Faculty, student interest in Middle East reflected in new minor

The Middle East studies minor does not have a language requirement and draws from courses that already exist on campus.

Starting this fall, MU students can earn a minor learning about the Middle East. The new Middle East Studies minor was approved by Provost Garnett Stokes at the end of last spring.

“I get emails usually once a week from a student saying they want to do it.” said Nathan Hofer, an assistant professor of Religious Studies who is the director of the minor program. “Whether or not they actually follow through, who knows. But I get a constant stream of emails from students who are interested.”

Currently, Hofer estimates that anywhere from six to 12 students will file for the minor by the end of this year. Three students have already visited Hofer, who provides advising for the minor, to get the forms to file it.

“There’s a bunch of people who have done all the requirements [for the minor]; they just haven’t filled out the forms yet,” Hofer said.

That’s because many of the course offerings for the minor already exist. However, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Jim Spain said until recently, the faculty had not identified the proper learning outcomes to establish the minor.

“The courses existed, but a defined curriculum for a minor didn’t,” Spain said.

The process of proposing the new minor officially began last fall when two students contacted Hofer asking how to create a minor about the Middle East.

“I came to Mizzou in 2011, and I thought when I got here that there should be a minor or a major,” Hofer said. “The only thing I didn’t know was whether there was enough student interest, so it was in my brain as soon as I got here, but I didn’t really do much about it.”

Geography professor Joseph Hobbs, who currently teaches Geography of the Middle East and next semester will also teach Geography of Terrorism and Drugs, first heard about the minor from students in his class. Both courses are credit options for students interested in the minor.

“I was in the wilderness here for a long time in terms of teaching the Middle East,” Hobbs said. “I came [to MU] in 1988 and my course on Geography of the Middle East was literally the only course on campus dealing with the Middle East, and it had that status for quite a long time, actually.”

Now, there are 33 courses on campus that focus either entirely or partially on the Middle East and count toward the minor. This is due in part to new hires in recent years, such Hofer and history professor Victor McFarland, Hobbs said.

“We now have a number of authorities on the Middle East on campus, which is just wonderful,” Hobbs said. “I’m really excited about it.”

Students working to get the minor must achieve 15 credit hours, which can come from courses housed in 11 different departments of the College of Arts and Science, including art history, peace studies, political science, religious studies and sociology. This curriculum was examined and approved primarily by the division curriculum committee and the campus undergraduate curriculum committee.

The committees examine whether proposed curriculums of new academic programs are reasonable, whether it would achieve stated learning outcomes, and whether the new program replicates or competes with current programs.

“They really are independant faculty committees that represent the interests of the university faculty,” Spain said. “Because curriculum is faculty governed, [the Office of Undergraduate Studies’] role is administrative support and in many cases that’s really about providing information for questions they have about programs that are being proposed.”

Getting the faculty on board was easy, Hofer said, and the only challenge was convincing the curriculum committee that the courses and faculty for the minor already existed.

“Not a single person said, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Hofer said. “Every single faculty member that I talked to, every administrator, staff, student — everybody thought that it was a great idea.”

Hobbs said he believes the new minor will give professors who want to introduce a course regarding Islam or the Middle East more latitude when they approach department chairs, because now they can situate those courses within the minor.

“I have confidence that I can get students to enroll in those classes, perhaps because they’re already in the minor or have an interest in the Middle East,” Hobbs said.

Students pursuing the minor are typically journalism, political science or international relations majors who possibly intend to go to law school or graduate school, Hofer said.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us on campus to have a minor of this kind,” Hobbs said. “The Middle East is obviously one of the most important, if not the most important, region geopolitically for the United States and really for world security, or the lack of it.” While major societal or industry changes might result in the introduction of a new academic program, new minors are not added regularly, Spain said.

“It’s in part because of how long we’ve already been here and how mature we are as far as how well-established, well-developed and comprehensive our academic portfolio already is,” Spain said.

Although it is still young, it’s possible the minor could develop to become a larger program, Hofer said.

“The future plan is to get as many students active in Middle East studies courses as we can, and if we can get enough students and if we can get more language courses, then maybe we can get a program, not a department, but a program,” Hofer said. “If we have a program and we can raise some money, then we can get budget to invite speakers, run events on campus, perhaps even start a study abroad program somewhere in the Middle East.”

Edited by Claire Mitzel | cmitzel@themaneater.com

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