After years of requests from both students and faculty, the College is hiring two new Arabic language instructors for the upcoming academic year. However, a potential Arabic or Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) studies major or minor seems unlikely in the near future.
Currently, Bowdoin offers beginner and intermediate Arabic language courses taught exclusively by Lecturer in Arabic Russell Hopley, who will be leaving the College at the end of the spring semester. Hopley also leads two independent study courses per semester for upper level Arabic language students. This semester, eight students are enrolled in each independent study.
“[Teaching four classes a semester] puts a faculty member into a difficult situation,” said James Higginbotham, associate dean for academic affairs. “You want to have faculty members who can come here and teach but can also have time to do research that informs their teaching, and that’s hard [for Hopley] to do.”
The College is in the process of reviewing applications for a full-time lecturer in Arabic language as well as a one-year Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow. Together these two faculty members will teach a total of seven official Arabic courses during the 2018-2019 academic year. Depending on the candidates, there is potential for a future MENA studies course taught in English.
Students hope that the Arabic program continues to expand to ultimately allow students to declare a major or minor.
“I would absolutely love a minor or major in Arabic,” said Julia Amstutz ’19 who has taken Arabic every semester since her first year at Bowdoin and studied abroad in Morocco last semester. “I think there really is value in having an official declaration from the College … I also think it’s one of Bowdoin’s greatest academic weaknesses that it doesn’t really have anything official—an official Middle Eastern studies department or an official collection of courses—because it’s such a complicated part of the world.”
“The fact that there are Arabic language courses, the fact that I can go abroad and the fact that I can take Middle Eastern studies courses across different departments and they’re not all bundled together—I think it’s well overdue,” said Beleicia Bullock ’19.
Bullock, like Amstutz, has studied Arabic since her first semester at Bowdoin and spent last semester in Jordan on an Arabic program. She also described the difficulty she experiences trying to fit MENA classes, without a designated department, into her schedule.
“Because I can’t major or minor in it, I have to ask myself, ‘Why am I going through the hassle to try to find programs that may or may not fit in my schedule?’” she said.
Informally, faculty have discussed the possibility of an Arabic or MENA Studies major for the past four years. In the summer of 2016, a working group was established and has now become a steering committee for the potential program. The committee is composed of several professors across disciplines that specialize in the Middle East or North Africa: Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Meryem Belkaïd; George Lincoln Skolfield, Jr. Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department Robert Morrison; Assistant Professor of Government Barbara Elias Klenner and Assistant Professor of Sociology Oyman Basaran.
“We have to think about how to sustain a program,” said Higginbotham. “There’s a strong commitment from the President to do this. With an institution the size of Bowdoin and with the resources that we have right now, how do we build this in a thoughtful way?”
The steering committee is considering an area-studies format similar to the Asian and Latin American studies departments. While students are not formally involved, their input has been considered and will eventually be necessary for an official MENA studies program proposal. Higginbotham estimates that a major or minor won’t be offered until the 2019-2020 academic year at the earliest.
“You have to do it right and that may take time,” said Higginbotham.
He added that budgetary issues are also a factor for the MENA program.
“There are always conversations of how best to allocate resources on campus and careful consideration by faculty and administration about how best to use the resources that we have,” he said.
For now, the steering committee is focusing on the two recent hires, who will hopefully help develop the MENA studies program into a successful department.
“After taking Arabic and learning more about the Middle East and North Africa, and their cultures and histories in general, I just can’t imagine my education and current world perspective without knowing what I know about Arabic and the MENA region,” said Amstutz. “I’m incredibly excited that the College is moving in this direction.”