Section: News

Arabic’s future in question

There are only two Arabic professors at Kenyon: Assistant Professor of Arabic Qussay Al-Attabi and Chris Hemmig, a Mellon/Ohio5 Post-Doctoral Fellow in Arabic. At the end of this academic year, Hemmig’s position will expire, making students question the future of the language’s instruction.

If there is only one professor, Arabic will no longer be an option for students as a minor, and no intermediate or advanced classes will be available, according to Al-Attabi. Hemmig is the only faculty member who teaches intermediate and advanced level courses; Al-Attabi teaches exclusively at the introductory level.

Molly Cox ’19 and Hannah Bryan ’19 sent out an email to students taking Arabic urging them to sign a petition showing interest in the language. “We would like to use this list to demonstrate to the Provost’s Office the large amount of interest students have in the current Arabic department, as well as their enthusiasm about possibly expanding the department,” they wrote . Currently, 45 students have signed the petition.

Cox believes the progress of the program depends on hiring more professors. “The arrival of such dedicated professors and the restructuring of the Arabic courses is the cause [of improvement in the rigor and vibrancy of the department], in my opinion. I have seen a surge in the numbers of students interested in Arabic and it makes me hopeful. Students and professors are very supportive of the petition,” Cox wrote in an email to the Collegian.

Bryan also noted that knowledge of Arabic is an important skill outside of the classroom. “There are a lot of people who have career interests that lie in the Middle East and want to work there,” Bryan said. “I know for me, being able to speak even a small amount of Arabic that I do has already been helpful for me. I got an internship this summer because of the fact that I can speak Arabic.”

Al-Attabi holds a similar view.  “The study of language is not only the study of language, per se; it is usually a window to another culture, to a different set of mind, it brings in more understanding,” Al-Attabi said. “It falls within Kenyon’s new global vision.”

Despite the uncertainty, the chair of the Modern Languages and Literature department, Associate Professor of Spanish Travis Landry, is hopeful about the future of the department. “We are optimistic, and we are patient, and we are appreciative to have the support we have,” Landry said. “The provost’s office wants what is best for Kenyon and for Kenyon students. They have been very receptive and considerate of our need when it comes to additional staffing in Arabic.”

“Professor Hemmig’s position cannot be renewed; this is a position that has to be created,” Landry said. “It’s not like he is leaving and there is a hole.” The position has been funded by the Ohio5 Mellon Fellows Grant, a fellowship program that places fellows of the languages at Ohio schools for two year terms, meaning the College did not pay for it. Now that the position is going to expire, College administrators are searching for a more stable solution. “We have been submitting proposals and course programming templates to the administration,” Landry said. “We started that process last spring and we’ve continued since we discussed staffing again in August, and we are still talking about that.”

Going forward, several students have suggested ways to improve the department. They want more Apprentice Teacher (AT) sessions, and classes beyond the advanced level. AT sessions for other languages meet five times per week. On the other hand, Arabic AT sessions are offered four times per week by two ATs, and students meet one hour per week. After the introductory level, there are no AT sessions offered. “There are fewer contact hours, which is even harder for a language with a whole new alphabet and whole new sounds, so the acquisition is definitely slower,” Arabic AT Anni Coonan ’18 said. “It just does not make sense why one of the more difficult languages to learn has one of the fewer contact hours.”

Tate Serletti ’20 is interested in Arabic and wishes more AT sessions were available. “I can only really speak to comparing it with the Spanish department, but I think AT [sessions] are really effective at bringing that immersive element because you can really work on conversation, vocabulary … it needs to go beyond the intro level.” Over the summer, she attended an immersive Arabic program at Middlebury College and now is considering transferring to a different college. “Obviously there are a lot of factors, but I think it is the way to continue my studies with Arabic specifically but language and linguistics in general.”

There is high demand for more classes in Arabic, according to Al-Attabi. “There is a huge demand from students for more advanced classes, but also more classes in translation, meaning Arabic literature in translation, or classes about culture,” Al-Attabi said.

Although there are courses about the Arabic-speaking countries, they are in other departments and taught in English, according to Hemmig.

Bryan said she is grateful for the department, but wishes it could be developed more. “I want to emphasize how great it is that we have an Arabic department, but the fact [is] we could be doing a lot more,” she said.


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