choose to take, or not. The regular Arabic classes are still focusing on MSA (which has its own issues) and some dialect. The Al-Kitaab series focuses primarily on Cairene Egyptian (which has its own issues), but they're also putting out editions with Shamiyya, Maghrebi and I've also heard of Iraqi or Gulf coming down the pipeline.

The dialect issue is a very old one with Arabic instruction though, and our program is a very young one. We don't have all of the answers, but we're trying to make something good here. There are two dialect classes being offered through the self-study program right now, which is an experiment itself really (and students seem to enjoy these classes, so that bodes well for the future).

Back to texts though, I understand that Mahfouz, Hussein, and many others are worth reading and more aptly fit the term 'advanced text' when speaking about popular culture. However, these texts are hard to access for second or even third-year students. Research shows that languages like Arabic take at least a year more of study to get to the equivalent level of, say, students in Spanish. So, Arabic students finishing 3rd year will be at the equivalent of 2 years of Spanish study. I'm not sure, but I don't think that second-year Spanish students are reading advanced novels in Spanish. I do think that bringing parts of novels in is a good idea though. The other issue here is access to materials, which is pretty complicated when it comes to Arabic (especially given the history of Arabic instruction in the US, which isn't stellar).

Chris Holman said...


I'm not sure what the commenter has against non-native Arabic teachers, but I can assure him or her that we do have something good to offer a program. That the incoming Arabic Program Director is also a non-native has more to do with who applied for the position than some imagined bias against intelligent, educated Arab men and women who are qualified, capable and willing to teach at American universities.

Rest assured, that the vast majority of Arabic programs are run by native speakers (I'd say 95%); although even in this case the field of Arabic teaching has a dearth of qualified, trained teachers (sorry). If you look around, you'll see that most of them are experts in some other field as well. This can work out well, but it also has its downsides. Programs nationwide that were in a rush to create Arabic programs found people to get things going and as they say, just because you speak a language doesn't mean you can teach it. I fit that category as well since I have lots of experience teaching, but my academic background is in another field. Still, I have worked hard and tried my best during my time here.

Maybe one day, the U of O will have a stronger institutional tie to the Middle East and there will be a program full of qualified Arabs and others who can fully address the numerous areas of study that cover the Arabic-speaking regions of the world. I truly hope that is the case. However, until then, I think that going from practically nothing to what the program is now in a few short years is impressive.

We've tried to expand Middle Eastern Studies here too. There was a lot of work put into a minor proposal, but it's sitting on a shelf until a tenured professor says that he or she will chair the minor. That's the first step for a wider presence on campus, and there's no desire to push things too far past what we have now. Having said that, a hire in Religious Studies that is 1/2 time dedicated to Arabic is a positive move. There was also a hire in History that was focused on the Middle East, another good move.

Things are happening, slowly, and I'm as impatient as anyone else. I've been pushing this stuff for ten years though.

Anyway, thanks for noticing us : )

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Possibly a naive question, but where are the German, Spanish, and French departments? Why is Arabic different?

I can appreciate that universities these days have all sorts of problems with organising classes and studies and with funding as is normal, but it simply seems a little odd.

Chris Holman said...

German is in Germanic Studies while Spanish and French are in Romance Languages.

Arabic has its issues, here and elsewhere, because most schools with programs these days don't have much history with Arabic. German, French, Spanish, and even Russian (Cold War) have been major offerings in the US K-12 and higher-ed forever.

There are other languages too that have a small program, but they also enjoy external funding from places like the governments of the countries where the languages are spoken. Arabic, however, has been generating its own funding (literally sink or swim). Lucky for us, Arabic has done well. Lucky for other languages too because Arabic's money has subsidized some other areas. Being selfish, I might ask that more of the money be invested back into Arabic, but my pay grade (worker bee) doesn't make me privy to those decisions.

I understand where your sentiments are coming from too. I just thought I would clarify some things as best I could.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Do you not have a Middle Eastern Studies department? It would make a lot of sense to have Arabic hang its hat there along with the courses in history, philosophy, anthropology and so on that would be applicable.

But then I'm not an academic and from the time that I did spend in grad school, I can't recall that the organisation of classes was always handled in a way that I felt was logical.

Thanks for the explanations.

Chris Holman said...

No, we don't have a Middle Eastern Studies department. We have Arabic and a smattering of courses that, taken all together, barely make up a possible minor. Arabic though, is by far the biggest area on campus where students are actively engaging the Middle East. We started this past Fall with ~200 students (1% of the student body) studying Arabic.

It would make sense for Arabic to hang its hat there, if it existed. This brings us back to the move to Religious Studies too. If you look at what's available on campus, in terms of hat racks, Religious Studies is the only department that is really interested in the Middle East in some way (that isn't tangential). There are departments that offer courses addressing Middle Eastern issues or issues that relate to the Middle East, but they're like Political Science, History, and so on. Their character is not Middle Eastern at all.

So, that's why this move is good for now. Arabic gets legitimized, it has a stable home, and it is a step toward possibly having a program like what you, I and all of our students here want.

Don Cox said...

I think it would make more sense to put Arabic in the chemistry department.

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