Students lead drive for more Arabic classes

A student led initiative for the University of Calgary to create standard Arabic language courses is yielding few results, leaving students discouraged and department heads offering varying rationales for why such courses do not exist.

Students Marina McLellan, Zain Jinnah and Wesam Cooley are spearheading the initiative and have met with various department deans over the past few months about their proposal for the creation of credited standard Arabic language courses.

They are backed by what they describe as “extremely strong” student support, exemplified by a petition with over 200 student signatures.

“It is crucial we understand [the Middle East] . . . it’s a hot spot of the world today,” said Jinnah, a first-year Political Science student.

McLellan and Jinnah have drafted a report supporting their proposal that includes a range of reasons for offering Arabic courses and excerpts from the U of C’s Business Plan that show alignment between the U of C’s mandate goals and the creation of Arabic courses.

Despite their efforts they’re not having much luck.

“We feel we get shut down immediately and the biggest reason is always the budget,” said McLellan, adding that she considers that to be an easy excuse.

The issue is particularly significant to the International Relations program, which is structured so that students specialize in a specific region and a corresponding second language.

Yet students specializing in the Middle East, including IR student McLellan, have no Middle Eastern languages to choose from.

“I just feel like I’m at a huge disadvantage because every single other regional cluster that you can take has a corresponding language,” said McLellan.

McLellan added that a group of students from the IR program requested a language be offered in fairness to students completing their degree with a Middle East cluster in a 2001 report and yet nothing has been done.

“If you’re going to try to understand a culture, and you want to do it well, you must know the language,” said McLellan.

Further aggravating the issue is the Department of Religious Studies’ loss of its Islamic specialist, creating a further deficiency of Islamic studies and Middle East focused courses.

Paul Chastko, International Relations program director, agreed that the addition of an Arabic language would benefit IR students specializing in the Middle East.

He also pointed out the importance of the region right now in relation to general security issues and in terms of oil wealth and its obvious ties to downtown and corporate Calgary.

Chastko said the U of C’s branch campus in Qatar, an Arabic-speaking country, makes such language courses an obvious and natural fit.

“It’s a no-brainer considering the world we live in, the importance of the Middle East, and the research interests and priorities of the university,” said Chastko.

Students Jinnah and McLellan concur with Chastko’s rationale for Arabic classes and also pointed to the U of C’s Business Plan of 2006-2010, which includes mention of the university’s intention to support the government’s “enhancing second language” agenda, and the acquisition of Canada Foundation for Innovation funding for the Language Research Centre.

Additionally, Jinnah said the existence of continuing education classes in Arabic at the U of C proves that some resources already exist for teaching Arabic, which could be adapted and applied as courses for credit.

Jinnah also believes it is within the university’s economic interests to pursue these classes, citing the ties that the engineering and business schools have with the Middle East’s resources.

Despite so many outstanding reasons for Arabic language courses, McLellan feels discouraged.

“I feel like the institution isn’t made for us,” she said. “We’re made for them and that’s why they don’t want to listen to student demand.”

Social Sciences dean Kevin McQuillan is generally supportive of such language classes but said there are two key issues that would have to be resolved in order to get them to the point of instruction.

First is gauging the demand.

“We need a sufficient number of committed students,” said McQuillan. “The second element is working out where the best place to put that language instruction would be.”

The department head of Religious Studies, Eliezer Segal, said that both Islamic studies courses and Arabic language courses are needed but “under the practical circumstances of the university we’re not succeeding in getting them.”

Segal noted that terrible timing led to the Islamic specialist leaving for another position during a budget cut, meaning the position was lost.

While the Religious Studies department would not be able to teach Arabic as a language for students to speak, Segal said the department tries to teach the foundational documents of any religion in the original languages. Qur’anic Arabic has been taught in the past through the department’s Islamic specialist.

Segal noted that a difficulty with language courses lies in enrolment numbers. Segal said he thinks the university has become committed to a principle of high enrolment numbers while language courses are not suited to big classes.

“[The University] seem[s] to be concerned with the mathematics of it rather than the actual teaching experiences of the students,” said Segal. “I think the pattern is going to lead to a shoddier product that we’re offering.”

Meg Martin, SU VP academic, said that while the SU has no official jurisdiction in deciding program offerings, the organization can communicate student desires.

“Our response is sympathetic, we will give students contact information for administrators to talk to, and can inquire on their behalf or express their concerns,” said Martin, adding that in the end it’s an administrative and academic decision that takes place at an institutional and governmental level.

She acknowledged a vocal portion of students would like to see a Middle Eastern language become an area of concentration at the U of C, but said the current financial situation of the province and the university makes such a request unlikely to see movement in the near future.

Jinnah and McLellan said their next step is to further gauge student support by surveying students and proving there is sufficient interest from different faculties.

In the meantime, the lack of Islamic studies, Middle East focused courses and Arabic is leading McLellan, who is attending the U of C on a scholarship, to give serious thought to programs at other institutions.

“I am questioning whether it would be better to attend another institution for the sake of my own studies since it doesn’t seem the university is willing to expand in those areas,” said McLellan.

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