NU-Q gathers top scholars from US and Qatar campuses to re-define MENA studies

September 17, 2012

Task force explores adaptations to Evanston MENA curriculum

Future book to showcase NU and NU-Q research on region

 Doha, Qatar – September 16, 2012  Northwestern University in Qatar put the spotlight on its commitment to Middle Eastern studies at two conferences that drew top scholars from its U.S. campus, as well as faculty and students from the campus in Doha.  In a commitment to better understand Qatar and the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region for the benefit of its media, communication and journalism students, the university organized a consensus conference that could lead to a minor or concentration and also hosted a symposium on fresh research about the region. 

Eight leading scholars of the region from NU’s home campus in Evanston, Illinois, led by Dr. Brian Edwards, Director of Northwestern’s MENA studies program, took part in both conferences, one of which included original papers that will be edited into a monograph to be issued later in the academic year.

The delegates included anthropologists, Dr. Jessica Winegar and Dr. Katherine E. Hoffman, historian Dr. Henri Lauziere, English and humanities scholar Dr. Rebecca Johnson, political scientists Dr. Wendy Pearlman and Dr. Elizabeth Shankman Hurd and legal scholar and historian, Dr. Kristen Stilt, all members of the faculty at Northwestern’s home campus.  Also presenting papers from the NU-Q faculty were anthropologist Dr. Sonali Pahwa and media scholar Dr. Joe Khalil.

Northwestern already has an enviable array of Middle Eastern studies and Middle Eastern media courses, said Dr. Everette E. Dennis, Dean and CEO of NU-Q, who convened and chaired the two conferences.  “We need to better define and organize the course work we have and connect it more effectively to offerings across Education City as well as with those at our home campus.”

The conference is the latest outcome of a Task Force on Middle Eastern/Islamic Studies appointed last year and led by Dr. Zachary Wright, assistant professor of history and Islamic studies at NU-Q.  The report was a pretext for the consensus conference at which some fifty to seventy faculty, staff and students discussed prospects for a minor in a lively discussion that considered the role of history, contemporary affairs, religion, politics and the role of the media.

Students attending were asked whether they would pursue a minor if it were offered and there was widespread enthusiasm for such study.“I feel it would be a shame for me to study journalism in the Middle East without learning the language and gaining a little extra insight on the inner-workings of the region,” said Zachary Hollo, a transfer student from New York University.

Other students commented that, while they might have grown up in one Arab country, the region is too complex for that to mean that they had the tools to report on and analyze events across the Arab world.

Conferees said the specialty would not only serve NU-Q students and others in Education City, but would also have appeal on the home campus which will begin sending exchange students to Doha in 2013.  “I can imagine our students wanting to come and extend their studies right here in the region they are studying,” Dr. Edwards said.

The consensus conference had sessions that aimed at defining the field, which has gone by many names from Egyptology to Near East Studies, Islamic studies and Middle Eastern studies among others.  In a charge to the conference Dean Dennis called for a clear understanding of the value of such study that embraces several disciplines and professional fields and goes well beyond geography.  Several conferees agreed, saying that MENA studies has a vital, global impact today as the region is seen as more important  because of the high profile of the Arab Spring and its role in the world community.  “You really can’t understand the world today without a serious grounding in ME studies,” Dennis said.

During the conference several speakers including Task Force members joined in the discussion as they outlined MENA resources at NU-Q and in Education City as well as others in museums and other Qatari institutions.  Questions raised included just what constitutes a coherent minor or concentration for students; how to structure it and how to get student buy-in.  Resounding support for such academic study was expressed by students.

While Dennis admitted that there was no formal consensus or vote on the shape for the proposed minor, he said there exists widespread acceptance of the idea and a desire to find a way to take the next steps toward an approved plan that could be ready for students by Fall 2013, though they can already take existing courses.  Whether this will be a formal minor with up to six courses, a concentration or specialization, needs to be worked out, he said.  As for consensus, there was agreement that students need an introductory course that “covers the field, drawing on the different approaches and topics that are deemed essential, including ancient and contemporary history.  Whether students focus on one or more countries, or topics like politics, religion or culture will be carefully defined.”

Following the Consensus Conference, a full day research colloquium explored “New Directions in Middle Eastern Studies,” and gave attention to innovative research inquiries from the fields of anthropology, history and law, political science as well as literature and media.  Several probed the Arab Spring and its aftermath with topics including:

–        Political action in revolutionary Egypt

–        Women’s digital media and social mobility in Egypt

–        The role of Berbers in the Libyan Civil War

–        The Arabic novel

–        Youth generated media in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon

–        Comics, cyberpunk and digital age fictions

–        The role of emotion in the Egyptian revolution and

–        Religious freedom and crisis in Syria

In addition to the presenters, several NU-Q faculty chaired sessions, including Dr. Geoff Harkness, assistant professor of sociology; Dr. Zachary Wright, assistant professor of history and religion, Dr. Justin Martin, assistant professor of journalism and Jocelyn Mitchell, lecturer in political science.

Dr. Jessica Winegar, Associate Professor of Anthropology and MENA Interim Director at Northwestern University in Evanston, said the aim of the conference was to bring together scholars from Northwestern whose work focused on the MENA region with scholars who work within the region itself, for an “intellectual exchange.”

Winegar presented “Fed-Up and Bored: Affect and Political Action in Revolutionary Egypt”, an exploration of the lives of culture workers in Egyptian NGOs supporting the country’s youth and the effects of corruption upon such organizations.

“We are in our first year as a program for MENA studies at NU-E. In 2013 we will launch our undergraduate major and minor, and are currently accepting applications to our PhD cluster.” Professor Winegar said. “This conference, our interaction with students here, and our observation of classes has helped us immensely in sharing ideas about the creation of MENA studies at these different campuses.”