Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hope for the humanities? (part 2 of 2)

The big asterisk to my generally positive attitude about my institution's commitment to the humanities has to do with our foreign language department and requirements. Briefly, they're a joke. Like many institutions, mine is falling all over itself to proclaim its dedication to "global study," and to declare that it prepares its students for a "global workplace"--while doing nothing to increase the actual study of foreign languages or build its foreign language department. Spanish is the only remotely healthy program we seem to have, and I suspect that's a reflection not of any actual strategy on the part of the institution, but simply of the number of students who took the language in high school and who, of their own initiative, have decided to go further. Student demand has occasionally brought in an Arabic or Japanese instructor for a few semesters, which is nice, but there's no possibility of studying those languages past the beginner level. (Other than Spanish, the only language with tenure-line faculty, and hence some literature offerings, is French. But the most popular language courses on campus seem to be those for American Sign Language.)

I suspect there may be internal, departmental reasons that the foreign languages haven't been getting hires, but I also think it's the downside of student demand: for reasons that we in English and History aren't totally in control of, students want to major in our subjects, and that sets off a virtuous cycle in which more and better faculty get hired, which in turn attracts more and better majors. Students don't want to major in the foreign languages (and not enough make studying a foreign language a priority), so tenure-line faculty don't get hired, the programs languish, and the institution actually cuts the required number of semesters of foreign language study...thus decreasing the likelihood that students will get far enough to want to do more.

The lack of commitment to the foreign languages is an active concern in my department and in the history department, but as yet we haven't done much except complain among ourselves and urge individual students to take another year or two of a foreign language. But long term, I think we have to try to use our relative weight to put some pressure on the administration; we're neither going to attract the best students nor make our students into the best scholars they can be without a somewhat better foreign language department--and what's the point of being a robust department, anyway, if we can't help out other allied departments?


My smaller asterisk to my previous post involves my concern about what "raising our standards" does to the institution's mission. Our entering students are genuinely getting better every year, and the college is gradually transforming itself into a more traditional, more residential, liberal-arts-focused institution. The townhouses, the branding, the community ethos, etc., are all part of that effort. As a faculty member, it's hard not to be excited by a lot of this, especially since it hasn't been a case of "excellence without money": fundraising and alumni giving are way up, and faculty are pretty well-paid, with opportunities for merit raises in addition to cost-of-living raises every year. Who wouldn't want more smart students in the classroom? And who doesn't dare to hope that we might someday see course releases--or even a slight reduction in our teaching load--for faculty who are active scholars?

Well, no one doesn't want those things. And God knows, we'd all love to have our college recognized, statewide, for the strength of its humanities programs rather than having that be a pleasant surprise for the students (and faculty) who wind up here. But I worry a bit about the kind of smug self-satisfaction that I mentioned in my previous post in conjunction with the religious college up the road. One thing I love about RU students is how nice they are, how basically eager and hardworking and unpretentious; they're all here to get an education, and though the nature of that desire differs--some students just want a degree while others are intellectually ravenous--in no case is it about the cachet of the institution, or their own specialness for being here. (Our students seem happy to be affiliated with RU, and there's pleasure when one alumnus meets another alumnus, but it's not a self-congratulatory thing.)

And I wonder, sometimes, what the tipping point is: as we keep branding, and recruiting out-of-state students, and talking up our academics, will we lose some of what makes this institution so appealing? Will we lose the academically marginal students who are nevertheless full of eagerness and potential--only to wind up with a whole bunch of grade-grubbing, good-but-not-great students?

Maybe that's a foolish worry. But I think of all the spoiled, uncurious kids at middling colleges and universities, and it seems possible that for many institutions an increase in prestige--even specifically academic prestige--is accompanied by a decrease in intellectual vigor, especially in the undergraduate classroom.


Anonymous said...

I had a great comment but the system ate it. Short version: FL needs to make the first 2 years in curriculum much more fun.

Historiann said...

"Foreign Language" departments are under assault, as the recent battles at SUNY Albany demonstrate. One reason I think "languages" departments are vexed is that they're a bunch of very different scholars of different languages who are forced in the U.S. to work together and play nice, and I think it rarely works out to the benefit of the department and faculty (not to mention the students!) Universities should permit French to be the French Department, Spanish Spanish, etc. They should staff each language adequately so that this is possible. But, of course unis like yours and mine don't do that, and they try to make do with too many adjunct or temporary faculty rather than truly investing in foreign language scholars & scholarship.

It's bitterly ironic that U.S. universities want to go all "global," so long as everyone is speaking English. Oh well--the hegemon is on the move. In another 80 years or so, Mandarin will be mandatory for all U.S. university students. Then in 150 years, maybe it will be the English department that's clamboring for resources and desperately trying to scare up majors and justify its existence. . .

Anonymous said...

Discussions of this are huge. And Spanish booms regardless of assault, as Mandarin surely will. But FL depts exist to save on number of administrative units, and even when languages are funded, students don't necessarily come - and the paradigm of national literature departments has its own set of problems.

My proposed reform is: make the 1st 2 years of language programs more interesting and less painful by not hammering down all the grammar there and leaving all the interesting cultural content for later. Have super-accelerated language workshops for language nerds but relax on grammar and ramp up on culture right away. This, I theorize, will make it all less painful and more interesting, and cause more people to continue.

But, people won't do this because they are wedded to having people be theoretically able to use every verb tense well, etc. by junior year. That selects a lot of people out, though, say I, who think it is a fetish.

I'd redo the whole curriculum from the beginning around topics related to the "global" world and I'd have cultural teaching modules that went into depth - none of this textbooky "who was Picasso?" stuff. Really address a few things instead.

