Great Expectations

September 18, 2009

With a new curriculum and fresh faculty, the Arabic program is poised to become a star attraction at Brandeis.

The effort is being spearheaded by Senior Lecturer in Arabic Studies and Director of the Arabic Language Program Carl Sharif El-Togbui. El-Togbui joined the Brandeis faculty after spending five years as a preceptor of Arabic language at Harvard University.

He is currently in the last stages of completing his Ph.D. dissertation in Islamic studies, specializing in Islamic Thought and Islamic Law and Legal Theory, at McGill University in Montreal.

Though his current activities would suggest otherwise, you’d be wrong to assume that El-Tobgui knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“I wandered into teaching Arabic almost accidentally,” he said.

El-Togbui initially took up teaching in his first years as a graduate student to gain some experience in the classroom and earn some extra cash. A want ad for Harvard brought him back to the U.S.

Now, El-Tobgui is enthusiastically taking on the challenge of bringing Brandeis’ Arabic program up to speed.

So far, among other efforts, he has upgraded to a new textbook series for first year Arabic students. Students currently in higher-level classes will continue with the old textbook series.

“[The new textbook] is very functional and communicative; very hands on…it’s very practical, not as theoretical,” El-Tobgui said of his reasons for making the switch. “It’s much more visually appealing,” he added.

Additionally, the new book is more technologically savvy. It comes with a complimentary set of online activities and both DVD and audio features, in addition to the traditional written drills found in most language textbooks.

The textbook isn’t the only change in the department; there are two new part-time lecturers, Ahmad Al-Jallad and Sherif Shabaka.

In past years there has only been one part-time and one full-time faculty member, but this year the program needed the extra help to support the influx of enthusiastic first-year Arabic students.

“I have been very impressed in general with the quality of the students,” El-Tobgui said. “I don’t feel like I’ve come to a place that is a whole different ball game. [There’s] a lot of enthusiasm among the students, especially the ones who are already in the program. They are thirsting for a new direction.”

That new direction has come in the form of, among other things, extra class sections. Two first-year sections of Arabic had to be created this semester – a first for Brandeis – to accommodate the 55 students who enrolled. Additionally, a 40-level class has been added to accommodate students who want to study Arabic at a more advanced level.

Looking to the future, El-Togbui hopes he can get an Arabic minor passed, and maybe even one day a major. El-Togbui eventually would like to approach Arabic language instruction from a broader Islamic studies perspective.

“[I] have been able to use a clean slate [because] I don’t have anyone who was here before saying ‘No, we do it like this.’ It allows us to move forward,” El-Tobgui said.

Part of moving forward means increasing the pace and raising the expectations in Arabic classes.

Shirel Guez ’12, who is currently taking Arabic to fulfill the requirement for the Islamic and Middle Eastern studies major, can attest to the fast pace and difficulty of the language.

“It’s hard work. You have to do your work, but [El-Togbui is] really a wonderful professor…He saw I was having a problem with something and he [reached] out to me. You can tell he’s really dedicated to his students,” she said.

Many of the newcomers were told to be wary of Arabic, Guez explained, but after the first class she was already confidently using a few phrases she had learned.

“I don’t feel uncomfortable making mistakes,” she said. “He tries to guide you in the right direction.”

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