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hungrybear

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I was e-mailing a POI and she asked about my languages. Arabic is my weakest language, and I made this clear in the e-mail. 
 
"This all sounds marvelous, but I am concerned about your entry into a PHD program without sufficient Arabic. It is very difficult to achieve the level of competence you need to use Arabic sources in the course of doing the PhD . It is far better to learn Arabic before starting doctoral work.  We are looking for PhD candidates who have 1) adequate literacy in Arabic to do research and 2) already have an idea about a theme for their  doctoral thesis . While the MA agree is not essential— you may be able to get to this level on your own— it certainly helps. And we do not have an MA program.
 
What you may think about is a year or two in Morocco (or elsewhere in NA) studying Arabic and learning about the culture and history at first hand. There are several good programs, I like the one in Fez , but there are others as well. Peace Corps is another good option, you will learn darija and can get a tutor to study fusha, while experiencing total immersion in the Moroccan life. I understand it is not difficult to get  a job teaching English to survive, it will also put you in contact with your cohort. 
 
This may sound like more than you had bargained for, but the competition at the PHD level for jobs is now so intense that unless you are thinking of something like the foreign service, CIA or other government agencies or business, you will find yourself running hard or out of the running altogether when it comes to finding an academic job. 
 
I know that these are tough words, but I am giving you an accurate  picture of what to expect — at least at [[my school---edited out name for anonymity]]. I and my colleagues have decided that each graduate student is a product of such effort that we have to place our bets on those who are best prepared for the rigors of doctoral work. You seem to have all the makings, but as far as the Arabic is concerned, I would say that you might be thinking about how to go those few extra yards."
 
Should I not even apply there? Should I only be looking at master's then? I'm going to contact other professors at school's I was thinking about working under (this is the first POI I've contacted) to get a better sense, as this is my first inquiry with a potential POI. 
 
What I find weird is there are students in programs who hadn't even taken Arabic (I have) and are studying the area I want to study (North Africa) in doctoral programs. 
Edited by TakeruK
Removed professor's school name

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The professor seems pretty clear that you should improve your Arabic before applying to the program. The "I and my colleagues have decided..." suggests this may be a policy now, perhaps a new one, explaining why there are currently students in the program with less Arabic than you. You got a very clear explanation of why this is now the policy, given the current state of the job market. Frankly, I would take this advice seriously because once you start the program, as she says, it'll be hard to get your language to where it needs to be. If that means that by that very decision you're going to make it very hard for yourself to get a job after you graduate, it seems wise to take the extra year or two to beef up your language skills and allow yourself a more successful career down the line. One or two years aren't going to make that much of a difference from the other end of a long successful career, but if not investing them properly can mean not getting started even, well, I think it's clear what you need to do. The only thing she says that you should pay attention to is the question of career goals; if you aren't interested in an academic career in the first place, things might be different. 

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If you respect this professor, take her advice to heart.  I have been told similar things about my Hebrew.  i was super frustrated because I didn't need Hebrew for my dissertation.  Some of the professors, however, felt it was necessary for our field.  They had suggested doing a MA program to keep improving my languages, whether in the US or Israel. I thought for a bit and decided to get a MA in the US.  Strangely, for complicated reasons, I ended up with Yiddish.  I did keep in touch with such professors.  Some were please d that I took Yiddish anyway; others grunted.  The most disgruntled ones rejected me while others accepted/wait-listed me.  

Ultimately, I learned that improving my languages at all and picking up more coursework made me better prepared for the PhD. After i got into PhD programs, I learned that the Hebrew-focused professors were of "old-school" types who had studied Hebrew as boys and took their own education and gender for granted. #genderignorance  

Despite all this drama, they have come to respect me and my work as I progressed in my PhD program.

While Hebrew and Yiddish aren't in huge demand as Arabic, keep in mind that our generation has taken serious interest in Arabic since 9/11.  Arabic classes have always been full, or close to it.  You will be competing against people who have been studying Arabic forever.    

