Departments Nearing Hire for Middle Eastern Studies

In response to growing student demand for Middle Eastern studies at Swarthmore, both the History and Political Science departments are conducting searches to hire for 3-year visiting professorships to fill the Middle Eastern gap in their fields. Each department is at the tail end of their search, but, for both, the process may be more complicated than simply finding a ready and able candidate. While, last year, the funding for this new position in Middle Eastern studies was dedicated solely to the History department, the situation has changed. Now, if both departments end their searches with viable candidates, they will be competing for the same pool of funding.

“There’s only one job,” said Cyndi Halpern, associate professor and chair of the Political Science department. According to Halpern, Political Science was invited to “join in the search process” when they indicated to the Provost’s Office that there was a heavy student demand to teach Middle Eastern politics. The thinking goes that the money originally for History had already been set aside, but that the college cannot afford to dedicate more funding to another visiting professorship in the current economy.

“I think it’s relatively unorthodox … It’s an atypical arrangement … but I don’t think it’s an illegitimate thing to do as long as you inform [the candidates] that this is the case,” Halpern said. According to Halpern, Hungerford is in charge of making the final hiring decision, though the Provost’s office has yet to articulate to Halpern what the precise procedures and standards of comparison would be if two viable candidates made it to the Provost’s desk. The process may not ultimately reach the point where it might become adversarial in nature (as both departments would need ready-to-hire candidates), and Halpern raised the prospect of having a “joint candidate” who could conceivably teach courses in both disciplines.

Hungerford did not immediately reply to an interview request from the Gazette asking for clarification and further details on the hiring process.

Though assistant professor of Religion and Islamic Studies program coordinator Tariq Al-Jamil said that he was “surprised because of the momentum [of Islamic Studies]” that the college would be unable to dedicate funding to two positions, he ultimately said that “[he’ll] be happy either way for a welcome and well-needed addition to the [Islamic Studies] program.”

History and Political Science have come to a short-list of two and three candidates, respectively, each of whom are presenting public talks and meeting with students and faculty. Two have already come to Swarthmore: Pedram Partovi for History (Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, expertise on Iran and its cinema) and Sener Akturk for Political Science (Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, expertise on Turkey and ethnicity). Remaining candidates include Maren Milligan (Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland) and Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar (Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University, expertise on Iran and media) for Political Science and Shane Minkin for History (Ph.D. candidate at New York University, expertise on Egypt).

Professor and acting chair of history Robert Weinberg expects a final hiring decision to be made as soon as “mid-February,” and as late as “early March.” For both departments, the exact date when a candidate accepts a given position may be dependent on the hiring processes of other schools, as each candidate is likely interviewing at multiple institutions.

The hiring process is further complicated by the possibility that even if the college offers a position to an otherwise interested candidate, they may decide to take a position elsewhere. This is precisely what occurred last year when the History department offered the position at the end of their initial search. “We lost a candidate we liked to another school,” Weinberg said. “A tenure-track position is preferable to a three-year job.”

While offering a tenure track position would likely appeal more to potential candidates (and be more expensive to the college — it takes approximately $1 million to endow a tenured position), there are currently no open tenure track lines. This is unlikely to change in the near future, since as per college president Al Bloom’s e-mail to the Swarthmore community this past December, the college is set to “stringently evaluate any faculty or staff hiring. (Notably, though, tenure track lines opened by retirements can be shifted from one department to another.)

“Perhaps if we hire on a temporary basis, [that candidate] will draw enough students to display a demonstrated need to have someone on a permanent basis,” Weinberg said

To a certain extent, a general interest in Middle Eastern studies has already been expressed. The rise of Arabic language instruction at Swarthmore as a function of heavy student advocacy, the success of War News Radio, and the recent formation of the Islamic Studies program all speak heavily to this interest. Former visiting professor of history Toby Jones’ Middle-Eastern courses were inundated with students, with over seventy initially showing up for his very first course.

“There were people in windows taking [Toby Jones’] class. There were people from almost every major, almost every department,” said honors History major Reina Chano ’09, who took that course. Despite the interest in his classes, Jones left a year early from his visiting position to take a tenure-track position at Rutgers University.

When she was writing her sophomore paper, Chano found herself wishing that she could write her thesis on modern Middle-Eastern history, “which is why I was really sad that the college didn’t offer any courses [on it].” To Chano, hiring a new faculty member in Middle-Eastern studies would be a laudable commitment to not only the academic fabric of the college, but also to the personal enrichment of its students.

“I think that [Middle Eastern history] is especially important because it’s a place we see in the news every day … Israel/Palestine, Iran, Iraq … it’s a place that we don’t study much here in the States, yet it’s going to be more and more relevant to global affairs,” Chano said. “If you don’t have a sense of how a place has developed and how people’s views have changed, and how we’ve come to this concept of a place called ‘The Middle East’ … it’s going to be difficult to understand.”

Today, Political Science candidate Milligan’s talk “The Paradox of Power Sharing: Institutionalized Group Representation and Political Crises in Nigeria and Lebanon” will take place at 4:15pm in Trotter 301. (Tabaar, the other Political Science candidate, has yet to announce the title of his talk, though it will take place in the same room at the same time next Thursday.) Friday, History candidate Minkin will give her own talk “A Place for the Dead, A Space for the Living: Foreign Cemetaries in Alexandria, Egypt, 1881-1914,” in Trotter 203 at 5:00pm. All candidate search talks are open to the public.

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