Oberlin will change the way students take Arabic language classes starting next academic year. Moving forward, students will take intermediate- and upper-level Arabic courses through the Shared Languages Program, an initiative of the Great Lakes College Association. The courses will be taught in a “digital classroom” with live group video sessions led by Hanada Al-Masri, associate professor of Arabic at Denison University.
The Shared Languages Program is available to all 13 colleges and universities in the GLCA, including Oberlin. Gabriele Dillmann, GLCA Consortial Languages director and associate professor of German at Denison University, founded the program to increase access to language education for GLCA schools who face low enrollment in advanced-level language classes.
“I thought, well, how about if several [GLCA institutions] offer courses [and] all of our students can take from all 13 colleges without paying extra tuition,” Dillmann said. “And so the Shared Languages Program was born.”
SLP courses take place via the Zoom conferencing platform, which allows students from multiple campuses to come together in a digital classroom setting.
According to Oberlin’s Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka, who chairs the ongoing Academic and Administrative Program Review, the decision to transition intermediate- and upper-level Arabic classes to the digital platform was made due to low enrollment. He also clarified that, while the decision is not connected to the AAPR, its motivation — financial sustainability — is similar to the AAPR committee’s focus.
“As much as Oberlin would like to support Arabic instruction under the traditional model, enrollment levels have not been sustainable,” Kamitsuka wrote in an email to the Review. “For example, in the last eight semesters of intermediate Arabic, course enrollment averaged four students per class.”
Kamitsuka added that the ARBC 202 course offered this spring has only two students enrolled. However, College junior Simon Idelson, who is pursuing a Politics major and a Middle East and North Africa Studies minor, isn’t convinced that low enrollment justifies the transition to the SLP model.
“I think [the low enrollment] is a fluke because the [intro] Arabic class last year was largely made up of seniors and juniors who were about to go abroad,” Idelson said. “I think three people who would have taken the Arabic class graduated, two people went abroad, and then two people went abroad again the following semester.”
Current Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic Basem Al-Raba’a, whose position has been funded through a four-year grant meant to evaluate student interest in Arabic and will not continue after this spring, agreed with Idelson’s assessment.
Al-Raba’a also said that he has not received much communication about the mentor position or future course offerings since learning that he would not be returning to Oberlin.
“I [am] not involved with the Shared Languages Program,” Al-Raba’a said. “The administration is making plans … without my knowledge. I heard only from the students that there will be offerings in second- and third-year courses.”
Idelson is also concerned that shifting to a digital classroom model will compromise the experience of students interested in pursuing Arabic, Middle Eastern and North African studies, and politics.
“First, just technically speaking, you learn much more in person,” Idelson said. “I’ve used Zoom before in previous Arabic classes, [and] there was lots of freezing — the connection was very bad. Maybe they’ve updated their technology, but it was very hard.”
Idelson added that professor office hours and cultural or language-based programs on campus could become less accessible under the SLP model.
However, Dillmann said that she finds that her digital office hours are more popular than her in-person ones. Kamitsuka added that opportunities for individualized attention for students studying Arabic will still exist at Oberlin.
“We will support … instruction with a mentor on our own campus who can offer tutoring and opportunities for practicing conversation,” he wrote.
Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Hamilton says that it’s not yet clear what that mentor position will look like.
“The mentor’s position is yet to be designed and its exact contours will depend upon the level of enrollment,” Hamilton wrote in an email to the Review.
Al-Raba’a added that having an on-campus mentor is a vital part of the original agreements of the SLP. Al-Masri also emphasized the importance of mentorship.
“I insist on two things for this program to be successful for all students, not only for traditional students,” she said. “First, [that] we have students transition into the SLP at the intermediate level and above, and, number two, they have to have a mentor on campus to address whatever issues come up.”
From a teaching perspective, Al-Masri says that her experience with the SLP has been positive.
“It really has proven to be as good as the traditional class — maybe even better because of the technology and because of all of the tools that we can use,” Al-Masri said. She elaborated that particular Zoom functions, including chat function and screen sharing options, have allowed her to become a more accessible instructor.
College junior CeCe Longo, who is currently enrolled in an SLP German course taught by Dillmann, also reported that the platform had opened doors for them.
“While it can be difficult to attend school online, SLP provides an opportunity to learn more about German culture and practice language skills not offered here, physically, at Oberlin,” Longo wrote in an email to the Review. “I would take an SLP class in the future. Learning about German business culture is not something I would have done at Oberlin.”
Dillmann conceded that the digital platform will not allow students from different institutions to come together at campus-specific events, such as film screenings. While some in-person events and interactions can’t be replicated digitally, Dillmann noted that she is able to present a larger number of guest speakers to her classes.
As the SLP continues to grow, Dillmann hopes that students at GLCA institutions will have expanded access to language courses that their college or university perhaps cannot offer on campus.
“I would like to expand options for our students both by offering them higher level courses and more variety in higher level courses in the languages that they are already studying,” she said. “Or if they want to study a language that Oberlin doesn’t offer … for them to have the opportunity to then study that language.”
Idelson and other students still have doubts that the model will work for Oberlin.
“The Arabic program and its events helps bring together students of Arabic descent and students learning about it, and actually makes a community — a very important community that further humanizes [that] region,” he said.
Al-Masri encourages Oberlin students to open conversations about their concerns before dismissing the SLP model.
“I really, really understand their concerns … it’s just normal,” she said. “This is something that happens every time you try something new. My advice to [Oberlin students] is to try it first before they judge it.”
Kamitsuka says that Oberlin will continue to explore options to expand Oberlin’s collaborations with the SLP moving into next academic year.