I'll throw in another option: Go for Middlebury!  Their Kathryn Davis fellowships cover everything.  You just need to pay for your transportation to the Mills camps in San Francisco Bay Area and you're set to learn Arabic 24/7 for 8 weeks.  I did it for Hebrew twice and it was always fantastic, if not very personally challenging.  You'll also be around graduate students who are trying to improve their Arabic.  It's a wonderful community.

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I guess I should've been a bit more clear. What should I do moving forward? I can't go abroad another year, as I just got back from being abroad. I don't want to torture my S.O. And I. It's not just distance, we have bills and things we rely on each other for.

I was applying to master's program in M.E.N.A area studies anyways, so should I focus only on those? 

In the meantime, I'm going to message other POIs and see what they have to say. That could just be this particular professor's desires for their grad students.

Edited by miami421

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58 minutes ago, miami421 said:
 
What I find weird is there are students in programs who hadn't even taken Arabic (I have) and are studying the area I want to study (North Africa) in doctoral programs. 

FWIW, I agree with F_L and take it a bit further. You're likely being told that you specifically will not be offered admission without improving your Arabic.

IRT the portion of your OP that I've quoted, I very strongly advise you to avoid the path of  finding the weirdness when you're given a point blank answer.

Here's why. The students you describe may be the reason for the POI's response or they may be exceptions to the rule or they may be the beneficiaries of the benefit of the doubt. Without specific knowledge about their circumstances, dwelling on the inconsistency isn't the best use of your time and you can develop a reputation for being a barracks lawyer.

22 minutes ago, miami421 said:

Also, how should I respond to their email? Should I make suggestions? Or point out where other applicants have been successful despite entering with little or no Arabic? 

In the strongest possible terms, I recommend not pursuing this course of action.

I recommend that you thank her for her thoughtful reply and that you're going to take her guidance to heart (if you intend to do so). If you're still going to apply, simply thank her for her reply.

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Thank you for all the help everyone. I've decided to continue emailing other POIs as was I planning. For the ones that answer more favorably, I will consider sending in an app there. As for master's programs, I had a rudimentary list, but I will expand that now.

 

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2 hours ago, miami421 said:

 For the ones that answer more favorably, I will consider sending in an app there.

Please keep in mind that @fuzzylogician and @TMP (especially IRT history) consistently offer outstanding guidance--the fact that they agree with the professor in your OP is, IMO, sufficient reason to reread the POI's response to you, and to think it through.

Please remember that sometimes (read: often) there's a big difference between what you want to hear and what you need to hear. The professor in the OP strikes me as someone who cares about you--a person whom she's never met--and is doing her level best to put you in a position to succeed, not just in gaining admissions to UC Davis, but to maximizing your potential as a professional academic historian. 

While you may get more favorable answers from other POIs, they may not necessarily be better answers.

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20 hours ago, miami421 said:

Also, how should I respond to their email? Should I make suggestions? Or point out where other applicants have been successful despite entering with little or no Arabic? 

I know that others have already said this but: Definitely not! This professor has been extremely generous with their time--if I were in your position I'd be writing a "thank you, that's really helpful," etc type response. Also, I'm about to start a program with an advisor who didn't respond to my "I'm interested in coming here" email last year and so far she's been extraordinarily helpful/she's known for being a very supportive supervisor, so I wouldn't rule out schools based solely on the way that people respond/don't respond to your emails. 

Edited by OHSP

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38 minutes ago, OHSP said:

I know that others have already said this but: Definitely not! This professor has been extremely generous with their time--if I were in your position I'd be writing a "thank you, that's really helpful," etc type response. Also, I'm about to start a program with an advisor who didn't respond to my "I'm interested in coming here" email last year and so far she's been extraordinarily helpful/she's known for being a very supportive supervisor, so I wouldn't rule out schools based solely on the way that people respond/don't respond to your emails. 

Duly noted. I have already responded saying thank you for the advice, etc. etc. 

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21 hours ago, Sigaba said:

While you may get more favorable answers from other POIs, they may not necessarily be better answers.

