Modern Middle East Studies Secondary Field Announced

Last May, as the Middle East played host to a surge of pro-democracy protests and civil unrest, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations announced the creation of a new undergraduate Modern Middle East Studies secondary field, an initiative that had been in the works for many years.

Ali S. Asani, NELC department chair, said the new secondary concentration is a stepping stone towards creating a new concentration in the field and represents a commitment to the undergraduate study of the region.

“It’s the dawn of a new era in modern Middle East studies here,” said lecturer Susan M. Kahn, who will teach the secondary field’s required introductory course Near Eastern Civilizations 100: “Approaches to Middle Eastern Studies”.

The gateway course, which invites professors from across Harvard’s schools and a variety of disciplines to teach a recent scholarly book of their choice, was shopped by 23 Harvard undergraduates for the first time last Wednesday.

While the course was offered to graduate students in the past as a requirement for masters candidates in regional studies, this is the first time it is open to undergraduate enrollment.

This year, the areas of expertise of the professors on the syllabus span from religion to politics to culture, but all of the books relate to Egypt, which Kahn described as a “linchpin” of the Middle East.

“That it is all about Egypt cuts back on the scattered nature of having different professors come in every week,” said John J. Corbett ’13, a NELC concentrator who plans to take the class this semester.

Kahn said she was pleasantly surprised by the interest in the class.

“I was expecting six [students],” she said, acknowledging that the high turnout could be partially attributed to the events of the Arab Spring.

In fact, shopping week attendance in many Middle East-related courses this semester has been unusually high, she said.

The recent turbulence in the Middle East and the subsequent spike in student interest highlight the importance of a strong modern Middle East curriculum. The recent developments in the NELC department “could not have been more timely,” Kahn said.

Both Asani and Kahn believe there is strong demand for the secondary concentration—Asani expects about ten people to pursue the secondary this year, and even more in the following year, when the “full impact” of the new secondary is felt.

The retooled course and the new secondary concentration represent the department’s move towards centralizing the opportunities available for undergraduates to study the modern Middle East.

While NELC has a long history at Harvard, its focus has generally been on the pre-modern, Asani said, with fewer options for students looking to study the region’s modern-day politics and society.

“I know a lot of people who would be more likely to do NELC if they had less of a historical approach and more modern Middle East courses,” said government concentrator Benat A. Idoyaga ’12.

He added that “decentralized” nature of the course offerings forced students to search across departments—including History, Anthropology, and Government—in order to find modern Middle East courses of interest.

“The main problem was not the offerings, but that there was no point of reference,” Idoyaga said.

While Harvard is similar to some peer institutions—such as Princeton and Columbia—in lacking a separate modern Middle East concentration, other schools, like Yale, already allow students to major in the study of the modern Middle East.

—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at kwu@college.harvard.edu.

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