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University launches new Arabic major

Published: Friday, October 1, 2010

Updated: Friday, October 1, 2010 07:10


Virginia Bledsoe / Tufts Daily

Northeastern University Assistant Professor of History Ilham Khuri-Makdisi spoke last night at Tufts’ new Arabic Seminar Series. The Arabic program launched a new Arabic major this year.

Tufts' Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literatures (GRALL) launched this year a new Arabic major in response to a student interest in the language that has grown overwhelmingly in the last decade.

The Arabic program, housed within GRALL, has experienced a considerable growth in enrollment since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to Lecturer Mohammed Alwan, who has taught Arabic at Tufts since the 1980s. This prompted administrators to consider offering a major in Arabic.

"It was a natural development for the expansion of the Arabic program at Tufts University that we have a major in Arabic," Alwan said.

The Arabic program has evolved significantly since its earliest days at Tufts. When Tufts first hired him, Alwan was the only faculty member in the Arabic program. Arabic courses averaged four to five students per class, prompting the university to consider closing the program in the early 1990s, Alwan said.

Now, Arabic 1 currently has the largest enrollment in the GRALL department, according to Assistant Professor Kamran Rastegar, who directs the program.

Rastegar initiated the program with Alwan and Lecturer Rana Abdul−Aziz, the program's language coordinator. GRALL Department Chair Hosea Hirata and various university administrators also lent support to get the new major off the ground, Rastegar said.

The major's requirements attempt to steep students in both language and cultural capacity.

Ten courses are required under the major's guidelines. In addition to four Arabic−language courses above Arabic 4: Intermediate Standard Arabic II, students must take five departmental literature or culture courses and one additional course in a topic related to Arabic or the Middle East from outside the Arabic program.

Rastegar said the range of courses reflect that Arabic extends beyond the language department and is designed to appeal to overlap with other disciplines, including religion, music, international relations, history and anthropology.

"There is a wide range of people who cover different aspects," Rastegar said. "Our attitude is that language should be taught in a cultural and historical context, so the other dimensions in addition to the language training, which is rigorous at Tufts, are good complements to be offered."

Since few incoming students place out of elementary levels of Arabic, completing those courses before reaching the higher−level courses that fulfill major requirements is an additional demand on students, Abdul−Aziz said.

Rastegar said Arabic's growing popularity reflects a national trend, which is even more prominent at Tufts due to the university's emphasis on international relations.

Abdul−Aziz, who joined the full−time faculty in 2006, said the need for an Arabic major was evident.

"Since I started teaching, every single evaluation that I received from students mentioned the need for an Arabic major," she said. "After there was stability in the department, I think the university saw that we have enough interest and faculty to bring the major ... about."

Abdul−Aziz attributed the greater demand for Arabic in the job market as one of the reasons for its rising popularity among students.

"Given the current of competitiveness of the job market, students are really seeing that having Arabic in their resume will allow them to compete with others coming from other fine institutions such as Tufts," Abdul−Aziz said.

Though the new major was only announced in September, Rastegar said a handful of graduating seniors have already expressed interest in declaring the major.

Elinor Cannon, an International Letters and Visual Studies major, is among the seniors considering adding Arabic as a second major. She has studied Arabic since her freshman year and originally planned to minor in the language prior to the addition of the major.

Cannon also noticed the rise in interest for the language over the course of her four years of undergraduate study.

"I noticed that we now have seven sections for Arabic 1 class, whereas my freshman year had only three to four sections," Cannon said.

Rastegar said that the growing interest in Arabic correlates with increased interest in the Middle East at large. "[Language is] a vehicle to understanding contemporary world issues."

Rastegar said the new major is only the beginning of an expansion of the Arabic program and the heightening commitment to the study of the Middle East at Tufts.

Dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser is currently looking into establishing a study−abroad center in an Arabic−speaking region, according to Rastegar.

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