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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

FACULTY FOCUS: Professor Allen Clark, UM Humanities Teacher of the Year

Allen Clark

Allen Clark

Allen Clark, associate professor of Arabic and codirector of the Arabic Language Flagship Program, is the recipient of the 2022 Mississippi Humanities Council University of Mississippi Humanities Teacher of the Year Award.

For much of his academic career, Clark has focused on translation in the Arabic-English language pair, questioning the source of semantic mismatches whether they may be ideological, political, social, military, or a combination of these factors. He wrote the book The Crisis of Translation in the Western Media, coauthored two textbooks and a workbook with Mahdi Alosh, acted as an associate editor for the book Beyond Denotation in Arabic-English Translation, served as a legal interpreter, translated short stories from Arabic to English, and worked as an abstract translator for various scholarly reading journals.

After receiving his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 2009, where he served as a language coordinator, instructor, graduate teaching assistant, and graduate research assistant for the Arabic program, Clark taught Arabic at Middlebury College, Beloit College, and as a Military Language Mentor at Ft. Gordon, Georgia.

Briefly describe your teaching philosophy/work.

For quite some time now I have been thinking about the nature of teaching, and as with most human endeavors it is as complex as we humans are. I distilled my thoughts into a short phrase that I use as a type of mantra: “The measure of a good teacher is not how much they know, but rather how much their students learn and grow under their tutelage.”

I try to the best of my ability to teach as I wish that I had been taught; not as I have been taught. I try to give students of Arabic a shared learning experience in a community where they feel, hopefully, that they are in a ‘safe space’ where mistakes can be made and should be made in order to learn and grow. It is quite unfortunate that making mistakes is viewed collectively as a negative, but there is no greater teacher than failure. Just ask James Joyce, whose quote I use in my syllabus, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery”.

I try to relate this quote to any musician who has ever misfingered a scale only to lead them into a new way of thinking and possibly, quite possibly, creating from it a new song or riff.

I have also bought into the notion of teaching a second language in an immersive environment where I encourage students to learn Arabic just as they learn their mother tongue. I try to get them to buy into the idea that this isn’t their second language, but to think of it as their second, first language.  I ask of them, “Approach this journey as you did your first language. Do you remember asking any questions about grammar when learning your mother tongue? Try to apply that approach to learning Arabic. Think not about the differences; rather accept the language for what it is.

How did your interest in your field of study develop? What initially sparked your interest in teaching about your area?

My interest in teaching was actually born out of my interest in music. After attending the Guitar Institute of Technology the Atlanta Institute of Music in 1988, I began to teach music at a small music store owned by Mike Mancini, the grandson of Henry Mancini, the famous American composer. While teaching music at this local music store, I must have started to weave this yarn between music and language learning unbeknownst to me at that time. Now, some thirty years later, some of the commonalities between the two have become somewhat clear, crystalizing over time, but there is still much exploration left as it now seems to me that this is quite likely an unanswerable question. As Alan Watts stated, ‘trying to define ourselves is like trying to bite our own teeth,’ and it is in this same vein, we cannot quite comprehend how we have learned to speak. It might very well be the conundrum of our time, take for example the following scenario: a robot android approaches you with the question: “Tell me, what is the first step to go about thinking? How do I go about creating a thought and then dress that in language?” This is quite mind boggling, as I found that I cannot express or put into words how indeed I go about thinking, or speaking, or really moving my finger for that matter. It just sort of happens in this second by second miracle that we all take for granted.

What are the highlights of your time as a professor?

The greatest highlight in my life is watching the students grow as people. We are all in search of our identity–who indeed are we, really? And during their four-year tenure with us studying in our Flagship Program, many of them craft an identity for themselves through learning another language. It is my belief that when we learn any language, be it the language of music, math, or a verbal language, there emerges in our mind a new persona. For this reason, I give all of our students an Arabic name–to identify a personality that only grows and develops when they function in Arabic. The more they use it, the easier it becomes opening doors into the rich culture of the Arab people.

Allen Clark (at board), co-director of the UM Arabic Language Flagship Program, teaches an intensive Arabic class. In its first year as a Language Flagship Program, the UM Arabic program achieved a 100 percent acceptance rate for its students into the prestigious capstone year. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss

Professor Allen Clark (at board) teaches an intensive Arabic class. Photo by Robert Jordan/UM Digital Imaging Services

Are there specific examples of support—fellowships, mentoring, other—that helped advance your academic and professional goals?

Don Dyer, associate dean, has been nothing short of a visionary for our program. Without him, this program would not exist. It was his idea, along with Michael Metcalf, to bring me in to establish an Arabic program here at Ole Miss way back in 2008. Here we are some thirteen years later, one of six Arabic Flagship programs in America. Over this period of time, we have gathered the finest team of instructors, teachers, and mentors I have had the pleasure of knowing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my mentor Mahdi Alosh, who with the careful guiding hands of a father, molded me into who I am today as a teacher and scholar.

What do you hope students take away from your classes?

Determination. This thing that we call ‘life’ isn’t so easy and the more attention, undivided attention, that we direct at something, the better we get at it. Again, this harkens back to both language learning and music–the more you use Arabic or music, the more you will improve. It is quite possible that if you take up music and practice scales all the time, when it is time for you to play, you will play what you practiced, scales. You have to practice making music to play music, just as you have to practice speaking in order to speak, reading, in order to read and so forth. But, if we sit around studying grammar rules while speaking in English about Arabic. . . well, don’t be surprised if you won’t be able to hold a conversation with an Arab at a cafe.

Do you have advice or thoughts to share with students?

Learning isn’t easy and it isn’t necessarily fun all the time. In fact, speaking in any language, even in our mother tongue is a challenge. A lot has to happen correctly in order to be a good speaker. But, if you have determination, and if you are not deterred, you will find riches you never dreamed of. Put it this way, the depth of cultural knowledge stored in books and in human interaction in any language is a treasure waiting to be opened.

Anything else you’d like to say.

It is an honor to be recognized for this award. I am humbled.