As official vote approaches, Professors Powers and Kosansky reflect on development of MENA minor

For Professors Paul Powers and Oren Kosansky, the process of getting a Middle East/North Africa Studies minor at Lewis & Clark started out as a casual conversation in the hallway.

“It’s been brewing for some time. I’d say the roots of it go back to 2011, when Oren took up the charge to put together the new Morocco program. Once that was in place, we started exploring the possibility of bringing Arabic [which was first offered in Fall 2015] to campus.  After that, we had the curriculum to gather a minor,” Powers said.

Powers, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Kosansky, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair have led the charge to implement a Middle East/North Africa (MENA) Studies minor. Powers identified Kosansky as the driving force behind the process.

“Three years ago, I decided that I would make a first draft of what a proposal might look like for a Middle East studies minor,” Kosansky said. “From there, I worked with the faculty and the Dean’s office. Now, we have formal proposal for consideration of the minor.”

“I’ve been in the inner circle, a consultative partner, I don’t know how you’d formally describe it,” Powers said.

Other professors closely involved include Senior Lecturer Cyrus Partovi, Professor Molly Robinson-Kelly, current Chair of Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, and Bruce Suttmeier, former Chair of Department of Foreign Languages and Literature and current Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

The MENA minor may be implemented as soon as fall 2017. The faculty will likely be voting on Kosansky and Powers’ proposal at the next faculty meeting, in early December, and once the minor is in the LC course catalog, it is official.

Kosansky spoke to the process of judging support for the minor.

“For me, the commitment to creating the minor was never ‘Middle East Studies or bust,’ or because Paul and I think it’s important.  It was ‘Okay, let’s see if people are interested and if they are, then that’s great!’ then we would be happy to be the folks to make it official. We have worked with students, staff, faculty, the Dean’s Office, all these different components, so when we got to the point of moving it through official channels, we were pretty clear on campus support.”

“One of the interesting experiences throughout the whole thing is the extent to which students, independent of faculty, were bringing it to the attention of other students and faculty,” Powers said. “The students who put together the Middle East Studies Symposium, Dina Yazdani and Julia Duerst, got that rolling on their own. So we had these two parallel processes, and when we went to administration, we could point to independent student activity that demonstrated demand for [a minor]. It’s meeting their interests as opposed to generating interest.”

The minor itself serves to bring together opportunities that already exist at LC. Kosansky described the course schedule. There will be four core courses, of which students must take two: Kosansky’s course, Culture/Power in the Middle East, Powers’ courses, Islamic Origins and Islamic Law, and Partovi’s Middle East Politics. In addition, students must complete 201 in Arabic and should they participate in the Morocco program, those classes would count towards the minor.

“We have sufficient courses on campus [for the minor]. We’re happy if a professor wants to add a course that is related to the Middle East, all the better for us, but the proposal as it stands does not call for the addition of any courses. What it does is provide a context for students who are already taking courses in the Middle East to feel part of the community, to think about the courses’ relationships, to have an advisor, go on the overseas trip to Morocco, have a more integrated experience,” Kosansky said.

Kosansky identified some example courses that could count towards the minor, including French literature courses, history courses and even a potential class about colonial South Asia, due to a shared history of British colonialism.

“If there was a course on Arab-Americans living in the United States, that would count as well,” Kosansky said.

“The Middle East is a region that is going to be important in geopolitical and economic terms, and people are increasingly aware that it is an interesting cultural and historical place as well,” Powers said. “Students who want to go from here into state or NGO work can draw on having a Middle East minor as a credential. Also, it can’t be a bad thing to have more people who have a deeper understanding of the Middle East.”

If and when the faculty votes to add the minor, it will make LC the only liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with a Middle East studies minor. Both Powers and Kosansky talked about the possible reasons for the lack of MENA minors.

“If you look at the wider context … I came to Lewis & Clark in 2001 and there were no faculty appointments that were directed at the Middle East or North Africa at that point,” Powers said. “Prior, a lot of interest in international politics was dominated by the Cold War. After the supposed end to the Cold War, you see this shift of attention to the Middle East. The first Gulf War and  9/11 changed the landscape. Lewis & Clark had hired me before 9/11 in a term position, not a tenure track. 9/11 happened, and then they turned it into a tenure track. In those few years after 2001 you saw the number of jobs in this field shoot up everywhere. So a lot of it is a post-9/11 experience.”

Kosansky offered a different explanation for the underdevelopment of Middle East Studies in liberal arts colleges in Oregon and Washington: geographic proximity. He said that since there aren’t significant Middle Eastern populations in the Pacific Northwest, as opposed to other groups like Latinx communities, programs like Latin American Studies are much better developed. He went on to describe the necessity of a MENA minor.

“One of the key values of the LC education is that we’re a college that has a deep commitment to international education,”  Kosansky said. “This is an area of the world that matters so much and corresponds so clearly to the values of the college, that it will improve our ability to offer students an international education.”

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