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Title VI Centers Train Specialists, Promote Understanding, and Produce New Knowledge Relating to the Middle East

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The United States Department of Education has awarded grants to American universities to support the operation of National Resource Centers (NRCs) devoted to study of the Middle East. These NRCs train specialists with expertise relating to the Middle East, a critical world region of significant and increasing importance to the United States. They also initiate and support academic programs for non-specialists, helping to foster an informed understanding of the Middle East among students and faculty on their own campuses and at the other institutions with which they collaborate. Support for both basic and applied research, and for the dissemination of research findings, is another important activity. Finally, NRCs have extensive outreach programs, bringing information and insight about the region to the general public and making the expertise of their faculty members available to governmental and other agencies.

The objectives reflected in this list of contributions are summarized in the mission statement of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at University of California, Berkeley:

"The principal mission of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies…is to enhance awareness of the Middle East and of its diverse peoples and cultures. The Center promotes both specialized knowledge and public understanding of this crucial area of the world, which includes the Arab states, Turkey, Iran and Israel."

Diversity of Programs and Perspectives. The Berkeley statement reflects the broad scope of NRC programming. A selection of recent activities and programs at the University of Michigan’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies illustrates this diversity by:

  • Administering a faculty exchange program with Algeria, and in 2003 it hosted an international conference on politics and society in Algeria;
  • Sponsoring in 2004-05 a year-long lecture series devoted to Israeli Society, organized in collaboration with the University’s Center for Judaic Studies;
  • Providing support, which leverage much larger university contributions, for Turkish and Persian language instruction;
  • Holding a monthly Turkish Studies colloquium;
  • Recently sponsoring a Persian music festival, organized in cooperation with the local Iranian-American community; and
  • Showing films from Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the Arab world in its annual film series.
These few examples, from one university, illustrate the diverse range and geographic scope of NRC activities. Among the many others that could be mentioned are:
  • The study tours for pre-collegiate teachers organized by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, which in recent years has taken several dozen teachers from Arizona and elsewhere to Syria, Turkey, and Morocco;
  • The on-line information and resource projects of centers at the University of Texas and the University of Arizona, among others, which provide a comprehensive directory of on-line resources about the Middle East and, in some cases, searchable bibliographies on particular topics; and
  • The scholarly conferences that most centers convene every year. Recent conferences include one at UCLA on "Religion and Ethnic Diasporas" and one at the University of Utah on "Transitions and Inequality."

Instructional Contributions and Training of Specialists. NRCs make important instructional contributions. Although they draw primarily on the courses offered by academic departments, they also provide support for specialized and innovative offerings. One example is a recent mini-course on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at the University of Michigan, which drew 250 students and featured lectures by five visiting Palestinian and Israeli professors. Another is a team-taught course on Islam in Comparative Perspective in which students and faculty at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University met through video conferencing technology. A third example is a special course at the University of Washington on International Law and the Use of Force, which devoted significant attention to the war on terrorism and U.S. foreign policy.

Building proficiency in Middle Eastern languages, primarily Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian, and at some universities other Middle Eastern languages as well, is an essential part of the NRC mission. With rare exception, Middle East centers support introductory, intermediate, and advanced instruction in all four languages. They also provide Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships to enable graduate students to incorporate language training into their discipline-based programs of study.

In addition, most NRCs support specialized programs that enrich traditional offerings. The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and its Wharton School of Business offer a joint Master of Arts-Master of Business Administration program, through which students undertake the intensive study of Arabic in Morocco and then have an internship requiring the use of Arabic in Dubai. The Middle East Center at the University of Chicago also offers a joint Master’s program with Business Administration, as well as a joint program in Public Policy. A different kind of program is the University of Michigan’s Language Across the Curriculum initiative, through which Arabic and Hebrew language discussion sections are attached to courses dealing with the Middle East in History, Political Science and other departments.

Many NRCs offer intensive summer programs in Middle Eastern languages, such as the programs in Turkish and Persian at Ohio State University. Programs for language teachers, as well as students, are organized as well. NRCs in western states hold an annual workshop for teachers of Middle Eastern languages, enabling them to consult with one another and exchange information about curriculum and pedagogy.

Students at all levels benefit from these instructional contributions. While many doctoral students take positions in higher education, others bring the language skills and area knowledge they have acquired to positions in government, NGOs, and the private sector. Work in government or the private sector is particularly common among Master’s degree students, some of whom take positions as analysts in United States government agencies dealing with the Middle East.

Research and Scholarship. Producing and disseminating knowledge about the Middle East is an important responsibility of all NRCs. Thus, for example, the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Texas sponsors the Modern Middle East Scholarly Book Series, which has published twenty-one books by Western and Middle Eastern scholars. They also sponsor the Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation Series, which publishes significant works of fiction, criticism and memoirs translated into English from Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish. Similarly, the Center at the University of Chicago publishes the Chicago Studies on the Middle East Scholarly Book Series. A recent volume deals with the role of popular film in shaping civic identity in Egypt.

Other scholarly contributions result from conferences and symposia. The Center at the University of Michigan recently published Islam, Democracy and the State in Algeria, which is based on an international conference attended by scholars from the United States, Algeria, France, Italy, and Canada.

Outreach. All NRCs engage in public affairs programming, organizing lectures, seminars and cultural events for the general public. The Middle East Center at the University of Utah has organized nine lectures on "Learning from Past Failures: Pathways to Peace in the Middle East." The series features presentations by leading Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian scholars, as well as prominent scholars and officials from the United States and other countries.

Programs are also directed to specialized constituencies, including pre-collegiate educators, journalists, and the business community. For example, the NRC at the University of Arizona conducts workshops for media, business, law enforcement and federal, state and local agencies.

Programs for pre-collegiate educators are particularly important. The Middle East Center at New York University holds regular seminars to help secondary school educators develop an interdisciplinary approach to teaching about the Middle East. A recent seminar focused on Gender and Youth Culture in the Middle East. Recent Georgetown University workshops for elementary and secondary school teachers covered Water Issues in the Middle East; Arab/Islamic Civilization in Medieval Spain; Islamic Art and Architecture; Relations between Israelis and Palestinians; and Women in the Middle East.

Most centers also have resources collections for use by K-12 educators. These include books, journals, magazines, newspapers, videos, slides and other materials. In addition, many make lesson plans available through their Web sites. The Middle East Center at the University of Washington, for example, offers teaching units on Iraq, Egypt, and veiling. Units prepared by the Center at New York University, developed in accordance with the New York State Department of Education Social Studies Curriculum, include primary documents, secondary readings, faculty essays, and lesson plans.

At a time of increasing globalization and international interdependence in general, and with the Middle East occupying an increasingly central place in the international concerns of the United States in particular, the activities and programs of National Resource Centers devoted to study of the Middle East are more important than ever. These NRCs are training the specialists who in the future will provide the United States with needed knowledge about this critical world region. Their programs of research and scholarship are also producing new insights about the Middle East, while their instructional and outreach activities contribute to an informed understanding of the region among university students, pre-collegiate educators, and the general public.

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Last Modified: 01/21/2011