Developing studies that give context to culture


Summer can be a respite for professors, particularly at the Naval Academy, where most midshipmen spend the months in the fleet or training incoming freshmen.

But for Brannon Wheeler, director of the academy's new Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, summer has been almost as busy as the school year.

Last month, after classes ended and many academics prepared for summers of leisurely writing and vacation, Wheeler traveled to Jordan to lay the groundwork for a midshipman-exchange program.

The academy has begun a major effort to emphasize the teaching of language and culture to midshipmen, and Wheeler's center is the first of several such interdisciplinary programs that will mirror regional-studies majors available to the Class of 2010. The centers, which will specialize in Asia, Latin America and Africa, aim to give context to individual departments' teaching of the politics, economy, language and history of those areas.

The Middle East center has helped faculty develop curricula and brought in prominent speakers to discuss the history of democracy in the region, dating to the Ottoman Empire and cultural topics such as the connection between Islamic art and mathematics.

"So far, it's been very challenging and very rewarding," Wheeler said of his first year at the academy. "We've been successful in supporting the faculty's efforts and students directly in giving them resources on the Middle East and Islam. The Naval Academy's also kind of a magnet for international visitors, so I've made a lot of contacts in those areas as well."

Wheeler's itinerary in his first year on the job could rival that of a chief executive officer or mid-level diplomat. He has been to six countries, two other service academies, the National Defense University, the Near East and South Asia Strategic Center, Army War College, Foreign Service Institute, Marine Corps University and a half-dozen academic conferences.

Wheeler has presented several academic papers in Arabic to an audience of predominantly non-Westerners, said William Miller, the academy's academic dean. Miller strongly promoted Wheeler as a strong indicator of the academy's commitment to the new focus on language and culture. Wheeler's wife, Deborah, also teaches in the political science department.

During the trip to Jordan, Wheeler, a midshipman and the director of the academy's international programs office met with officials from two Jordanian universities and the country's Royal Navy about exchange programs. In recent years, the academy has sent more than 100 midshipmen to 13 countries for language immersion and semester exchanges at foreign military academies, and the three were testing the waters in Jordan for such opportunities.

"We're trying to encourage that process," said Wheeler, 40, who lives in Davidsonville with his wife and three sons. "We also hope their officer candidates and junior officers can attend the Naval Academy. It would be beneficial for them to have the opportunity to spend four years here, just as it would be beneficial for our American midshipmen to have the chance to live and learn all over the world as part of their study."

In addition to the globetrotting role he fills for the center, Wheeler taught several courses about Islamic history and religious history. This year, Wheeler said, he hopes he can begin teaching the literature of the Quran and "give students exposure to Islamic literature in thought and practice."

"I'm very encouraged by how things have gone so far," he said in a telephone interview. "I expected it to be challenging and rewarding, but it's far exceeded all my expectations."

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