Students Reflect on MES and ASCL Split a Year Later

by Anne Johnakin | 10/9/19 2:00am

by Samantha Burack / The Dartmouth

Until a little over a year ago, the Asian Societies, Cultures, and Languages and Middle Eastern Studies programs were organized under the umbrella of the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies program and the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Language and Literatures. In a February 2018 article published in The Dartmouth, comparative literature and film and media professor Dennis Washburn commented on the restructuring.

“The new program will help us think of Asia not just as Asia, but as a global phenomenon,” Washburn said at that time. 

As Washburn referenced, Asia is an incredibly complex continent, and as he said, the restructuring of the departments sought to realize its global implications. This split has allowed the programs to focus more deeply on their subject materials and offer more comprehensive course listings, according to ASCL program chair Allen Hockley. 

Sara Cho ’20, who is an ASCL major, explained how a lot of students were confused as to why the two cultures were ever grouped together. 

“It made no sense to have them together in the first place. Geographically, culturally, linguistically, everything is just so different,” Cho said.

Hockley agrees, saying that previously, the department functioned with each unit operating independently of each other, so that the restructuring just made sense. 

“It’s easier to create a community that works better together,” Hockley said. “The Middle East requires certain types of courses that are very different from the types of courses for East Asia or South Asia.”

The MES program now offers a major and minor, focusing on social sciences, politics, languages and cultures within the Middle Eastern region. Luke Bienstock ’20 is a government and MES double major. He said he decided to pursue MES after taking the initial language track and going on a study abroad program to Morrocco. Since the restructuring, the program has done a better job of bringing attention to all of the different opportunities they offer, including classes, guest speakers and Arabic club, according to Bienstock. 

“When they revamped it, they started with all these new speakers coming to campus for a few days, which was pretty amazing,” Bienstock said. “This giant focus of the people and the issues of the region jumped out to me.”

In addition to the opportunities the MES program provides, a lot of the department’s strength comes from its professors, Bienstock said.

“I could not ask for better professors,” Bienstock said. “They’re all so enthusiastic about teaching students Arabic and the fact that … they’re from Arabic speaking countries makes a huge difference.”

The ASCL program has a major and minor with two tracks students can choose to focus on: content or language. Hockley noted that the structure of an ASCL major allows students to dive deep into a specific topic that interests them, as well as receiving a broader interdisciplinary education.

Cho said that growing up as Korean-American has caused her to find a lot of value in her ASCL education. 

“Majoring in this has been a really cool opportunity to study [Asian cultures] in a more academic and formal setting. Also, it’s really expanded my own perspective,” Cho said. “After taking a lot of courses, it’s made me very appreciative of the different cultures and perspectives people come from.”

Moving forward, the ASCL program is working to continue growing and adding more faculty, according to Hockley. Hockley also said that the program is looking to add Korean, Hindi and Urdu as language offerings since the program has enough resources to support expansion into other relevant cultures. Hockley also said that professors are in the process of developing new language study abroad and foreign study abroad programs, including programs in Southeast Asia and a Korean LSA+.

Hockley said that he was encouraged by the strenght of enrollment numbers in general education classes, as well as the number of new majors and minors and the diversity of interests they represent. This year and next year will be critical in determining the strength of the program and how it will proceed in the future, he said.

Freshmen have already started being exposed to these programs in classes this quarter, including MES 16.07, “The Arabian Nights East and West.” This course provides an introduction to Arabo-Islamic culture as seen through the lens of A Thousand and One Nights. 

Georgia Dawahare ’23 said that the class has led her to rethink her former perception of the Middle East.

“It’s changed my stereotype of Middle Eastern culture as well as the stereotype of what this novel is about,” Dawahare said. “So now I know it’s more than a children’s story … It has a lot deeper meaning than you would think.” 

Josh Po ’23, another student in the class, echoed these sentiments. He came into the quarter not knowing much about Middle Eastern culture and said that he has learned a lot. 

“Although Arabian Nights has to do with … Middle Eastern culture as a whole, there’s a lot of themes, motifs and aspects that are universal,” Po said. “It really brings home the fact that we are all human, and we share the same experiences no matter how far different our cultures seem to be.”

For Hockley, offering this broad cultural experience is the most important part of these programs.

“Irrespective of what your major and minor are, if you think about the Middle East and Asia, especially your generation, that’s a huge part of your world,” Hockley said. “And it’s not going away. Being culturally competent with those places, even if it’s only a literary tradition or a religious tradition, is really critical moving forward.”

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