@miami421, I just wanted to highlight this extremely excellent advice from @Sigaba, which was concise so perhaps runs the risk of being overlooked. The thing about grad programs is that we often look for the answers and advice that we want, even if it's not actually the best or most realistic. Often faculty know that that's the sort of validation we're looking for, so it's likely easier for them to just tell us what we want to hear. I don't know who this POI is and I'm in no way saying that you're unqualified or that you shouldn't apply to PhDs without more Arabic-- I'm not in that field so wouldn't really know how that might affect your progress or marketability in the future. But when you find someone who is willing to take the time to be honest and level with you, those are people I think you want to take a second glance at. In my experience, even though their info is often inconvenient or unfavorable in the short-term, they are often people you end up appreciating down the road. And as Sigaba says, just because another POI doesn't care about your Arabic proficiency, doesn't necessarily mean they have your best interests in mind. Anyway, I know language requirements are frustrating, but that's my two cents. Hope it turns out well!

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Your Arabic has to be excellent for a PhD program in North African history. Your French should also be spot-on. Moreover, if you're interested in early Islamic history, then your German also needs to be quite good. (Many secondary sources in early Islamic history are in German and have yet to be translated.) But yeah, I wouldn't consider a PhD in North African history with weak Arabic just like I wouldn't consider a PhD in East Asian history with weak Mandarin.

Your best bet is to go the MA route.

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1 hour ago, JKL said:

Your Arabic has to be excellent for a PhD program in North African history. Your French should also be spot-on. Moreover, if you're interested in early Islamic history, then your German also needs to be quite good. (Many secondary sources in early Islamic history are in German and have yet to be translated.) But yeah, I wouldn't consider a PhD in North African history with weak Arabic just like I wouldn't consider a PhD in East Asian history with weak Mandarin.

Your best bet is to go the MA route.

While I do agree that having excellent Arabic is good thing, it is not necessary. I had that mindset until I really started doing research, and I found that many students entering PhD programs who are studying the region I would like to study had little to no Arabic. Not saying every, just a good amount. And these are top 20 programs. 

 

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1 hour ago, miami421 said:

While I do agree that having excellent Arabic is good thing, it is not necessary. I had that mindset until I really started doing research, and I found that many students entering PhD programs who are studying the region I would like to study had little to no Arabic. Not saying every, just a good amount. And these are top 20 programs. 

 

What was the standard for admission in previous cycles may not be the standard in subsequent cycles. 

More generally, I think that discounting the guidance that one receives from a professor and holding on to views developed from the outside is not a best practice.

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

What was the standard for admission in previous cycles may not be the standard in subsequent cycles.

I am aware of this. 

1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

More generally, I think that discounting the guidance that one receives from a professor and holding on to views developed from the outside is not a best practice.

It's interesting how you are treating this one professor's advice as dogma. You do realize there are other professors in the field that are accepting graduate students? And that these professors may have differing opinions on language requirements? And that I may have spoken to these professors? And that my proposed research may not even need a high level of Arabic? 

Edited by miami421

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3 hours ago, miami421 said:

Not saying every, just a good amount. And these are top 20 programs. 

What about those entering the top 5? The ones you're going to have to fight for jobs with on the other end?

Edited by telkanuru

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21 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

What about those entering the top 5? The ones you're going to have to fight for jobs with on the other end?

The students I spoke to in those level programs that are focusing on my area (Morocco and Algeria) had around 2 years of Arabic (what I have) upon entering. Those studying the ME of MENA definitely had better Arabic. The discrepancy comes from the linguistic nature of NA. There are four (generally) possible languages people can use to study Morocco and Algeria: Spanish, French, Arabic, and the Berber language. I am fluent in Spanish and French. Depending what your focus is, you can get away with not knowing or being proficient in the other languages, as many successful historians in my area have done. Not that I am not seeking proficiency (I am). 

Look, I'm not trying to argue that it's okay to have weak Arabic. I was just responding to JKL's assertion that one's Arabic has to be excellent to enter a PHD program. That is simply not true. 

Edited by miami421

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1 hour ago, miami421 said:

I am aware of this. 

