Kristen Brustad

At the height of Friday’s bomb scare, University of Texas Police Department spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon issued an official statement: “At 8:35 a.m. the University received a call from a male with a Middle Eastern accent claiming to have placed bombs all over campus. He said he was with Al Qaeda [sic] and these bombs would go off in 90 minutes.President Powers was notified and it was decided to evacuate all of the buildings out of an abundance of caution.”

The detail about the “Middle Eastern accent” drew attention because it was one of the few released about the caller’s identity. According to Weldon and UTPD Chief Robert Dahlstrom, the determination that the caller had a “Middle Eastern accent” was made solely by the person who answered the original call. No experts were consulted. Speculative nature was one of numerous reasons not to include the descriptor in “the facts” reported to the public, and no good reasons to have mentioned it are apparent. Its inclusion didn’t help bring the students on campus to safety, and it didn’t help anyone identify the caller. Instead, the gratuitous reference encouraged more speculation.

It’s also worth noting that the identification of a “Middle Eastern” accent is far more difficult than most assume, as it doesn’t actually exist. “There is no such thing as a ‘Middle Eastern accent,’” says associate professor Kristen Brustad, Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. “The various languages of the Middle East differ greatly, and there are no commonalities that join any of the accents when speakers of a number of those languages speak English.”

Even narrowing the language down to Arabic doesn’t ensure accuracy. “It would be very difficult for someone who is not a highly trained linguist to identify an Arabic accent,” Brustad said. “A speaker from North Africa is going to sound very different from a speaker from Iraq, the [Persian] Gulf countries or Egypt, and not all speakers even of the same dialect will have the same accent in English.” It makes sense for a witness’ guess about the caller’s accent to be taken into account by those evaluating the credibility of the threat, but releasing that uneducated guess to the general public — and calling it fact — constitutes spreading misinformation. This alone would be bad enough, without considering the consequences.

Releasing such a statement advances a pre-conceived narrative before any real facts arrive to back it up. If we are definitively told that the caller had a Middle Eastern accent, we automatically infer his ethnicity. We automatically infer his religion. We automatically infer his motive. We think we know the whole story.

“It’s easy to jump to conclusions in an atmosphere like this before they’re warranted,” Brustad said. “It wouldn’t be the first time that that had happened.” For instance, after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the public’s initial assumption was that the bombers were Middle Eastern Islamic extremists, when that was not the case.

As the public information officer for UTPD, Weldon says her responsibility is to “just release as much information as [Dahlstrom] provided to [her].” But Weldon’s job is more than that of stenographer. She chooses what information will best inform the public. In an interview with the Texan, Weldon was unable to explain what purpose the “Middle Eastern accent” detail served, beyond being in the interest of “greater transparency.”

UTPD was careless to release the detail, and the reaction was ugly.

But, Chief Dahlstrom assured the public, “If [the statement] offends the Middle Eastern culture or those students that are here, there was no intent for that.” So members of the clumsily defined “Middle Eastern culture” should presumably rest easy.

Unfortunately, the bigger problem is not offensiveness but the incitement of unfounded suspicion. We, the general public, can do nothing useful knowing how one person perceived the caller’s accent. Making an effort for greater transparency is all well and good, but calling speculation fact does no good and a great deal of harm.

“Looking back at it, yeah maybe we shouldn’t have used that [“Middle Eastern accent”] but I can’t change that,” Dahlstrom said. “It’s out and we live with it, we look forward.” There is one thing they can do — learn from their mistake and not repeat it.

Photo Credit: Colin Zelinski | Daily Texan Staff

More than a decade after the world-changing 9/11 attacks, the UT community continues to see the devastation of that day seriously affect its campus, down to the classes the University offers.

With the horror and destruction of 9/11 also came analyses by Americans of how to combat a new threat. Questions were asked, studies conducted and conclusions drawn. Thomas Palaima, classics professor and Middle Eastern studies expert, said it was discovered that the U.S. government, a government that spends more money on military defense than any other nation in the world, was ill-equipped to deal with conflicts in the Middle East.

“One of the problems with 9/11 was that one found out that we did not even have, even in the specialized areas of the government and the military, the number of experts in Middle Eastern culture and languages that we should,” Palaima said.

He said in response to the lack of qualified military personnel, UT and many other universities across the country soon began to adjust their curricula, increasing the size and strength of their Middle Eastern studies programs. He said the increased focus on the Middle East did not spill over to interest in other cultural studies programs.

“It would be good if we applied the same concern across the board in other areas, and I just don’t see that,” Palaima said.

