Students ask for Middle Eastern language classes

USC’s Middle East Studies Student Association is circulating a petition among students asking the university to improve the Middle Eastern language offerings at USC, hoping the petition will lead to major curriculum changes.

“USC is not really providing us with the resources we need to study what we want to study,” said Daphne Wu, president of MESSA and a senior majoring in history. “As of now, we only have four semesters of Arabic and Hebrew. With four semesters of Arabic, we hardly learn anything. It’s one of the hardest languages to learn.”

Currently, USC only offers three semesters of Modern Hebrew with one semester of Biblical Hebrew and four semesters of Modern Standard Arabic. The Arabic classes are all housed in the linguistics department.

The petition has collected a total of 243 signatures as of this week. As soon as the final signatures are collected, MESSA plans to deliver the letter to the Dean of USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, Howard Gillman; Vice Dean of Academic Programs Steven Lamy; and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Richard Fliegel.

Wu said USC is in fact behind in its Middle Eastern languages curriculum compared to schools like New York University and the University of Chicago, which both offer numerous language and critical studies courses that deal with Middle Eastern culture.

“The textbook we use is for a three-year curriculum,” Wu said. “Here, in four semesters, we only finish one book [of three].”

Wu said the faculty in the Middle East Studies Program has been in talks with the deans for years trying to help the program grow.

Wu said this petition shows that students are interested in expanding the curriculum at USC and that the desire to develop Arabic course offerings is a concern that doesn’t just face the faculty.

The linguistics department did agree a few years ago to host the teaching of Arabic as a minor. James Higginbotham, chair of the Department of Linguistics, said this is an arrangement that he believes has worked out for the best.

“We have a superior [Arabic] teacher, and when odd sections have opened up, we have been able to employ one of our graduate students with an Arabic language position,” Higginbotham said.

Higginbotham added, however, that he believed the Arabic language professor would prefer to be employed under “a real department than to be shunted off to a Language Center.”

Dan Carino, advisor for Middle East studies, said student interest in the Middle East studies program has remained consistently strong.

“The lack of courses is the problem,” Carino said. “We have to hire more faculty to teach these courses, and with so few professors — some away, some on sabbatical, one on maternity leave — they’re hard to find.”

The MESSA petition is fighting for two main points: the strengthening of the Arabic language courses and an increase in Arabic courses beyond the elementary level and the addition of Persian and Turkish to the language offerings at USC.

Students who want to advance in their Arabic language studies often have to study abroad or spend time and money enrolling in other universities that offer more complete Arabic language programs. After studying outside of USC, they cannot continue their studies here since USC does not offer further courses in the study of Arabic or Hebrew.

“It’s a hassle for students who are serious about learning these languages,” Wu said.

Though the petition has garnered lots of support among students taking courses on Middle East studies, not many other students are aware of these issues.

“Most students don’t know the situation,” Wu said. “They’re not aware of the fact that we’re behind.”

1 reply
  1. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    In addition to Arabic, Farsi also be offered as it is at similary high quality private and public universities. Farsi is considered a critical language by the US State Department and the Los Angeles region has one of the largest populations of Iranians outside of Tehran. It is time for Farsi 1 and 2 at very least to be offered at USC.

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