Monday, December 09, 2013

Students value what they're told is valuable

The first semester of my Italian class ended on Friday (and my missing group member reappeared! mirabile dictu!). In the grand tradition of intro classes everywhere, it was a bit of a party, spent watching each others' more or less inspired and more or less ridiculous presentations and chomping on homemade sweets.

Two of my classmates are graduating in December and therefore not continuing with us next semester; we congratulated them and wished them luck. Then our instructor started nudging those who aren't graduating but who hadn't signed up for the spring course on why they weren't registered. There were three or four of them, and though their exact reasons for not continuing varied, the gist in all cases was that they didn't need another semester. Most of them had never intended to take the spring course and none seemed to be reconsidering.

Now, I'm not going to beat up on these particular students for their approach to language study, even though it's hard for me to imagine what use a single semester of a foreign language could be to anyone. This is a commuter campus which serves mostly first-generation college students. Some are just doing what they have to do to earn a degree that they hope will improve their and their family's financial and social circumstances. And if they're not planning on working abroad or in international business, it can be hard to imagine a reason for advanced language study. I know these students have enjoyed the class: many of the non-continuers have been vocal in their appreciation for la professoressa. It's just not. . . relevant, you know? And they're trying to get through college efficiently and graduate sooner rather than later, and if they're not required to take another semester, why spend the time and money?

What strikes me, when I hear these explanations, is that they so closely replicate the arguments made by boards of trustees or local and state politicians. Foreign language study--or the arts, the humanities or even the social sciences--are nice for those who have the leisure for them, but our students need JOBS! And PRACTICAL SKILLS! (Note the classism masquerading as concern.) As a result, the messages are conflicting and incoherent: every institution these days claims to be preparing its students to be global citizens, but they're gutting foreign language requirements. If I'm reading the Gen Ed documents for this institution correctly, a student who has taken two years of a single foreign language in high school does not need to study a foreign language in college; all others need one year of college-level instruction. RU's foreign language expectations set a somewhat higher bar, but not by a lot.

So it's no good wondering why students "don't want" to take X or Y. When you structure your curriculum so it devalues something, you shouldn't be surprised when students don't seem to value it. Sure, student have their own passions and are capable of being set afire by this or that subject and changing their entire course of study as a result--but that subject has to exist and be visible on your campus (hardly the case when there are six or eight tenure-line faculty in the entire Modern Languages department and most of a students' peers aren't studying a foreign language). And students need to have a sense of the worth and desirability of a subject or a skill, and that usually comes from somewhere outside of them.

I don't actually think that first-generation college students (or minority college students, or working-class college students, or however you prefer to define the non-elite) are any more focused on the bottom line than supposedly traditional college students. It's just that the bottom line differs by student population: in some populations, it's considered uncool or embarrassingly ignorant not to have some familiarity with foreign cultures--or the fine arts, or whatever. It's not magic and it's not a mystery: whatever life students can envision themselves inhabiting, they'll take the courses they think they need to get there.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Yes. Yesyesyes.

Misnomer U. sadly has no foreign language requirement at all for the majority of students; the BA programs are the lone holdout. (For a while, our only face-to-face foreign language offering was Spanish; I have no idea what an ONLINE French course was supposed to do for anyone. Thanks to the sheer force of will of my awesome chair, this is no longer the case.)

And, not surprisingly, the students don't value studying languages. Because the institution doesn't value it, and because we're also pretty limited in our ability to teach students how to imagine bigger possibilities. (We have a one-month summer study abroad program in Spain that runs every two years, and usually attracts fewer than ten students, and that's about it for Cool Stuff You Can Do When You Study Languages in these parts.)

Professor Jaques said...

This: When you structure your curriculum so it devalues something, you shouldn't be surprised when students don't seem to value it.

My university has basically done the same thing to the Humanities, and my department has done it to pre-1800 literature at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Flavia said...


Oh, study abroad! I Have Thoughts about study abroad. We have an increasing number of students doing study abroad programs, and the opportunities are proliferating, which is great--but the vast majority seem to be 10-day to 6-week programs that strike me as glorified tourism and even the educational components usually don't involve a foreign language. (So, the course might be on the EU, or Chinese history, or whatever.)

It's definitely not a bad thing to get students who have never traveled abroad overseas, using public transportation systems, eating unfamiliar food. And that travel could spark a life-long desire to travel or to immerse oneself in a foreign culture. But these programs do not support our foreign language program, and though their education component may be real, they aren't "studying abroad" as I understand it.

Fretful Porpentine said...

True, true. (Though, as someone who's currently in the middle of planning a month-long summer program in an English-speaking country, I'm probably very much at fault in all this...)

Historiann said...

Yeah, we've got one of those "global campuses" too, but everything is supposed to happen in English. No, the administrators fostering this faux-globalization don't get the irony, and our perpetually underfunded and overworked "Foreign Languages" department is even more underfunded and stressed out.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I received my BA from an ILAF, and there was no requirement to take any foreign language courses at all.

Withywindle said...

Studying abroad made me love English and America more. Not sure that was the intended effect.

Flavia said...


I don't think I know what an ILAF is. And Google's suggestions are...not helpful. (I Love Anime Forever?)


I don't think that's uncommon, actually. I don't know how it played out in your life, but I have plenty of friends who enjoyed or even loved their time abroad in HS or college who came back with a new appreciation for things they'd taken for granted--or more muted in their political or social criticisms after seeing how another culture dealt (or didn't) with those same problems.

Withywindle said...

The homesickness didn't help.

Although for the politics of it all, it was quite striking to be in Spain during the first Gulf War, to see them present evenhandedly the "claims" of Hussein and the Bush administration as to casualties, etc.--and then to have it emerge that the claims of Hussein were nonsense and the claims of the Bush administration the truth. Made me viscerally mistrustful of European evenhandedness.

But that's merely the politics. Not being able to speak English for months--I learned Spanish better than ever before, but loved English more than ever.

And while I'm all for making immigrants to the US learn English, I know just how horrible it is to lose your own language, how dearly you want to continue to speak it.

Please pardon the autobiographical effusion. Something I still care about, after all these years.

Withywindle said...

"Them present evenhandedly" referring to El Pais.

i said...

Ooooh.... study abroad.

You know what's so great about study abroad?

You charge your students their regular home tuition, which if you're a private college, can be mind-bogglingly high.

Then you send them abroad for a semester, and pay a tiny amount for their education over there.

You tell them they were lucky to have participated in such a marvelous thing. While you pocket the profit.

In the meantime, you have talked to everyone about how you're boosting the foreign language requirement, that's how academically serious you are.

And you hire zero, zero, zero faculty in foreign languages. Because zero is what you budgeted for.

Can you tell I love study abroad?

Flavia said...


Effuse away! Bloggy real estate is cheap.


Interesting! Since I'm at an inexpensive public school, it's totally different--and we need to stress to students that a semester abroad, at a higher price, means their financial aid will scale up to meet their increased need (so they actually won't pay any more money, though of course they'll have the price of the semester added to their loans).

That still doesn't make it accessible to everyone, but it makes a huge difference. Many students who couldn't afford four years (or even one year) at a private school can swing the cost of a one-semester study-abroad program, or feel a few thousand more dollars in loans is worth it.

The foreign language component, however, remains unaddressed.

Anonymous said...

The sad truth is that college courses don't teach people how to speak a foreign language. Immersion is far better, but it's far cheaper to just go backpacking in the country where the language is spoken. Such travel could also be funded through doing a bit of teaching of English or another language on the side. You don't even need to travel--these days people are finding language partners online and can do the exchange on Skype.