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A Changed Place

MainGate takes a look at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where a number of new initiatives have been put in place to enhance and broaden the student experience.

Much has been happening at AUB in recent years. With the dramatic increase in the number of students have come new general education distribution requirements, changes in the curriculum, the establishment of a stand-alone School of Business, and the launching of a major fundraising drive (the Campaign for Excellence). Although the effects of these and many other new developments are reflected throughout the University, they can often be seen most clearly in AUB’s largest faculty: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

Distribution Requirements and the Freshman Program
All AUB undergraduates, regardless of their major or whether they enter as freshmen or sophomores, take a significant number of their courses in FAS. Some students, in fact, come into contact with FAS even before
they are admitted to AUB. Students with strong academic backgrounds who have received little formal instruction in English, for instance, may enroll in a two-semester University Preparation Program. This rigorous language program, which prepares students to sit for the SAT I Verbal Reasoning test, focuses on study skills, pronunciation training, and
conversational English.
In line with the recent revision of the general education distribution requirements, all AUB undergraduates must complete twelve credits in the humanities, nine credits in economics and social sciences, and six credits in science, math, and technology.
Freshmen no longer enroll as either arts or sciences majors. Instead there is now a single freshman program that provides the services of twelve academic advisers, whose job it is to help students navigate their way through the many choices they will have to make in order to arrive at their educational goal.
Some of the choices they make in their first year at AUB have unexpected consequences. Nabeel Sulieman, for example, found himself taking philosophy. “I didn’t even know what philosophy was,” he explains. “I came from a school that was very math and science oriented, and I was surprised to discover how interesting philosophy was. I enjoyed it, but I never thought of taking it as a minor. In my second year, though, when I had to take another course in the humanities and since the freshman course had sparked my interest, I chose philosophy again. And at the end of that semester, when the teacher told us it was possible to minor in philosophy and I saw that all I needed would be a couple of extra courses, I decided to go for a minor in philosophy. I find it extremely interesting, and it’s a nice change from the usual number-crunching.”
Dr. Khalil Bitar, who became dean of FAS in 1997, notes that this change in freshman studies gives students the opportunity to explore their interests fully by exposing them to many areas of study. Zalfa Hanna, a recent AUB graduate, is one of those who is grateful to have had this opportunity. “I had always been interested in art and music, but I was never able to pursue this interest in high school. We stopped painting classes at the age of 11 and music even earlier. So, at AUB I took history of music for two semesters, plus courses in sculpture and theater production, and I really enjoyed all those classes tremendously. The teachers were great, and you come out of the classes feeling like you’ve learned something important and beneficial.”
For many of these young men and women, it may be the first time they are being given the opportunity to make academic choices. Although it can be a little overwhelming for some of them, Bitar is convinced that giving students more choices is one of the foundations of AUB’s liberal arts undergraduate program. Because of these changes, it is now possible for a student who may have completed the Lebanese Baccalaureate program in literature and humanities to graduate from AUB with a bachelor’s degree in the sciences.
To ensure that students are able to select courses that are appropriate to their level and that will provide them with an introduction to many different disciplines, the number of freshman courses has grown in recent years—from 19 in 1997–98 to 36 in the current academic year. There has also been an accompanying increase in the number of departments that are offering freshman courses: from eight in 1997–98 to 14 in 2003–04.

New Departments, Programs, Majors, and Minors

Dean Bitar has spearheaded a number of changes in the faculty. He reactivated the graduate psychology program in 1997 and oversaw the introduction of master’s programs in both computer science and financial economics. The Department of Education, which had existed as an independent entity for many years, became an FAS department in 2000–01. A year later, the Graduate School of Business and Management left FAS to become AUB’s sixth faculty and an independent school of business. And just this year, the Department of Computer Science (which had been part of the Department of Mathematics) was created. The Anis K. Makdisi Program in Literature was established in July 2002 in honor of Emeritus Professor Anis K. Makdisi, who taught Arabic literature at AUB for 40 years. The program, which is headed by Professor Maher Jarrar, sponsored its first. international conference in October 2002. Entitled Globalization, Culture, and Power, the event attracted
distinguished participants from Lebanon, Europe, and the United States, who delivered papers in either Arabic or English to an overflowing and attentive audience.
Then, for the spring 2003 semester, AUB’s Creative Writing Program, which had been launched by FAS in 1998, hosted its first resident writer, Rabih Alameddine.

More Choices in the Humanities

At one time, all AUB students were required to take the four-course 12-credit Civilization Sequence (CS). This program has been made more flexible and now gives students the option of taking six of those credits in any of the humanities disciplines.
Although there are many who remember the old CS program with great fondness (former AUB students will often tell you that “they were the best courses I took during my years at AUB”), the recent change has received widespread support. Even Peter Shebaya, the director of the
CS Program, agrees that giving students more choices is a good idea. He goes on to note that “the CS courses are still very popular and in high demand… and because of the increase in undergraduate enrolment, there are more students taking CS courses than ever before.” Although the traditional four-course sequence is still available, he and his colleagues have revised the CS curriculum, enabling students to choose from a number of different options.

