When Patricia Ortman needed to focus on a noted personality to launch her course in abnormal psychology this semester, the Mount Vernon College professor chose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"People were asking, 'Is Saddam Hussein crazy?' " said Ortman, whose course started the day after the war began. "It seemed like the best way to start the class. The students were totally engrossed."

The Persian Gulf War's intrusion into an unlikely course at the women's college in Northwest Washington is an indication of how the conflict has permeated local college campuses.

Some professors have altered course outlines. Others have set aside class time to discuss the latest developments in the war. Enrollment in courses related to the Middle East has doubled in some cases. Some instructors have dumped textbooks for newspapers.

Outside of classrooms, students have formed clubs that focus on foreign affairs. They have petitioned for the creation of courses related to the war. Informal debates occur at specially designated sites.

"Nothing has so captivated students since {President} Nixon resigned," Ortman said.

In the Washington area, where many colleges offer majors in international relations or foreign affairs, the war, with its global implications, has captured students' attention.

At American University, enrollment in Samih Farsoun's course on the contemporary Arab world nearly doubled, from 50 students last fall to 96 in the current semester.

With student interest about the war strong, Farsoun has set aside 15 minutes at the beginning of each class for discussion of the latest developments. That usually isn't enough.

Last week, the day after U.S. planes bombed an Iraqi shelter or bunker, killing scores of civilians, students wanted to put off the planned discussion about Arab-Islamic political dynasties to debate the latest war news.

One student questioned whether the United States had deliberately targeted a civilian bomb shelter. Another recounted news reports about the presence of barbed wire around the building, a sure sign, he said, that the shelter was a military post.

A woman student from a country in the Middle East criticized the censorship of news reports by the governments involved in the war.

"They claim that this is a democracy," she said. "I can't believe that there is such censorship here. You don't really know what's going on."

Another student countered: "We all want to know what's going on. But lives are at stake, so some things we won't find out."

Just as more students joined the discussion, Farsoun stopped it. And it was back to the 7th century and "Arabia before Islam."

It was the prospect of war discussions that drew many students to the course, even though most had to preregister in October, well before Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm.

Tim Katsapis, 19, a sophomore, said he chose Farsoun's course to better understand the Persian Gulf War. "I did not know much about the undercurrents, the social and religious culture of Arab people," he said. "I wanted to know how they have interacted with each other."

In that respect, Katsapis is like many American students educated in a system that has tended to ignore non-Western cultures. Educators said that American students have benefited from the glut of information about Iraq and the Middle East and are showing small signs of a desire for more.

Students at Georgetown University have petitioned university officials to create a new course that would focus on U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, to be taught by an Iraqi American professor.

Mount Vernon College students who recently formed a U.S. Global Studies Club meet twice a week, with one of those sessions specifically for discussion of the war.

George Mason University students have named a campus courtyard Free Speech Alley and hold frequent, unscheduled debates there about the war, U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East.

Infusing aspects of the Persian Gulf War into courses gives teachers an opportunity to stretch their students' thinking about the world, even in classes such as Ortman's on abnormal psychology.

What started as a discussion about Saddam broadened to a debate about how interpretations of personality disorders differ from one culture to the next.

In freshman composition classes at the University of Maryland, writing assignments about the use of rhetoric by U.S. and Iraqi spokesmen expanded to an evaluation of The Washington Post's coverage of the war.

"I have found that whether students support or oppose the war, neither group has an awful lot of knowledge about the region," said Mark Katz, a professor of government at George Mason. "The war is providing an opportunity to shore up that missing knowledge."