Students: U neglects S. Asian studies

U officials say they are dedicated to the program, but students complain of hassles getting classes.

Amy Horst

When Charles Arndt arrived at the University in fall 2000, he expected to get a solid education in South Asian culture and history.

Arndt had received a letter from the University in October 1999 that said it was “an excellent place” to study South Asian culture, he said.

But what he got was quite different, he said.

Arndt, now a College of Liberal Arts senior, soon discovered he could only get a major in general South Asian culture rather than the study of any specific South Asian country. In some years, classes he needed were not offered.

Arndt is one of a number of University students who have fought for four years against what they call unfair treatment of South Asian languages and cultures.

University officials said that while they understand the students’ concerns, recent changes to the South Asian studies program reflect their dedication to maintaining a strong program.

Arndt, however, said he is afraid the University is trying to get rid of the South Asian studies program completely.

“If one of these programs that doesn’t necessarily get the most attention gets phased out, who’s to say that tomorrow another program won’t get phased out?” he said.

Arlene Carney, CLA’s associate dean for academic programs, said the University has no intention of eliminating the program and that CLA will listen to all students’ concerns about the program.

She also said it is difficult to determine which courses could be counted toward a South Asian degree. Students might be concerned because they see fewer courses categorized as South Asian languages and cultures, but many classes in other departments could count toward a South Asian cultures degree, Carney said.

“It’s the nature of the (South Asian studies) discipline – it’s not like psychology, where all of the faculty is in one department,” Carney said. “Some people are in humanities, some are in social sciences, and some are in art.”

The University placed a moratorium on undergraduate and graduate programs in South Asian languages and literature in 1995.

In fall 1999, the University offered four South Asian culture classes, not counting Hindi. With the exception of spring 2001 – when four classes were offered – two, and sometimes one, regular culture classes have been offered per semester.

However, Joe Allen, Asian languages and literature department chairman, said his department recently hired a new assistant professor, Simona Sawhney, who teaches about three or four courses per semester.

Arndt said that after studying in India during fall 2002, he could not get any of the credits transferred. He then tried to take modern Indian literature – a requirement for his major – but found it had been canceled during the first week of registration.

Next, when he tried to take the course as an independent study, he could not find it listed on the Internet. After three weeks of talking to the department, he received permission to take it as an independent study course. But he said he never received an explanation for why the courses were canceled.

Allen said he did not know why the classes were canceled, but he said it was beyond the department’s control.

Mounir Nassor, a French student who came to the University in 2002, had an experience similar to Arndt’s.

Nassor came to the University to study Urdu – Pakistan’s official language – which he saw listed in the 2002-04 undergraduate catalog. When he arrived, he found that the University had not offered Urdu since spring 2001. In 2003, Nassor returned to France to study the language.

But Allen said that from now on, students who want to study

Urdu will be able to do so, because the University is looking for a new Urdu lecturer. Allen said he expects the position to be filled by next semester, and he said Urdu will likely be offered in fall 2004.

Allen said South Asian classes are not treated differently from other Asian language and literature courses, and he is optimistic about the department’s future. For example, he said, in 2003, 13 more students took Hindi than in 2000.

Rich Bettini, a senior studying South Asian culture, said he would like to see more South Asian classes and wants the Asian languages and literatures department to change its name to the East and South Asian languages and literatures department. He said when people think of Asia, they generally think of East Asia.

He and Arndt also said they object to the department’s sole offering of a concentration in South Asia – without delineating a specific language or country.

“The program doesn’t describe anything in a region with 80 different dialects,” Bettini said. “We’re looking to be acknowledged as a different culture.”

Allen said students can get a degree with a focus on Hindi, but Arndt, Bettini and other students have sent letters to University officials saying there are sometimes not enough courses offered to fulfill that major.

Allen said he hopes that will not be the case much longer.

“We’ve been working very hard to stabilize third-year Hindi because the major requires that,” Allen said. “The last two years, we have been able to teach third-year Hindi.”

Archan Mehta, a doctoral student specializing in human resources development, said universities should be expanding opportunities for students to learn about other cultures. Mehta said he considered taking South Asian courses but chose not to because there was a poor selection of classes.

“It’s not just important, it’s essential, because we live in an age of globalization,” Mehta said. “Especially after Sept. 11, it has become necessary for the East and West to start building bridges rather than burning them.”