Evaluation autumn 2016:
The course was given for the second time in Autumn 2016, as planned. It was divided into language lines taught by specialist teachers, and the precise organisation of each line was left to the individual teachers in coordination with the course coordinator. Eight students signed up for the Arabic, one for the Turkish, one for the Hebrew; while the Persian class had to be postponed to due to unforeseen reasons.
The Arabic class was taught by two teachers, one a specialist in Arab cultural history, the other a specialist in Arabic literature. To train students in the use of Arabic as an academic language also for oral communication, and following positive feedback from the year before, we maintained the use of Arabic as the main language of oral communication in class.
In Autumn 2016, the course was given in the spirit of a text-focused research seminar in connection with the teachers’ ongoing research project “In 2016: How it felt to live in the Arab World five years after the ‘Arab Spring.’” This meant a departure from the previous year’s model of reading selections from a textbook. The choice of approach was due to the particular circumstances obtaining during this year, which offered the chance to let students participate in the early stages of a research project, where the main task was to find and collect primary source material and to make a preliminary survey of this material. This was done since the university encourages not only forskningsbasert (research-based), but especially also forskningsnær teaching, i.e. teaching that involves students in the research process itself.
After an introduction to the basic theoretical framework of the research project, the semester was divided into two halves. During the first half, focus was on material that was ‘buzzing’ (highly frequently shared) on Egyptian and Tunisian social media; during the second half, students were given extracts from a novel to read and analyse. For the social media part, students had to learn to skim a given corpus of primary material (largely, media stories in Arabic that already carried keywords in English), to develop—ideally, in team work—an idea about particularly pertinent issues and themes expressed in this material, to select a limited number of stories (2-3 per week) illustrating these themes, submit a written summary analysis (1-2 pages per week) in English, and present their results orally in class (in Arabic). For the literature part, students were assigned about 10 pages per week to read and analyse, also here presenting their results in written as well as in oral form. Following last year’s recommendation, the final exam was a portfolio where students handed in a selection of their revised written homework.
A major goal for this course is to encourage students to free themselves from the urge to have to translate every single word, and to dare to tackle larger amounts of text with an eye to surveying texts and developing an overall understanding of the content. This task was largely achieved, but a particular challenge in Autumn 2016 was the open-ended nature of the research-oriented approach, not least due to the somewhat unorthodox theoretical framework of the “In 2016” project. In the future, we shall therefore go back to a fixed curriculum for MES4110.
As there was only one student who took the Turkish class, it was decided to modify the class format. Ordinarily the obligatory activity consists of a class presentation where the student analyses and contextualises one of the Turkish syllabus texts. This time we chose to focus more on writing. This worked well but was, as mentioned, tailored for this particular student. We are still of the opinion that a combination of in-class presentations and a draft essay should be included as obligatory activities in the future.
Overall, this course is still under development, and its precise future form and content will need to be re-evaluated in relation to the other obligatory courses in the MES master’s programme. Still, it must be reiterated that
(a) this is primarily a reading course aiming to train students in reading and digesting larger amounts of regional-language text, not a course focusing on grammar and precise translation; and
(b) it is a ‘general education’ course aiming to introduce students to a wide variety of texts significant within the cultural and literary heritage of the relevant language tradition, not a course where students are to focus primarily on their own areas of specialisation.
Evalutation autumn 2015
The course was given for the first time in Fall 2015, as planned. The course was divided into language lines taught by specialist teachers, and the precise organisation of each line was left to the individual teachers in coordination with the course coordinator. 6 students signed up for the Arabic and 4 for the Turkish line; the Persian and Hebrew lines were not taught due to lack of students.
The Arabic line was taught by two teachers, one a specialist in Arab cultural history, the other a specialist in Arabic literature. To train students in the use of Arabic as an academic language also for oral communication, Arabic was adopted as the language of instruction. Students were assigned selections of primary texts from the syllabus book, averaging about 12 pages per week, which they had to prepare at home and which were then discussed in class. In class, an effort was made to cover both content and language issues. A major goal of the course was to encourage students to free themselves from the urge to have to translate every single word, and to dare to tackle larger amounts of text with an eye to survey texts and develop an overall understanding of the content. Teachers felt that the course successfully achieved this goal, and students expressed a wish to be offered more such opportunities to practice their skills by using Arabic as a language of instruction. This has resulted in the fact that another course, MES4210, is now (Spring 2016) being taught in Arabic as well.
The Turkish class was taught by two teachers, one a linguist and native speaker of Turkish; the other a specialist in Turkish politics. Each student was assigned two texts that had to be presented in class; texts were then read, partially translated, and discussed together in order to understand the main points and the relation between the different texts. Language-wise, the texts (from the period 1904-1932) were selected to present a learning challenge even for a native speaker of Turkish today. Both English and Turkish were used to discuss in class.
As this course was taught for the first time, everything was new not only for the students, but also for the teachers. Since it was not clear before the actual start which students would take the course and what background they would bring to it, the course lay-out partially had to be determined along the way. One of the students expressed a wish for a more integrated way of dealing with the cultural history and the literature bit of the Arabic line. This was not possible due to the fact that in Fall 2015, teachers had largely divided their teaching lots following each other rather than alternating, due to their other obligations. In future semesters, one could try an alternative approach, although it must be said that the texts offered by the syllabus are devised as integrated units that one should be able to select from and combine in a variety of ways—after all, the course can only ever aim to offer a taste of the huge reservoir of 1500 years of Arab cultural and literary history.
The next time the course is given, it may be advisable to change the form of the exam—in what way exactly needs to be coordinated among participant teachers. One option that should be given serious consideration is to replace the term paper by a portfolio exam, where students would be assigned texts to present and discuss both orally in class and in written form.
To avoid misunderstandings, it should also be made even clearer to the students that (a) this is primarily a reading course aiming to train students in reading and digesting larger amount of texts, not a course focusing on grammar and precise translation; and (b) it is a ‘general education’ course aiming to introduce students to a wide variety of texts significant within the cultural and literary heritage of the relevant language tradition, not a course where students are to focus primarily on their own areas of specialisation.
In a future course, it may be considered to suggest some secondary literature to help students place the texts in a context within the history of ideas / literary history. This should, however, be a suggestion rather than obligatory reading, so as not to take away the focus on direct exposure to the primary texts [especially given the fact that some of the term papers showed too much reliance on secondary literature].