While it is true that many AUB students do opt to satisfy the 12-credit humanities requirement by taking four CS courses, many others choose courses in other departments, such as English, history, and philosophy. Kassim Shaaban, the chair of the English Department, says that the department is now “swamped with students taking elective courses.” He welcomes the deluge. Shaaban explains that the Introduction to Language course that used to be offered once a year is now being offered twice a year. A course in phonetics that traditionally attracted about 14 students now has 23 students, ten of whom are from the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. Lina Kassis is one of those engineering students. She explains: “I took the phonetics course because a friend of mine had taken linguistics and told me that the part of it that concerned phonetics was really cool. It was a very pleasurable experience. It is always nice to take courses outside your major, because you get to learn new things—things that not every engineer knows!” Shaaban comments about how the mix of students has changed the classroom atmosphere and made it a more stimulating experience for everyone. Muhammad Ali Khalidi, chair of the Philosophy Department, agrees. He says that the department has dramatically increased the number of philosophy courses in order to accommodate the demand from non-FAS students who are looking for ways to satisfy the 12-credit humanities requirement.

Fewer Required Courses

In addition to ensuring that all undergraduates are exposed to a variety of subjects during their time at AUB, students are now required to take fewer required courses. Leila Knio, the faculty’s student records officer, explains that because students must complete between 36 and 42 credits to satisfy the requirements for a major, the various departments were asked to reduce the number of required courses to make it possible for students to satisfy the new distribution requirements. In the English Department, 39 instead of 48 credits are now needed to get a BA degree in English literature or language. And in the Biology Department, the number of elective courses that biology students can take has now been increased.
Biology Department Chair Sawsan Kuraydiyyah and her colleagues are also encouraging biology students to think more broadly about their career options. To achieve that end, they have expanded the curriculum to include courses in topics such as marine biology and bioinformatics. Traditionally, almost all AUB undergraduate biology students generally head for medical school, but Mazen Shami is one biology student who does not plan to become a doctor. Although he hopes to pursue an MBA, he is currently minoring in education. “I am earning a teaching diploma now, so that I will have more options when I graduate,” he explains.

Both Kuraydiyyah and Shaaban comment on the number of students taking advantage of the opportunity to do minors. Every FAS department now offers minors; and students can now opt for a minor in any one of them or choose from one of several interdisciplinary minors, such as gender studies, translation, or computational science.

Technology in the Classroom and in the Labs

Another big change that has taken place in the last five years is the improvement in the faculty’s laboratory and computer facilities. All offices have internet access and each faculty member is now provided with a computer. With the help of the AUB President’s Club, the faculty now has some classrooms equipped with computers, DVD players, overhead projectors, amplifiers, speakers, screens, specially modified desks, and access to the internet. The Central Research Science Laboratory, which was established in 2000, includes an NMR spectrometer, X-ray diffractometer, flow cytometer with sorter, fluorescence imaging microscope, pulsed laser disposition system, quantitative PCR, and other specialized equipment. The Central Lab, as it is commonly known, is in heavy demand from students and faculty in the basic sciences (biology, chemistry, geology, and physics), medicine, health sciences, agricultural and food sciences, and engineering.
Kuraydiyyah and Shaaban agree that the improvement in the faculty’s facilities in recent years has been dramatic. “I would not have believed it was possible to do so much in such a short period of time,” says Shaaban. Kuraydiyyah explains that the addition of the Central Lab has been a big help to faculty members engaged in research.
A Focus on Research and Changes in the Faculty
Bitar explains that the University is intent on building a research faculty and that what has been true in the United States for many years is also now true at AUB: faculty members consider research to be an important part of their academic responsibilities. This is all part of the University’s determination to regain its status as a research university. In addition to making significant investments in smart classrooms and laboratories, Bitar has also been busy recruiting new faculty.
In fall 2003, more than 20 new faculty members (assistant, associate, and full professors—even a new department chair) joined the FAS faculty. This is slightly more than the annual number recruited over the past several years, when an average of 15–20 new faculty members were recruited each year. In fact, more than half the current full-time faculty members in FAS were recruited in the last five years, both to fill slots that were once staffed with part-timers and as new additions to the faculty.
That the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has changed and is continuing to expand as AUB’s largest faculty is clear. This is understandably so, when you consider that all AUB students regardless of their major take at least some of their courses at FAS. It is also very clear that the new additions to faculty, the changes in education distribution requirements, the introduction of new courses, the opportunity to pursue a minor in any department, and the reduction in the number of courses required for a major, to name just a few of the innovations, have made a tremendous difference in the educational experience of many AUB students.