Undergraduate Study in MESAAS

African StudiesMiddle Eastern StudiesSouth Asian Studies

The undergraduate program in Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies offers you the opportunity to study in depth the cultures, ideas, histories, and politics of three overlapping world regions. Majors and concentrators choose one of three tracks:

African Studies

Middle Eastern Studies

South Asian Studies

You can also choose a combined option, developing a focus that covers two of these areas, or all three.

Each track emphasizes the close reading of intellectual traditions, creative movements, and political debates, drawing on historical and contemporary sources in literature, political thought, religion, philosophy, and the visual and performing arts. Courses also examine the historical and cultural contexts in which these traditions and debates have been produced.

Majors in MESAAS go on to careers or further education in international affairs, journalism and the arts, law, teaching and academic research, political advocacy and social justice, and many other careers in business, government, and the non-profit sector that value the ability to learn from other cultural and political worlds and think critically about one’s own.

Major and Concentration

Majoring in the Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies develops two closely related skills. The first is linguistic expertise. Two years of course work in a MESAAS language is required, and further work (including intensive summer language study) is greatly encouraged, with the aim of learning how to study a cultural field through its own texts. MESAAS offers courses in Swahili and other African languages, in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages, in Hindi/Urdu and other South Asian languages.

Those already fluent in a MESAAS language may substitute the required language credits with other coursework. The MESAAS language may also fulfill the CC and GS language requirement. The concentration does not require proficiency in a MESAAS language.

The second skill is learning how to think and write about complex cultural formations, drawing on a variety of methods and disciplinary approaches. The approaches vary according to the faculty members' expertise, incorporating methods from various fields in the humanities and social sciences, including literary criticism, cultural studies, intellectual history, political theory, and film studies.

Majors and concentrators begin their work with a lecture course that introduces the study of the Middle East, South Asia, or Africa. They also take a seminar course in which they explore some of the classic texts of their region. With this background, students are ready to take MDES UN3000 Theory and Culture: Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. This course, which is normally offered only in the Fall, provides an examination of critical approaches to the study of language, culture, and politics, enabling students to reflect on their own work from a number of different perspectives.

Five additional courses are chosen in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. These may include six points of course work from other departments, subject to the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Writing a senior thesis is an option for anyone with a GPA of 3.5 or higher, and allows you to be considered for departmental honors. Thesis writers develop a research project under the guidance of a professor. They also participate in the honors thesis seminar, MDES 3960, in which they share their work and learn advanced research and writing skills.

The MESAAS tracks

The coursework for each track is composed of the five elements listed below.

There is also a combined option. For this, you may satisfy the five requirements by choosing courses from any of the three tracks.

Some courses connect more than one MESAAS region: for example, Societies and Cultures Across the Indian Ocean, or Postcolonial Thought, or courses on Persianate culture that include North India, or Middle East courses that include North Africa. These may satisfy requirements for more than one track, subject to approval by the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

(Note: Those declaring a major or concentration prior to Spring 2017 did not have the opportunity to choose a track; they may do so retroactively, or continue with the combined option.)

African Studies

1. MDES UN3130 Major Debates in the Study of Africa or another approved introductory lecture course.
2. CC1020 African Civilization
3. MDES UN3000 Theory and Culture
4. Five additional courses on Africa, such as: South African Literature and Culture: Apartheid and After;  East Africa and the Swahili Coast; or Pan Africanism (see the Courses page for more options). You may include up to two courses from other departments, in fields such as African history, politics, and philosophy, the anthropology of Africa, and African art, subject to the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies. For a listing of courses in other departments, see here.
5. Language: A minimum of two years of course work in Swahili, Arabic, Pular, or another African language. See the MESAAS language programs here. Those already fluent in an African language may substitute other courses—see FAQ. Not required for the concentration.

Middle Eastern Studies

1. ASCM UN2003 Islamic Civilization or another approved introductory lecture course.
2. Asian Humanities UN3399 Major Texts: Middle East/India
3. MDES UN3000 Theory and Culture
4. Five additional courses on the Middle East, such as: Arabic Self-Narratives; Central Questions in Islamic Law, Palestinian-Israeli Politics and Society, or Epics and Empires (see the Courses page for more options). You may include up to two courses from other departments, in fields such as Middle Eastern history, politics, and anthropology, or Islamic art, subject to the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Find a list of Middle East courses in other departments here.
5. Language: A minimum of two years of coursework in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, or Armenian. See the MESAAS language programs here. Those already fluent in a Middle Eastern language may substitute other courses—see FAQ. Not required for the concentration.

South Asian Studies

1. MDES UN2357 Indian Civilization or another approved introductory lecture course.
2. Asian Humanities UN3399 Major Texts: Middle East/India
3. MDES UN3000 Theory and Culture
4. Five additional courses on South Asia, such as: Mughal India; Gandhi and his Interlocutors; or Cinemas of India(see the Courses page for more options). You may include up to six points of course work from other departments, in fields such as South Asian history, politics, and anthropology, or Indian art, subject to the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Find a list of South Asia courses in other departments here.
5. Language: A minimum of two years of course work in Hindi/Urdu, Sanskrit, Persian, or other South Asian languages. See the MESAAS language programs here. Those already fluent in a South Asian language may substitute other courses—see FAQ. Not required for the concentration.

Language Study

Enrollment in language courses is in some cases determined by placement tests. For more information, see the MESAAS Languages page and if necessary consult the Coordinator for the language, listed on that page. Language courses must be taken for a letter grade. Pass/D/Fail or Registration credit (R) is not permitted.

Academic Advising

To plan your program of study, newly declared majors and concentrators should meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS).  You can contact the DUS by e-mail, or in person during office hours.   

The goal in choosing courses is to strike a balance between courses that will help you achieve depth in a particular area/discipline and those that foster a wider perspective.

This worksheet will help you plan your coursework. Please bring it with you when meeting the DUS for advising.

For more information on advising, see Frequently Asked Questions. You are encouraged to meet with other faculty in the department whose courses and research are of interest to you. However, the DUS functions as the adviser for all entering students, addressing issues of course requirements, credit and approval for courses in other departments or other schools, study abroad, and, eventually, honors requirements and the senior thesis.

Senior Thesis and Honors

If you wish to write a thesis, you should begin planning during your junior year. Attend the department’s information session and, in consultation with the DUS, identify a potential faculty adviser. Some students conduct research for the thesis in the summer before their senior year.

All thesis writers enroll in their senior year in MDES UN3960 Honors Thesis Seminar, a year-long course consisting of a 1-point section in the Fall and a 3-point section in the Spring. Students work closely with their peers in a supportive environment to produce a substantial piece of research (typically in the range of 12,000 words, or about 40 pages).

Your faculty adviser will provide the primary intellectual guidance. The DUS and the teaching assistant for the honors seminar oversee the general development of the project. Every year in April, MESAAS hosts a senior colloquium in which students present their research.

For more information on the honors program, see Frequently Asked Questions.

For additional information on departmental honors see the Academic Honors, Prizes, and Fellowships section of the Columbia College Bulletin.

Career Advising

The Center for Career Education (CCE) can help you define career goals and gain meaningful work experiences.

The CCE tipsheet on “What can you do with a career in the humanities?” under Academic major exploration illustrates some of the career paths that MESAAS majors choose.

 CCE provides resources for exploring careers, making job and internship connections, preparing applications, and handling interviews.