It's interesting how you are treating this one professor's advice as dogma. You do realize there are other professors in the field that are accepting graduate students? And that these professors may have differing opinions on language requirements? And that I may have spoken to these professors? And that my proposed research may not even need a high level of Arabic? 

In your ill considered OP, you've made it clear that you're shopping for the answers that you want to hear. Now, you've made it clear that you want to be an Arabist who does "not even need a high level of Arabic." You think that this approach is sustainable. Based upon the information you've provided in this thread, I disagree.

To echo and to build upon @telkanuru's questions:

  • How is your plan to "not even need a high level of Arabic" going to work when you're competing for fellowships, grants prizes, and jobs against Arabists who, for what ever constellation of reasons, decided to master the language?
  • What happens if crucial works in your field are in Arabic?
  • How do you really know that the professors with whom you've picked cherries are going to be on your committees?
  • What happens if professor is having a bad year and decides to take it out on you by administering your language proficiency test in Arabic? 

If you learn the language as the professor in your OP recommends, you will never have to worry about it.

By the bye, it wasn't just her opinion  She wrote "I and my colleagues have decided that each graduate student is a product of such effort that we have to place our bets on those who are best prepared for the rigors of doctoral work." (A serious question. Do you stop reading when you realize that you don't like the answer? In any case it is unfortunate that you've decided that that school isn't for you--it is clear that at least one professor there would give you what you need rather than what you want.)

Another question. Are you sure that historians at one institution never communicate with peers at other institutions and these conversations never (ever) lead to wide spread changes to professional standards and practices and raise the bar?  

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

In your ill considered OP, you've made it clear that you're shopping for the answers that you want to hear. Now, you've made it clear that you want to be an Arabist who does "not even need a high level of Arabic." You think that this approach is sustainable. Based upon the information you've provided in this thread, I disagree.

To echo and to build upon @telkanuru's questions:

  • How is your plan to "not even need a high level of Arabic" going to work when you're competing for fellowships, grants prizes, and jobs against Arabists who, for what ever constellation of reasons, decided to master the language?
  • What happens if crucial works in your field are in Arabic?
  • How do you really know that the professors with whom you've picked cherries are going to be on your committees?
  • What happens if professor is having a bad year and decides to take it out on you by administering your language proficiency test in Arabic? 

If you learn the language as the professor in your OP recommends, you will never have to worry about it.

By the bye, it wasn't just her opinion  She wrote "I and my colleagues have decided that each graduate student is a product of such effort that we have to place our bets on those who are best prepared for the rigors of doctoral work." (A serious question. Do you stop reading when you realize that you don't like the answer? In any case it is unfortunate that you've decided that that school isn't for you--it is clear that at least one professor there would give you what you need rather than what you want.)

Another question. Are you sure that historians at one institution never communicate with peers at other institutions and these conversations never (ever) lead to wide spread changes to professional standards and practices and raise the bar?  

I was just responding to JKL's point about needing excellent Arabic to enter a PHD program that focuses on NA. It's not always necessary.

My comment about not needing a high level of Arabic was just to point out that there exist instances where it is not needed. Not that I don't plan on learning it. Or that I don't want to master it. And stop assuming I want to be an Arabist. 

Edited by miami421

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Everyone so far has been dancing around the ideological question here, too. With the rise of subaltern studies, post-colonial studies, etc., in history of the past six hundred years or so, it is no longer considered complete to study only the conquerers, only the imperialists, only the invaders, and to speak and work with only their language(s). There are, of course, exceptions: when the less powerful groups' language(s) are dead, especially if they don't have much of a textual tradition; if the less powerful groups' members have all become fluent in the hegemonic language (think many indigenous groups in the US, if you want to study their history e.g. 1945 to present); and sometimes if you're dealing with an extensively multi-lingual group. Some suffrance is also granted to accessibility—because fewer universities offer Nahuatl than Mandarin, more Nahua-specialist graduate students enter with poor Nahuatl than China-specialists with poor Mandarin. None of those apply to your field. Take this:

