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Meet Mary Youssef: Classical and Near Eastern Studies

By Meghan Stratton

Marry Youssef

As both a researcher and an assistant professor at Harpur College, Mary Youssef's focus is on what she considers the "inseparable" cultural constructs of language and literature.

"Every time and every culture expressed themselves in literature," she says. "It's a cultural production so no matter what time it was or what language it was, it's good to see the connections because it's all expressive of the human experience that creates the community of humanity."

At the same time, she says, for students, "studying language enables you to connect with others, to understand others, to compare their own cultures and languages."

This integration of language, literature, and culture is what Youssef strives to convey through both her teaching and her research.

Youssef, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and studied English language and literature as an undergraduate at the University of Cairo, came to the United States to do her graduate and doctorate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While there, she studied Arabic and African literature and began teaching Arabic to undergraduates. After realizing that she enjoyed teaching, Youssef chose to come to Harpur College, where she now teaches elementary and intermediate Arabic.

Youssef says she chose Harpur College because of its "equal focus on research and teaching."

"There are many opportunities to excel in both," she says, "so that's what attracted me to this college."

Youssef says that the "warmth of the people" working at Harpur College and the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in a variety of related departments also influenced her decision.

"We can work together as a team from all these disciplines and we can offer all of these great interdisciplinary kind of coordinated courses that can be amazing," she says, citing the Art History, Sociology, History, Political Science, and Anthropology departments in addition to her own Classical and Near Eastern Studies Department.

In Youssef's opinion, the "beauty of academic life" is the dialogue between those with shared interest and mutual respect. Learning from those around you through this sort of dialogue and collaboration, she says, is an "enriching experience."

Youssef strives to bring this enrichment to the classes she teaches by using the "communicative approach," which she says is directed toward "enabling students to communicate in authentic situations and target languages, and...giving them the cultural knowledge needed for expressing themselves."

To accomplish this, Youssef tries to connect with her students on a personal level by incorporating media, literature, and cultural content as well as her own experiences in the Arabic-speaking world, which includes two years as a broadcast journalist for Radio Cairo, where she says she learned to "communicate efficiently," a skill that has helped her as a teacher.

"I tend to talk about my own experiences as a representative, as one person that belongs to that culture that is also comprehensive and encompassing many others," she says.

In order to have her students "personalize the language," she encourages them to use the language to express their own experiences. This, she hopes, will allow them to communicate effectively.

"I'm hoping I will enable my students to participate in the larger dialogue between different cultures," she says.

Youssef hopes that her students will see how much people of different cultures "share as human beings, regardless of the differences that seem to exist" and "that we are more connected than isolated."

In her research, Youssef focuses on the portrayal of contemporary Egyptian society in post-millennium Egyptian novels.

"There has been a tendency among Egyptian writers," she says, "to imagine Egyptian society in a pluralist form...as a diverse population."

This, she says, is an accurate portrayal, but one that clashes with the government's approach to ruling.

"These writers are visionaries and they're trying to depict Egyptian society...versus the practice of the nation state," which she categorizes as regarding society as "uniform, standard, or homogenous."

These "visionaries," Youssef says, are following in the historical tradition of drawing attention to areas of policy that are being questioned by society. In contemporary Egypt, this includes class, gender, sexuality, skin color, ethnicity, religion, and language.

"I think that it is essential to see the reality of the situation," she says, which is why she is doing this research.

As an academic participating in this social dialogue, she says, "You can say a lot. You can help inform. You can help people see other perceptions, other perspectives."

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Last Updated: 3/8/13