Palaima said he believes the focus on Middle Eastern studies has actually decreased the overall size of ethnic studies programs nationwide, as total resources have shifted and ultimately decreased. Should the U.S. come into conflict with certain other parts of the world, Palaima said the U.S. could end up in a situation similar to that after 9/11, with a lack of expert personnel and a subsequent unbalanced shift in academics.

Kristen Brustad, department chair of Middle Eastern studies and associate professor of Arabic, said she has seen growth in her department because of 9/11.

“The number of Arabic majors went up fairly dramatically over these last ten years,” she said. “We now have the largest graduate program in the country in terms of Arabic studies. It used to be only the large universities had an Arabic program, but now, it is small colleges and community colleges as well, and now a number of our graduates are teaching in those schools.”

According to statistics from UT’s office of institutional research, the number of students enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies department at UT increased by 97.67 percent, when comparing 2002 fall enrollment with fall enrollment from 2011. That included a 52 percent increase in the number of undergraduates, bringing the number of students from 25 to 38. There was an 80 percent increase in the number of students pursuing a master’s degree, from 10 to 18. And there was a 262.5 percent increase in the number of Ph.D. candidates, from 8 to 29.

The same statistics for the departments of Slavic and Eurasian studies and Spanish and Portuguese show a 37.04 percent decline, from 27 to 17, and a 40 percent decline, from 440 to 264, in total Spanish and Portuguese enrollment respectively.

Palaima said a replicate situation took place in the U.S. following the Cold War, where Russian studies were escalated as U.S.-Soviet conflict grew.

“It is a very similar situation,” Palaima said.

Brustad said, luckily, one thing that has not seemed to change at UT is the tolerant atmosphere for Middle Eastern students.

“Recently, I would say not at UT, but at the climate at large, I hear a lot more negative rhetoric in the public discourse at large,” Brustad said. “Former students of mine from before I came to UT, where I taught before, who now work for the government have even been attacked because they are Muslim or Arabic.”

Mai Khattab, a member of UT’s Arab student association, said she has seen that acceptance while at UT for the last two years.

“For us, as Arabs here at UT, we are treated just like any other group,” Khattab said. “We have never had anyone be offensive and treat us badly or anything.”

A day to remember

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, the American Muslim community is still working to show support for its country and end negative stereotypes that arose from the tragedy.

Business senior and president of the Muslim Students Association Safa Elshanshory said the events of 9/11 sparked heated rhetoric from both sides of the controversy, but ultimately led to healthy discussion.

“I don’t think there is ever going to be closure from any aspect,” Elshanshory said. “A lot of words have been let out of the box and a lot of fear was uncovered because of the events, but this can all be seen as a positive direction towards understanding.”

Elshanshory said it was necessary to correct the ideas many Americans held about the true, peaceful ways of Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but she does not believe as many people hold misconceptions as immediately after 9/11.

“Some people think we have to really go out of our way to show that we are a good and peaceful people,” Elshanshory said. She said the day to day lives Muslims live already reflects the peacefulness of their religion and Muslims do not need to make greater efforts than that.

Elshanshory said she felt the heated rhetoric calm down toward the middle of the decade, but she encountered negativity similar to 2001 when public debate began about the construction of a Muslim community center near ground zero.

“Again politicians from the highest level began openly attacking the religion because Muslims wanted to build the Park 51 mosque,” Elshanshory said. “I felt a little déjà vu.”

Kristen Brustad, chair of the department of Middle Eastern Studies, said the attacks of 9/11 brought out the best and the worst in Americans. She said the attacks inspired heartfelt outreach toward Muslims but also some uneducated outrage toward the Muslim community.

Brustad said the Middle Eastern Studies department has seen an increase of students pursuing Muslim-related courses since 9/11.

“This is one of the few good things that came out of 9/11,” Brustad said. “People have become more globally aware. Students have been more interested in the language study and the historic culture of the region.”

Nadia Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Round Rock, said she felt sorrow that many Americans were introduced to Islam in such a horrible way after 9/11.

Ahmad said she believes a majority of the negative image of Islam has cleared out in the 10 years since 9/11, especially after the death of Osama bin Laden.

“All people think justice has now been served since this mass murderer has been taken out,” Ahmad said. “In a way 9/11 has been avenged now.”

Ahmad said it took much outreach on behalf of the Muslim community over the past 10 years to clear Islam’s name in America. She said the Muslim community in the U.S. has been dedicated to get active in the community and spread good words.

“We as Muslims had to defend the honor of Islam and convey this message that condemns any bloodshed, any terrorism and values the sanctity of life,” Ahmad said.

