Spotlight on Faculty: Samer Ali
Professor in Middle Eastern Studies

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Samer AliThis has been an exciting autumn for Middle Eastern Studies Professor Samer Ali. He is teaching a new graduate seminar on the Arabic influences in medieval Sicily, and he believes that the new knowledge he and his students are discovering could turn into a proposal for a grant to conduct manuscript research and, eventually, a book. Equally as exciting for him is the fact that three students have developed dissertation ideas based on their discoveries in this class.

Ali challenges his graduate students to seek their own knowledge, to apply for grants, and to make their work have an impact on society. He asks his students to think constantly about the grander applications of their work, and he believes that if the question of grander application cannot be answered, then the student should reconsider his or her topic, or view it from a new angle. He says that The University of Texas at Austin (UT), through its research and grant selection process, does an excellent job of reinforcing the idea that research be useful.

“The most inspiring thing about UT’s faculty grant selection process is the way it requires you to show how your project is useful not just to academia, but to society,” says Ali. “It makes what we do relevant.”

In addition, Ali comes from a department that feels that the possibility for relevant research stretches out indefinitely.

“We in Middle Eastern Studies feel that we’ve only scratched the surface,” Ali says. “So much still needs to be discovered about Middle Eastern culture, literature, music, history, and there is plenty of room for new scholars to come in and do it. There is much labor to be done, many serious research questions still unanswered. And the students who enter PhD programs such as UT’s are the people who have a serious interest in research, a desire for discovery of new knowledge, a question—or several questions—that must be answered.”

These questions, in addition to being socially relevant, can also be deeply personal. Ali believes that studying the humanities is a self-actualizing process, teaching people ultimately how to become people. Studying elegies, for example, teaches empathy for the poet for their loss and their grief. Reading about cultures and people, both like and unlike our own, teaches us how to balance our lives and process our experiences.

It was through a process of self-discovery that Ali chose to pursue his own graduate education. He had begun learning Arabic as a way to learn more about his Egyptian heritage. Soon his hobby evolved into a profession when he realized that the more he learned, the more he knew he needed to invest in order to fully understand the language. Ali says that many students come to his Introduction to Arabic Literature class for similar reasons: to find out more about their heritage, or because they feel curious about the culture that recently has been such a large part of American consciousness.

“Lots of students start out that way, trying to better understand something about themselves or their culture,” says Ali. “Often they come out of these classes wanting to contribute something of their own to that greater cultural understanding.”

By Elisabeth McKetta, November, 2007
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