MENA studies in the works
“I think Oberlin should have a strong Middle Eastern studies program,” said College President Nancy Dye at a student forum held on the topic last Sunday. “The United States needs to develop far more capacity for understanding in this region.”
All those present at the meeting, including students, two professors and the president, were in agreement that a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) studies program ought to be established at Oberlin, but when and how such a program would come into existence is still unclear.
Discussion of the topic was broken into two categories: the teaching of the Arabic language and the more general study of the Middle East as a region.
Arabic is currently not taught at all at Oberlin, but the College maintains a relationship with the American University in Cairo for students interested in studying the language.
Oberlin received a Ford Foundation grant at the beginning of this year to investigate ways of integrating the study of Arabic into the curriculum. However, the nature of the language makes it particularly challenging.
“Arabic is a particularly difficult language and you can’t study just a year of it and have that be worthwhile,” said Dye. “We’ve been exploring ways to offer a first year of Arabic but then you need to make a commitment to it, and that commitment may require spending some time in the region.”
One of the proposed methods to initiate MENA studies includes using Fulbright Scholars from Middle Eastern countries. These individuals would come to Oberlin and teach intro-level courses under the supervision of general faculty.
The general outlook of MENA studies is similarly vague. The College created a MENA-specialized position in the faculty three years ago, currently occupied by politics professor Khalid Medani. Medani will be leaving Oberlin at the end of this semester and the politics department is currently looking for a one year replacement.
In the long run there is disagreement over in which department the MENA position should be.
“Because we’re working on a limited budget I think we need to prioritize and the emphasis should be on politics and history,” said senior Lena Elbadawi, who spent last semester studying Arabic in Beirut, Lebanon.
Student senator sophomore Azedeh Pourzand felt that a greater emphasis should be placed on Middle Eastern history. “A politics course may look more exciting in the course catalog but in the long run, I feel that history is more valuable for understanding this region,” she said.
While no commitments were made during the meeting, Dye reaffirmed her desire to make MENA a reality in the coming years.
“We think we have to do something quite serious,” she said.
“We also have to find funding for it.”