UChicago Majalla is an Arabic-language publication created and produced entirely by students at the University of
Chicago and established to promote Arabic-language use on campus. The magazine
debuted in 2016 and was created out of the belief that the diversity among Arabic students at the university could be harnessed to promote language acquisition. A year later, Majalla is alive and well, continuing its mission to expand language use outside of the classroom, unify students across different language levels, and build a culture of collaboration and engagement through Arabic. I had the pleasure of interviewing Majalla’s founders and co-editors, Elysa, Nick, and Madeline to find out more about this innovative and ambitious project and here’s what they had to say:
Describe the article submission process and the importance of topic diversity
In our call for submissions, we give a sample of topics for those who are unsure what to write. These topics include current events, history, Arab culture, pop culture, travel, academic writing, creative writing/fiction, and poetry, but we also encourage students to write within their comfort zones, or outside them for that matter. Because of our openness about topics for submissions, as well as the fact that many students use work they have written for class, almost all of our submissions cover different, very diverse topics.
We have no interest in limiting a student’s ability to explore topics and vocabulary they are familiar with or explore topics and vocabulary which may be new to them. By grouping our submissions by topic, it diminishes the ability for students to feel comfortable writing “outside of the box.” It can already be unnerving to put your work forward and can be more unnerving if you feel it doesn’t conform to the traditional “magazine” themes. At this time, as we’re starting out and finding our place on this campus, it is not to our benefit to put a damper on the exploration of the language.
Do you think there is potential to integrate Majalla’s essays / articles into NELC’s mainstream curriculum and what benefit do you see in using student-produced material in official Arabic courses?
The composition aspect of Majalla is already entirely integrated into our Arabic courses. Students at all levels are required to produce original written material on a fairly regular basis. Many of our submissions come from work produced in class and work which has been given comments and feedback from our faculty. At this stage, the magazine, or student work for that matter, is not yet integrated into the curriculum of any of the courses.
In our future release, we plan to begin each piece with information about the student who produced said work – including the level of Arabic the student is enrolled in. We hope this information will make it easier for students learning Arabic to leverage the student work in Majalla to improve their skills. For example, if you’re a student in Arabic 103, you can find the work produced by a student closest to your level and begin reading Majalla there. The nice thing about reading work produced by a student in the same class is that while they may use new vocabulary based on their chosen topic, they will most likely use grammatical structures similar to those you have already learned. Student work is often void of artistic grammatical flourishes which can make it easier to spot vocabulary or structures which are new and useful to learn.
In moving forward, we are also looking at how we can share the work in Majalla with local high schools with Arabic programs. We are optimistic about the possibility for students in high school programs to learn from our student-produced work.
What’s the editing process for a Majalla article?
For the editing process, we typically divide the submissions amongst our team of student editors who are aware whether a submission has been reviewed by a faculty member prior to its submission. Our edits consist of fixing basic grammar mistakes and mild editing to make content more “reader-friendly.” If a student editor believes the piece they are reading has major structural problems which a faculty member would be able to fix or address with more ease, we pass the article up to one of our Arabic faculty members to edit and provide student feedback.
Many students have also submitted their work to their current Arabic instructor, or an instructor who they have a close relationship with, for review prior to submitting it to us. Faculty members are more equipped to provide feedback in a constructive manner so students can improve as they work.
Our team of student editors completes one more round of edits which are sent to our designer just before publishing. Writing in Majalla should not solely be a showcase, but also a learning experience, which is why we encourage students to work with faculty along the way.
How has producing Majalla changed or shaped your perception on the possibilities of using Arabic professionally when the time comes to graduate?
I think each and every one of us (in the leadership team) already planned to continue using Arabic post-graduation – just in different ways – be it communicating with Arab-speaking communities in the US (not Modern Standard Arabic, obviously), working on academic research in a PhD program, or contributing to policy and political research which requires being able to read and translate Arabic.
Each of these endeavors, however, would not really require us to be able to produce the language as opposed to just absorb it and understand it. Majalla has pushed us all to be able to produce the language in ways we wouldn’t have had the confidence for without a forum to do so. We can definitely see this pushing our bounds as professionals who want to communicate on a global scale.
What is the future of Majalla when its founders graduate and do you plan on expanding the magazine to include other Middle Eastern languages such as Persian, Turkish, Hebrew or perhaps Arabic dialects?
One of our founders, Madeline, will be staying on for one more year of Majalla – she’ll oversee 4 publications! However, we don’t want the magazine to end there, and we’re in the process of setting it up so it is sustainable for many years to come.
We have been grateful to have been approached by first and second-year students who have seen Majalla as a way to make their mark on the Arabic learning and speaking community at the university and believe that there are many students who want to be involved to differing degrees. After the launch of our second publication, our team will dedicate much of our time to fundraising for the future prints of Majalla and to recruiting a new leadership team for the following year.
As for expanding the magazine, we find that the languages of the Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department at the University of Chicago are quite siloed. Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, and Farsi, as well as others, all have their own weekly “circles” and rarely do students feel committed to a sense of “community” in more than one language. We know the department has been pushing students in other languages to pursue magazines and we’re definitely willing to help out with the initial logistics but we do feel that our sole focus will continue to be on fostering the Arabic language!
Finally, what are some of the new Arabic vocabulary words that you have learned in the process of this project that stick out to you the most?
It’s been really cool getting to know the words that we had to use in the basic structure of the magazine. Some examples are:
“Letter from the Editors” الرسالة من المحررين
“Table of Contents” جدول المحتويات
It’s rare you learn these words in Arabic classes where vocabulary is really politically charged. Aside from that, each of our editors came in with very different vocabulary, to begin with; each one of us has picked up a new word or two along the way.