Arabic program reacts to surge in interest, enrollment

The University’s Arabic program is seeking two new professors as part of an effort to increase its full-time faculty, in response to dramatic growth in student enrollment and course offerings.

The number of students taking Arabic jumped from 120 in the 2003-2004 academic year to 700 in 2009-2010, while course options more than tripled from seven in 2003 to 29 this fall semester alone, according to data provided by Mohssen Esseesy, head of the Arabic program.

Leaders of the program – launched in 1994 as part of the Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department – attribute the spike to an evolving international political situation that has put a lasting spotlight on the Middle East.

Throughout this year, the program will search nationally for candidates who have experience in teaching and research with the hope of adding two more full-time assistant professors as early this spring.

Esseesy, who was hired as the program’s first tenure-track assistant professor in 2003 with the task of conducting a comprehensive review of its rigor and faculty profile, said the focus is now on developing the Arabic program’s curriculum and establishing cooperative plans with other departments at GW.

The program looks to strengthen existing relationships with the Institute for Middle East Studies and the GW School of Business while rebuilding a national security internship that was formed in 2008 but was recently put on hold due to limited federal funding.

“The added rigor of the Arabic program has earned it a national reputation of being a solid, high-quality program,” Esseesy said, adding that graduates’ government proficiency scores often attract recruiters from federal agencies.

Full-time professor Olla Al-Shalchi, who joined the Arabic program in June, said she was attracted to GW because of the students’ apparent desire to learn the language.

“It’s important because there is so much happening right now in the Middle East and people need to be able to communicate and find solutions,” she said.

Al-Shalchi, who taught Arabic at the College of William and Mary for five years before coming to GW, added that the student population at GW seems to be more diverse and more exposed to Arab culture than other institutions because of the school’s location in D.C.

The full-time faculty force behind the program has fluctuated throughout the rebuilding effort over the last seven years. The faculty base climbed from one full-time professor in 2004 to five this fall, but students said the faculty makeup sometimes changes noticeably from one semester to the next.

Senior Chris Knoell, who is in his fifth semester studying Arabic, said he was “really disappointed” when his professor of three semesters, Rana Casteel, left mid-semester this fall.

“I took her as often as I could. She was one of the reasons why I kept taking Arabic,” he said.

Though Esseesy declined to provide an exact count of how many full-time Arabic instructors have cycled out of the program in the last year, he said the potential for faculty turnover is high due to the draw of full-time jobs in the government sector and other businesses that take advantage of their language skills.

He explained that while the University tries to retain faculty, “it’s also understood that lucrative opportunities elsewhere, career changes and professional and personal growth are sometimes unavoidable.”

Before 2007, the majority of the teaching staff was part-time adjuncts contracted one semester at a time and one visiting full-time faculty member – a status that permits only two years of continuous employment, Esseesy said. To cultivate a stronger connection to the program among faculty, he provides newly recruited instructors pedagogical training and mentorship.

Sam Harris, a former Arabic professor who left in 2010 to work for the Peace Corps, emphasized the high demand that now exists for Arab-speaking individuals both inside and outside academia.

“It’s still quite a difficult language to master and the people who put in the time and energy are certainly making themselves more attractive to employers in various government departments, military and security fields, academia and NGOs especially,” Harris said.

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