Faculty approve Arabic, envi majors

On April 14, after a process lasting several years, the Williams College faculty unanimously voted to approve environmental science, environmental policy and Arabic studies as three new majors. Both departments unanimously supported the introduction of majors in their respective fields. At the faculty meeting, the proposal for the environmental science and policy majors was presented by Jennifer French, chair of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) and professor of romance languages. The Arabic studies major was presented by Gail Newman, chair of the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures (CFLLC) and professor of romance languages.

The process for establishing a new major is difficult. Prospective departments submit proposals to the Committee on Educational Planning (CEP), which evaluates it by several criteria, foremost of which are curricular coherence and staffing. “We need to be confident that a student will have access to the courses required to complete a major once it is created,” said David Zimmerman, chair of the CEP and professor of economics. “We are also sensitive to staffing issues.” All three of the new majors are staffing-neutral, a critical quality in light of the College’s current hiring freeze. “The underlying required courses must be already regularly offered,” Zimmerman said. Once a new major proposal clears the CEP, a vote from the faculty is required to pass it. According to Zimmerman, all three majors garnered strong support.

The CEP met several times with members of the CES advisory group and Arabic Studies Initiative (ASI), groups responsible for crafting their departments’ proposals. Over the course of these meetings, both groups presented several iterations of their proposals to the CEP.

Prior to the fall of 2005, Arabic was just a critical language offering in the curriculum. The College began to offer formal instruction in Arabic following the hiring of Armando Vargas, assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature. As demand increased, the administration organized conferences in 2007 and 2008 to discuss potential growth options. These committees initially resulted in the proposal of a major in Middle Eastern Studies, which the ASI rejected internally in favor of a major in Arabic studies, which was presented to the CEP in 2009.

Although the CEP found the proposal sound in terms of curriculum, the committee expressed reservations over staffing requirements and thus did not recommend Arabic studies for a faculty vote. The rejected proposal required three full years of Arabic language, which the CEP deemed impractical with a full-time staff of only two professors. This year, the major requirements were revised to only require two full years of Arabic, which the CEP thought was more realistic. Other concerns raised by the CEP included the lack of a capstone course and a competing rationale for incorporating the major into the comparative literature department.

The ASI needed to be particularly conscientious about staffing restrictions given the number of full-time professors on campus. “Our first proposal assumed that there would be replacement of our current two faculty members with visitors when they went on leave, which the College couldn’t guarantee,” Newman said. “This year, we made sure that in the event that one of our colleagues was not replaced on leave, the other could cover all four required language courses for that one year.”

Newman also cited the similarities between current Arabic certificate seekers and new major requirements. “The Arabic major renders official what students have already been doing at Williams,” she said. “All of the required courses are offered every year, and most of the electives are offered either every year or every other year.”

According to Newman, it is unlikely that the new interest in the Arabic studies major will strain the department. “If enrollments soar, that might mean some pressure, no question,” she said, noting however that the number of students taking Arabic is already reasonably high. “Although we would dearly love to have a third colleague in the program, we wanted to make sure that current and future students could have access to a major under current conditions.”

Mara Namaan, assistant professor of Arabic, added that in the future additional faculty could help establish tracks within the major specializing in Middle Eastern studies and language studies. “But for now, we are very pleased with this start,” she said.
The approval process for the environmental studies majors has been difficult for two reasons. Traditionally, departments cannot simultaneously offer curricula corresponding to concentrations and majors. This policy is meant to safeguard against concentrations becoming effective minors, which the College does not offer. “[But] CES faculty feels strongly that the environmental studies concentration is quite different from a minor, because it’s interdisciplinary,” French said. “For many students interested in environmental studies, the best curricular path is to major in another subject but concentrate in environmental studies,” she said. She added that the CES felt that maintaining the environmental studies concentration was critical to keeping students’ options open.

Secondly, the interdisciplinary nature of the major means that it encompasses an unusually large number of classes. “Environmental studies is a very broad field unifying natural and social sciences, so it inherently requires a lot of courses,” French said, also referring to other schools’ environmental studies major requirements. According to French, the programs at other colleges that the CEP liked best consisted of 15 to 17 courses; the maximum major course requirement at the College is 11 courses.

The CES worried considerably less about staffing restrictions than did the ASI, since the environmental studies majors will not require the addition of any new courses. “Both environmental studies majors were conscientiously designed to account for fact that departments were stretched,” French said. “Not only will the new majors not require any new courses, but will also not put additional strain on currently offered classes.” French said that overlap between current concentrators and future majors will prevent an unmanageable influx of students into the field. “It’s reasonable to imagine that environmental studies majors will be students who would have otherwise been concentrators,” French said.