Printed on September 9, 2011 as: Overcoming religious stereotypes years later

A $3 million budget cut is forcing the College of Liberal Arts to offer more intensive foreign language courses, leaving some students and department chairs concerned about the measure’s effectiveness and students in other colleges worried about potential foreign language requirement reforms.

Foreign language requirements vary between majors and within departments, but the typical program prior to the 2010-11 academic year required two five-hour courses and two three-hour courses. Departments began to transition to a more intensive program last year in order to reduce costs. Beginning in the fall, the Department of French and Italian will only allow six-hour classes, condensing four semesters of work into two.

The Department of Middle Eastern Studies has been offering intensive Arabic courses for years, said department chair Kristen Brustad. Arabic is serving as a model for other languages moving toward intensive learning, she said.

“It’s more effective for any language, not just Arabic,” Brustad said. “Intensive language teaching is really focused on having students spend more time in class during the week.”

Daniela Bini, French and Italian department chair, said the Department of Middle Eastern Studies has smaller classrooms and students who are much more motivated to learn Arabic and Urdu than students in her department.

“They are extremely motivated because those are difficult languages,” Bini said. “If we had smaller classrooms, I would certainly be more confident.”

Peter Hess, Germanic studies department chair, said it is unlikely an intensive sequence will bring better results.

Germanic studies will continue to offer a program requiring two five-hour courses and one six-hour course, he said.

“There appears to be a general consensus among researchers that time spent on-task is the best predictor for a positive outcome in the language classroom. The more time language-learners spend with the target language, the better they master the language,” Hess said.

Language is an artifact, and this is why it is imperative to include foreign language as an integral part of academics, he said. Hess believes different languages give students fresh perspective on their own language and culture.

“Students need time to process this information, and I fear that reducing instructional time will diminish its impact,” he said.

Multimedia journalism junior Brionne Griffin said she finished her foreign language requirement with one of the six-hour French courses and said she had to attend a lecture every day of the week for two hours.

“The workload was very intense and I had to plan my other courses around this class,” she said.

Griffin said after taking the course she was able to retain vocabulary but not grammar, which takes time and repetition.

“When you’re trying to process at a more rapid speed, it’s hard to keep up with everything that’s thrown at you,” Griffin said. “It was a lot of balls to juggle.”

French sophomore Chase Crook said intensive courses are a disservice to students and they often turn students off from even taking a language.

“Liberal Arts’ main goal is to educate students in different subjects and you are not going to be fully educated if you have to rush through a subject,” Crook said.

Printed on 7/25/2011 as: Modification of language requirements sparks debate

Seven new department chairs have been appointed in the College of Liberal Arts, UT’s largest college. Four are women, making one-third of the department chairs in the University female.

Kristen Brustad, Dan Dixon, Mary Neuberger, Jill Robbins, Christine Williams, James Pennebaker and Cory Juhl were appointed as the new chairs.

Department of Middle Eastern Studies Chair Kristen Brustad said there is still work to be done to achieve racial and gender equality.

“One-third of the chairs at the University are women,” Brustad said. “I think that it is excellent so many incredible women are being promoted. But we still have a long way to go with other minorities. We have made a lot of progress.”

Brustad said big changes are on the horizon in Middle Eastern studies. The department is consolidating its majors to offer one major in Middle Eastern languages and cultures, instead of several in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish.

She said she feels honored that her colleagues are confident in her abilities.

“The support of the department means a lot to me, and I’m excited to be working with a really dynamic and excellent group of faculty,” Brustad said. “That’s what encouraged me to accept this position.”

Jill Robbins was named chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. All chairs receive a pay raise and two months of summer salary, but Robbins said pay was not a deciding factor in taking the position.

“I was driven by my belief in the mission of this department, in the strength of our faculty, students and staff, and in our future as the top department of Spanish and Portuguese in the country,” she said.

Robbins said she is already taking steps to improve the department by setting aside endowment funds for graduate student research, revising and updating the curriculum and expanding the faculty.

The department chair job requires more multitasking and availability to other members of the department, she said.

“Being chair is a heavy responsibility and takes a great deal of time. In addition to more paperwork, I will be spending more time with my colleagues, administrators, staff and students but in a different role,” said Pennebaker, the new chair of the Department of Psychology.

He said he feels honored to be chosen as the chair and is excited for the challenge.

The Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies chair Mary Neuberger said that this new position will require less teaching and more decision making.

“There is a lot of diplomacy involved between faculty, students and administration,” Neuberger said. “It’s more stressful.”

However, her experiences have taught her a lot about how the University is run.

Neuberger’s department is in danger of being cut, but she said she is optimistic in saying “leadership is necessary in a time of crisis.”

“It’s challenging, but I think in a good way,” she said. “We can step up and shine and make things work.”