Beginning Arabic to be offered in Fall 2020

Grace Jackson, News Reporter

Beginning Arabic will be reintroduced to Whitman for the 2020-2021 school year on a trial basis. The class will be taught by Assistant Professor of General Studies Emily Sibley. 

Arabic language courses have been offered on and off in past years, most recently by Visiting Professor Shoukri Abed during the 2010-2011 school year

Students and faculty have sporadically advocated for Arabic courses to return to campus since they were last offered. Students in support of Arabic returning to Whitman sent surveys to the rest of the student body in 2012 and 2018, which indicated significant interest among students in seeing the course offered at Whitman.   

Last year, current sophomores Jonathan Weinberg and Scout Hutchinson began a fresh campaign for an Arabic class offering.

Both Hutchinson and Weinberg were interested in studying Arabic before coming to Whitman and have enjoyed past classes focused on the Arabic speaking world. When they began to discuss Arabic with friends, they realized many students shared their interest. 

“When I started talking to a lot of the politics majors, who came [to Whitman] for the politics program, a lot of them were like ‘gosh I really wish that I could double major in Middle Eastern studies’ and ‘I wish that there was an Arabic program’,” Hutchinson said. 

Weinberg circulated a petition in the spring of 2019, which he said 62 students signed. Professor of History Elyse Semerdjian — a long term advocate for Arabic courses — encouraged Weinberg to get more students involved in his campaign. Weinberg recruited Hutchinson and a few other friends, and they tabled in Cleveland Commons to solicit letters from students in favor of Arabic classes. 

“In conjunction with the petition, it seemed worthwhile to move it a step forward by sitting in Cleveland to collect student testimonials on why they believe Whitman should have an Arabic course,” Weinberg said in an email to The Wire.

According to Provost and Dean of Faculty Alzada Tipton, the continued interest expressed in Arabic made it a priority for the 2020-2021 academic year. 

“There has been interest expressed in Arabic periodically. I had hoped to make it happen last year but was unable to do so, so I prioritized it being offered in 2020-21 during the decision-making process last fall,” Tipton said in an email to The Wire

One past hurdle to an Arabic class, according to Semerdijian, was the lack of a faculty member trained in both Arabic and language instruction. Assistant Professor of General Studies Emily Sibley began teaching at Whitman this academic year, and meets both of those requirements. 

“[Sibley] being here is serendipity for us in the [Whitman] community, and adding to that a lot of students who take classes with me want Arabic,” Semerdijian said. 

Sibley received her PhD from New York University in comparative literature with an emphasis in Arabic, and she taught English to adults in Morocco for three years. She also taught Arabic to undergraduate students at Queen’s College in New York during the 2018-19 academic year. 

Sibley stressed that if Arabic is to be offered going forward, student interest needs to translate to enrollment. She offered office hours for students interested in Arabic on April 28 and 29 and has already spoken to many interested students. 

“If this is to be offered in the future, there needs to be the student support via enrollment. This remains in many ways a trial run,” Sibley said. 

Semerdjian and other members of the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) faculty hope that Arabic courses will complement the newly redesigned South Asian and Middle Eastern (SAME) track of the major.

The major has always had a language requirement, but without a Middle Eastern language offering for students interested in that area, students were required to take an East Asian language like Chinese or Japanese. 

Assistant Professor of Religion Lauren Osborne teaches courses in the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies major and spearheaded the redesign of the SAME track. 

“In this past year, some other curricular changes that were taking place on our campus prompted a group of us, of the faculty, who work in South Asia and the Middle East to begin gathering to discuss a redesign of this area. This was also of course in response to having a critical mass of courses now available on campus, and student interest across those courses,” Osborne said in an email to The Wire.

Students majoring in several of the departments in which AMES professors teach have expressed interest in Middle Eastern studies, but no formal structure existed to guide them. 

“I frequently find that students who take my classes on Islam have also taken courses with Professors Semerdjian and/or Davari, or others of my colleagues who contribute to this program, and those students often have a sustained interest in the study of South Asia and/or the Middle East but are unable to pursue that interest through a formal structure on our campus. Our redesign and creation of SAME was part of an effort to create a structure for students to pursue those interests,” Osborne said. 

Currently, the SAME track does not have a language requirement at present, since Arabic is not a permanent offering. Semerdjian believes that some Arabic instruction will be useful to her students regardless of the long-term status of the program. 

“I think the trial will be really successful and hopefully build enthusiasm about not only learning Arabic, but also other foreign languages,” Semerdjian said.