The undergraduate program in Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies offers students the opportunity to study in depth the cultures, ideas, histories, and politics of several overlapping world regions. The program emphasizes the close reading of intellectual traditions, creative movements, and political debates, drawing on a wide variety of historical and contemporary sources in literature, religion, political thought, the visual and performing arts, and new media. Courses also examine the historical and cultural contexts in which these traditions and debates have been produced.
The department has only recently expanded to include African languages and cultures, alongside the Middle East and South Asia. Students whose main focus is the study of Africa can choose between a major or concentration in MESAAS and a major or concentration in African Studies, administered by the Institute of African Studies, which is housed alongside MESAAS. The MESAAS options enable you to combine the study of Africa with courses on South Asia or the Middle East.
Major and Concentration
Majoring in the Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies means developing two closely related skills. The first is linguistic expertise. A minimum of two years of course work in one 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 Arabic and several other Middle Eastern languages, in Hindi/Urdu and a number of other South Asian languages, and in at least three African languages.
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, film studies, and other fields.
Majors and concentrators begin their work with an introductory course that emphasizes a particular area (the Middle East, South Asia, or Africa). They then take AHUM V3399 Asian humanities, a small-group seminar course in which they explore some of the classic texts of the region. 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. Although students typically choose a particular focus (for example, Arab political thought, Urdu literature, Armenian history, Iranian cinema, or contemporary West Africa), students are encouraged to gain exposure to the fullest range of topics and approaches offered by the faculty of the department.
With this background, students are ready to take, preferably in their senior year, MDES W3000 Theories and Culture: Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. This examination of various critical approaches to the study of language, culture, and politics enables students to reflect on their own work from a number of different perspectives. Students may also wish to write a thesis. While not required for graduation, the thesis enables a student to be considered for departmental honors.
Language Courses, Placement, and Requirements
Enrollment in language courses is in some cases determined by placement examinations.
For more information, see Languages 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.
Newly declared majors and concentrators should consult the director of undergraduate studies in order to plan a program of study. The goal is to strike a balance between courses that will help a student achieve depth in a particular area/discipline and those that foster a wider perspective. Although students are encouraged to approach faculty in the department based on their specific interests, the director of undergraduate studies functions as an ad hoc 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 (including the senior thesis). For more information on advising, see Frequently Asked Questions. Please do not hesitate to contact the director of undergraduate studies by e-mail or phone, or in person during office hours.
Honors Program/Senior Thesis
To be considered for the MESAAS honors program, a senior thesis with a topic and format approved by the director of undergraduate studies is required. Students must submit a thesis proposal containing a short abstract and the name of their adviser by November 15 of their senior year. A senior thesis is not a requirement for the B.A. degree. For more information on the honors program see Frequently Asked Questions. For complete guidelines see Departmental Honors as outlined in Regulations in the Columbia College Bulletin.