“We want to give students the opportunity to follow the most creative and personalized path toward knowledge possible … [and] to help them engage the complex issues related to the Middle East with reason and civility, to speak freely and honestly about very difficult subjects in a spirit of open discourse,” says UCI history professor Mark LeVine, director of global Middle East studies. Steve Zylius / UCI

This fall, the University of California, Irvine began offering a novel – and timely – degree field: global Middle East studies. The interdisciplinary major and minor, which took almost a decade of planning to develop, are UCI’s first to require that students take a core course series across several schools.

We asked history professor Mark LeVine, director of global Middle East studies, about the new program.

Q: “Almost a decade of planning” is quite a commitment to making this happen. Why is GMES so important to you?

A: We want to give students the opportunity to follow the most creative and personalized path toward knowledge possible, to fully prepare them for graduate school or work and, equally important, to help them engage the complex issues related to the Middle East with reason and civility, to speak freely and honestly about very difficult subjects in a spirit of open discourse.

UCI is one of the top research universities in the United States, and the Middle East is inherently global, including some of the most important regions and religions in the world, from Morocco to Indonesia, Judaism to various small and tragically disappearing Christian sects, all within the broader tapestry of what the seminal historian of Islam Marshall Hodgson termed “Islamicate” civilization. The U.S. has been involved in continuous wars with numerous Muslim countries for more than 15 years, more than double the length of World War II, and trillions of dollars have been spent, yet Americans and their leaders know woefully little about the many societies and faiths of this area.

UCI has chairs in Persian studies & culture, as well as Jewish studies, and some amazing professors with extensive knowledge of the Middle East and larger Muslim world. But we don’t have a coordinated curriculum of research, study and public outreach. I and my colleagues who developed the GMES major believed that the best way to encourage that kind of focus was to create an undergraduate major that would maximize and synergize the strengths we do have while building the base for a program that can support advanced language and graduate study and research. I’m happy to say that after all this work, not only do we have the most innovative major in the country, but we are moving quickly to establish several chairs that will expand our coverage and deepen our understanding of the Middle East and surrounding regions.

Q: What is the significance of the word “global” in the GMES name?

A: The very terms “Middle East,” “North Africa” and the like are creations of European colonial powers and were always artificial separations of areas such as the northern and southern Mediterranean or North and “sub-Saharan” Africa, which have been deeply intertwined for thousands of years. Millions of Muslims now live in Europe, and the refugee crises have spurred migration across every possible border. As a result, the relations between Asia, Africa and Europe, particularly in terms of the role of Islam and its myriad cultures, have never been more complex. Yet most academic programs still remain divided along traditional geographic lines.

Our goal was to create a program that was equally transregional and transdisciplinary, incorporating the best insights and practices associated with the various ways of studying the broader Muslim world and its interactions with other places and societies, and to teach courses in an optimal manner.

We combined the inherent interdisciplinarity of an “area studies” education with the comparative methodologies employed by disciplinarily focused departments such as history, comparative literature or sociology. We believe we’ve designed a program that will provide students with a unique level of preparation for graduate study or work in a variety of fields in a manner not possible in programs of study located in individual disciplines or narrowly bounded regions.

Q: What impact do you hope this degree program will have?

A: I think that in time it will reshape the way the Middle East and other areas are studied and researched, not just at UCI, but at universities globally. This program is the result of years of consultations with colleagues from around the world, and its reach has the potential to reflect the many voices that went into it. At the same time, the program was designed specifically with UCI in mind, with the desire expressed over the years by so many students and faculty alike to move more freely and frequently across the various “quads” – from engineering to arts – in the course of their studies and research. GMES is, in fact, the first truly interdisciplinary and interschool major at UCI, so our hope is that it breaks ground for similarly eclectic and broad majors to be developed that bring together the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences and arts and, in the process, shatter the isolation that still inhibits collaboration by colleagues across the campus.

Q: What’s the enrollment? Did that number meet or exceed your expectations?

A: We have already oversusbscribed our first class, the introductory methods course for the major, and presume we will continue to grow in the coming years as long as we continue to put the required effort into enhancing the program and increasing course offerings.

Q: During the development phase, what kind of pushback, support or unexpected reactions did you get?

A: The program was initiated when California and UCI began a period of financial instability that presaged the Great Recession of the late 2000s by several years, and its progress was hampered as the country entered one of the worst financial crises in decades. But while circumstances made it hard to focus on creating innovative new majors, there remained a group of more than a dozen faculty who understood the importance of the major, and as the country, California and UCI began to rebound, we pushed to reignite our efforts. Much of the credit goes to Sharon Salinger, the now-retired dean of undergraduate studies, and to the staff of the School of Humanities, particularly Raschel Greenberg, without whom this would never have come to fruition. Equally important was the pressure of the students who have always been the spearhead for this kind of program.

Q: Is this “core course series across several schools” approach an innovation?

A: Certainly professors have collaborated on teaching across schools, but a core series that’s inherently not just interdisciplinary but multischool and brings in scholars from around these disciplines hasn’t been done before because of the administrative difficulties of crafting a major such as this. We hope the success here and the protocols established for this program will make it much easier to develop similar interschool majors.

Q: How did you come up with this innovative approach?

A: First and foremost, it came from my own experience and that of my colleagues. As students, researchers and, ultimately, teachers engaged with the Middle East and related regions, we all had problems trying to research or teach within the existing geographic and disciplinary frameworks and borders. We realized that in today’s academic, research and policymaking environments, a new kind of pedagogy was required to adequately prepare any student for graduate study or a job utilizing the skills and information gained here.

Q: Do you think GMES is a model for other majors?

A: Yes, it is, especially those involving medicine and sciences such as engineering and hydrology. Those are areas least likely to take a humanities or sociology minor, and this kind of interdisciplinary study will give students grounding, enabling them to function much more confidently than they would otherwise. We particularly hope to bring students together not just for a required course, after which they’ll go their separate ways, but for several years and, in so doing, encourage them to pursue interesting and much-needed combinations of degrees – such as political science and hydrology – that can produce unique and meaningful insights in the real world and in future research.

Q: What would you like people to know about the major?

A: First, that it’s going to be a very fun and intellectually stimulating ride. There is so much negative we see and hear about Arab/Muslim regions, and with good reason. But they’re also regions of incredible complexity, knowledge and inspiration, and they’re inseparably tied to the Western world, despite the political and ideological discourses that claim otherwise.

If you take this major, you’ll receive the most innovative and advanced training possible in a variety of fields, which will serve you well when you compete for increasingly scarce graduate funding or jobs, and you’ll also have the opportunity to receive advanced training in key languages. Finally, this program was designed to be collaborative and complementary with many other majors and schools so that it can be utilized by students focused on public health, law, engineering and other fields that don’t often go together with area studies. The ultimate objective is to help students understand the interconnectedness between those disciplines and history and culture going back millennia.

Q: Any future plans for GMES?

A: Our goal is to create a master’s program in the near future and more programming at UCI and possibly even a GMES center – or at least a research group – that could bring in scholars from around the world to share their research and teaching with the UCI campus and the surrounding Orange County community.

Q: Why are you so personally interested in this subject?

A: I’ve been studying the Middle East since college. I started off in biblical studies but was too interested in current events and issues related to human rights and modern popular music from these regions to limit my research to the ancient and antique worlds. The more I learned, the more in-depth I wanted to go. I think all of us involved in the major come from the same place of wanting constantly to reach deeper into the cultures to which we’ve devoted our professional lives – and to bring students and colleagues along with us. Hopefully, this major allows the UCI community to begin that journey.