4 hours ago, miami421 said:

my proposed research may not even need a high level of Arabic

That's not a defense—rather, it throws up an extravaganza of red flags about your research project itself. Thirty years ago, when your professors were getting their PhDs, maybe just studying French colonial officials' reports was considered enough to get the full story. I don't doubt that the language expectations were less intense! Academics' standards for "the full story" have, however, improved. I'm not saying you can't do a cutting-edge, rigorous, award-winning research project on North Africa whose body of primary evidence is written 90% in French. (Although it sounds like access to recent Arabic historiography is still an issue.) When—not really "if"—your research takes you to Arabic-language sources, however, you must be able to handle discovering complexity in them.

To respond to your most recent post, like, okay, I think we can be flexible about "excellent" word choice, if that's what's throwing you. Maybe you don't need "excellent" Arabic. Maybe "really good" is sufficient. At this point in academia, though, it seems clear that most places, "just okay" is no longer enough. Maybe it was five years ago, when the older graduate students were applying!  It does sound like there's been a broader expectations shift, however. Like @telkanuru said, you may find an exception and find admission to a PhD program in MENA history. You are still likely to have difficulties later, though, whether in completing the dissertation (quickly?) or in competing for jobs—and it's one of those situations that it sounds like the department you originally emailed is responding to.

This would make a master's a wise plan, or one of those all-Arabic all-the-time summer courses; if my friends who take Arabic have given me much indication, at all but the most intensive places, two years of Arabic is about equivalent to one, or not quite one, year of French. I'm guesstimating, but it sounded like four years (or equivalent) was about where people got good enough to start a PhD. It may not sound right, but it's quite true that the PhD doesn't leave enough time for language study to count on your abilities improving dramatically.

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22 minutes ago, hats said:

To respond to your most recent post, like, okay, I think we can be flexible about "excellent" word choice, if that's what's throwing you.

That's what this was all about until @Sigaba stepped in. I'm aware of the importance of proficieny in Arabic for my field. I think where we all fundamentally disagree is the time it will take me to get to that level. I think, coming in with a foundation, I can do it in time with courses during my first two years and summer intensive courses. But please all realize that is my opinion based on my language learning experiences.

 

Edited by miami421

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I would say that, after being forced to slog through Fromherz's recent book, that it would have a great impact on your scholarly potential to pick up German and Latin as well. Languages aren't merely a hurtle you need to leap over, which is how I sense you're approaching them based on your responses in this thread. They're the core and foundation of your scholarship.

I would also note that @Sigaba's point is a broader one than you've acknowledged. He's not been really talking about your particular need for more Arabic training, but rather why you found a statement by a senior scholar in your field insufficient and needed to question it further by asking a bunch of randoms on the internet. 

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The difficulty, then, is when does your Arabic need to be really good by? I don't doubt your estimate of how fast you'll reach that level. Instead, the difficulty I foresee is that if your Arabic becomes really good by comps, it's awfully challenging to catch up to someone who's been able to spend all of those summers doing research in Arabic. I don't want to tell you "go away and spend three more years learning Arabic before you'll be competitive for programs in this field." My suspicion is that "three" is not the correct number in that sentence. However, I do think your Arabic is going to knock you out of the running in at least a good chunk of any PhD programs to which you might apply this cycle. If you really want to go to a program this year so you're going to apply anyway, that is your prerogative.

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2 minutes ago, hats said:

The difficulty, then, is when does your Arabic need to be really good by? I don't doubt your estimate of how fast you'll reach that level. Instead, the difficulty I foresee is that if your Arabic becomes really good by comps, it's awfully challenging to catch up to someone who's been able to spend all of those summers doing research in Arabic. I don't want to tell you "go away and spend three more years learning Arabic before you'll be competitive for programs in this field." My suspicion is that "three" is not the correct number in that sentence. However, I do think your Arabic is going to knock you out of the running in at least a good chunk of any PhD programs to which you might apply this cycle. If you really want to go to a program this year so you're going to apply anyway, that is your prerogative.

And if it does that is fine. I'm applying to master's programs as well. 

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