Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Neoliberalism and higher education: a wee example from Edinburgh

As Isabel Lachenauer, one of the first – and possibly the last – graduates of the University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Arabic masters programme writes:

I strongly urge the Head of the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures [Jeremy Robbins] to reconsider his decision to discontinue the MSc Advanced Arabic programme, and hope that others will join me in doing the same.

I’d like to be able to link to the Advanced Arabic course page, but School of LLC has already whipped the page off its website, apparently within hours of dropping the bombshell that this course has been scrapped. It’s depressing and infuriating move, for so many reasons, including:
— this course is currently half way through its second year. That’s right, it’s only been running for 18 months. Yes, numbers have been low, but they have doubled in that time, and that’s based entirely on word of mouth. The University of Edinburgh, as far as I’ve been able to tell over the past 3 years, does pretty much no marketing of its MSc programmes, at least the ones in IMES. Isabel and I also know of individuals who have either applied for the programme for next year, are in the process of doing so, or were planning to. We don’t know if their numbers have been taken into account;
— this is, as far as we know, a pretty much unique course. It offers a fairly intensive programme of Arabic literature, media and other study to people who have already done undergraduate Arabic or who are at similar kinds of level, refining and furthering skills such as writing, Arabic-language research and translation. Surely, with the world as it currently is, the more capacity we have to understand and communicate in Arabic, the better?
— the groundbreaking Intensive Arabic course, also run at Edinburgh’s Dept of Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies, is a huge success and a significant money-spinner for the School. However, it took years to get to this point. Why isn’t AA being granted the same support and leeway? Even if one only takes the financial argument in mind – which, sadly, seems to be the case at LLC – surely this a stunningly short-sighted approach?
— IMES is, as I have said many times and to many people over the last few years, a brilliant department. I have found it to be warm, supportive, intellectually challenging and a really creative academic environment – something very rare in this country. But – after various developments this summer – it’s becoming increasingly common that when I mention the latest measure imposed on the department from above, colleagues from other parts of LLC are moved to ask “why have they got it in for you guys?” One does start to wonder.

Isabel’s letter to Professor Jeremy Robbins, head of LLC, is reproduced in full on her blog. Here, for what it’s worth, is mine, redacted very slightly to remove a couple of personal names:

Dear Professor Robbins,

it is with extreme concern and disappointment that I heard today of the cancellation of the Masters course in Advanced Arabic, taught in Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies.

I’m a current PhD student and postgrad tutor in IMES. I’m also a writer and blogger on various aspects of Arabic culture, translation and literature. As such, I feel that I have some awareness of dynamics and discussions in Arabic translation and publishing, within the ‘blogosphere’, publishing houses, and amongst writers, translators and critics in this area, as well as amongst my fellow postgraduate students in IMES. I think it’s safe to say that IMES has an excellent and growing reputation in this field, and a very large proportion of this is down to the postgraduate programmes taught here, and the activities in which postgrad students and recent graduates have been involved. These have included:

A Bird is Not a Stone, one of the biggest-selling translated poetry books in Scotland – and perhaps even in the UK – this year. I co-edited this book; the ‘bridge’ translators involved came almost entirely from the postgrad and recent graduate community at IMES, pairing up with internationally-respected poets such as (on the Scots side) Liz Lochhead, John Glenday, Alasdair Gray, Jackie Kay and Kathleen Jamie and (on the Arabic side) Zakaria Mohammed, Maya Abu al-Hayyat and Uthman Hussain. We drew an audience of hundreds at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and hundreds more at events around the UK during the summer. Within Edinburgh University, we’ve been asked to run or contribute to events by Professor Rob Dunbar at Celtic & Scottish Studies and the Literature Society and Scottish PEN for a joint event earlier this semester. The book has been widely reviewed to universal acclaim; it would never have been happened without IMES’ postgraduate Arabic teaching.

— CASAW’s ground-breaking programme of postgraduate internships in Arabic translation publishing. This has included (at a rough count) at least three internships establishing a new Arabic-language imprint at Comma Press (an imprint which, this year, was the publisher of the first-ever Arabic and first-ever short story compilation to win the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction, Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ); two (and a third upcoming) internship sessions with Arabia Books, one of the most exciting publishers of Arabic literature in translation; and an internship with Saqi Books, a well-known and well-established publisher on all aspects of the Middle East. These placements have been the envy of Arabic language graduates from non-eligible universities, as is attested to by the reaction of friends from SOAS, Cambridge and Exeter. Again, they would never have happened had it not been for IMES, CASAW and their partnership on ground-breaking ways to teach Arabic.

— The involvement of IMES postgraduate students in translation work on significant, high-profile literature translation projects in the UK. This has included my own publication in one of Comma Press’ anthologies, The Book of Gaza, which won awards from English PEN. It also includes the fact that another IMES PhD will be co-editing a volume of Sudanese short stories for the same imprint; I’ll be translating a piece for that, too. And it includes the offshoots of these projects, such as several pieces sent directly from Book of Gaza writers in Gaza during this summer’s conflict with Israel, which I translated for publication with English PEN and other outlets. The work of other publishers and translators at the same time appeared in British and US broadsheet newspapers and respected online literary journals such as Guernica. Much of this work was co-ordinated from Comma by a former IMES postgrad Arabic student and current intern, Christine Gilmore.

— The innovative ways in which IMES postgraduate Arabic students have approached expanding their practice in Arabic, including, for example, The Edinburgh Arabic Initiative – an online collective project started by IMES students from the two-year MSc programme, in the cohort who have just graduated yesterday and today, and which is ongoing.

None of these examples would have happened without the vibrant, close-knit, innovative, caring environment which is Arabic postgraduate teaching at IMES. The Advanced Arabic course is now a key part of that intellectual climate, the logical extension of the work which started with the two-year Intensive Arabic MSc. Advanced Arabic at IMES is, I believe, unique in the UK and has the capacity – if given the chance – to enhance the dynamism that IMES’ postgraduate Arabic learning community has already shown. It has already more than doubled its intake in only its second year and with minimal publicity and promotion, and I personally know of several people (some from Edinburgh but also from Manchester and SOAS) with the intention of applying for either the course alone or as part of 1+3 PhD funding in the coming year, now that its inclusion in the latter type of applications has been – we thought – made possible.

To scrap this course now will be deeply demoralising for all Arabic teaching staff at IMES, not just those working on Advanced Arabic specifically; for former and current students; for those of us who see ourselves as part of this community; and for those well beyond Edinburgh who have watched IMES become, in recent years, a beacon of progressive, innovative and dynamic Arabic pedagogy. If you don’t choose to believe me, I urge you to believe all those who have praised and supported these initiatives over recent years – the publishing houses involved; the internationally-known poets who have worked with IMES translators; the individuals who donated hundreds of pounds to make the poetry collection happen. They will all confirm that to scrap Advanced Arabic is a deeply retrograde step, and a blow to Arabic language teaching in the UK and beyond.

Thanks for your time and attention.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Irving

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