People think that by requiring a few grammar and conversation classes in a foreign language they will get students to be "global" but really they and we ought to articulate better what we think students should be learning and then teach that more explicitly. Linguistics questions like what is a language. Culture questions like what is "Hispanic" - who is "French" etc. Then on a different class day, work in the language using the verb to be - it can be done.

I should write an article about this although some would say the idea is being implemented already where it can be, and the problem with it in Spanish is that it's already hard enough to find enough people to teach the language, let alone be prepared to talk about culture history etc. at the level to which I allude.

But I think my general point is right - the way we conceive of curricula, 2 years to learn language and then 2 years of literature, with a little culture and linguistics thrown in, is a model that sifts people out rather than bring them in.

You can tell how unrealistic it is when you realize that people who major in foreign languages and do well - go on to grad school in it, etc. - almost invariably come in with some background in it and/or study abroad in it. That right there indicates that the 4 year curriculum as currently conceived doesn't really do the trick.

Flavia said...


Thanks for coming back and expanding on your earlier comment--that sounds really smart. And indeed, my sense is that the places where language study is the healthiest are places that really promote a junior year/semester abroad. Yeah, you can go to an English-speaking country, but at schools where study abroad is a thing, students seem more willing either to start learning a new language in advance or to go on a program than involves intensive language classes once there. And they're probably more likely to keep up their language study upon their return.

I spent an hour this evening at a reception for our study abroad program, where I was totally unsurprised to learn that most of our students who go abroad for a semester go to the U.K.--and that most of the growth in our study abroad programs overall (participation in which are actually way up) can be attributed to short-term, 2-4 week programs where, I presume, the students aren't expected to develop more than phrasebook language skills.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


This is interesting for me to read, as a grad student in French who's spent three years teaching French to undergrads. So apologies in advance for an endless comment...

I find that there's usually a split between the students who want more "culture" and those who find it frustrating that they can't express everything they want to express within the first month of class. Obviously, most language instructors (whose native language isn't the language they're teaching) were the kind of students who wanted all that grammar ASAP. (I mean, I came more for the history-literature end of things than anything linguistics-related, but I can also remember being very disappointed when I took a year of Hebrew my senior year of college and left without knowing how to use the future tense.) This means that there will probably be a bias in favor of the preferences of the grammar-hungry students.

Also - it can be confusing when students are genuinely interested in French/Francophone culture and when they simply think a class will be easier/more fun if we talk about baguettes and watch a movie than if we start on the subjunctive. It can be tough to tell when student questions intended to extend a "cultural" segment result from genuine interest, of from the desire to sit back and let the instructor speak in English on an entertaining topic, as opposed to in French, to convey a grammatical concept.

Meanwhile, from a teaching perspective, I think that what a lot of language instructors could best offer would be that cultural component - we're not getting PhDs in conjugating verbs. Whereas grammar instruction... so much needs to be done by students, at home. Some teachers have a knack for making grammar come alive, but there's little reason to think such individuals would sign up en masse for literature PhD programs, where one spends most of one's time alone, reading and writing. Luckily for students, some do, but I suspect you'll find a whole lot more people prepared to teach culture unusually well.

Meanwhile, in terms of what students get out of it... I haven't found that my classmates in grad school all came in with the same language background. We range from those who indeed are French, to those who lived in France as a child, to those who studied the language in school and then did study abroad in college, to those who studied abroad but began studying the language as college freshman. It's true that the common denominator is time spent in a French-speaking country, but I'm not sure how that would ever be otherwise. Often students will have done a year between college and grad school as an English teacher in France. There are ways to reach the level necessary for grad school that don't involve having a family estate in St. Tropez, but I'm not sure there's anything that could be done in four years of undergrad coursework alone that would do it.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe, on culture I don't mean eating baguettes and watching movies, that's the kind of "culture" presentation I want to abolish absolutely and think is a travesty, or speaking in English on entertaining topics.

Most instructors and adjuncts in the 5 places I've taught since the PhD, and at the place I got the PhD, don't and didn't have a PhD though - they've got MAs some time ago. So for most of them, culture is making tortillas, etc. and a museum visit, a flamenco show, etc.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Here's a link to the pdf of Carlos Alonso's key critique of the philological model that still informs FL curricula: http://www.brandeis.edu/departments/roms/pdfs/curriculum-spanish.pdf

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for the response. Unfortunately I'm now somewhat more confused...

In reverse order, the critique you link to, which I just read quickly, seems Spanish-specific, about the place of Spanish in the American higher-ed system, the problem with teaching Spanish as a "foreign" language, and not about language teaching in general. Unless I missed something...

Re: your comment, of course "culture" doesn't mean French=France=baguettes, or having students just be passive. My point was that in a typical language class, culture segments are more passive/"fun" for the students, and at the elementary level at least do require switching into English. (Where I've taught, even elementary is taught primarily in French.) So it can be difficult to tell when students crave a cultural framework, one that will inspire them to conjugate être, rather than just saying, here's être and get to it, and when students don't want to deal with the rote memorization language-learning ultimately includes.

Meanwhile, I suppose I'm not clear on what French 101 would be if not a solid intro to communicating in French. Would it be an interdisciplinary introduction to the entire French-speaking world, and if so, would the knowledge it produced be much deeper than the verbs-and-vocab-with-some-culture-thrown-in approach?

Finally, I'm not clear what you're getting at re: the language instructors having MAs but not PhDs. Is your point that the MA was for them a terminal degree, and thus that they're not conducting research? Is the "museum visit" example meant as the kind of thing you do or don't think qualifies as "culture"?

Anonymous said...

P- what's of interest in the Alonso article is the critique of the philological model upon which so many US FL curricula are based.

Anonymous said...

Also- it's just more than I have time to explain in a blog comment thread, my comment above was already overlong.

But there's a huge difference between what a *current* PhD candidate and a *stale* MA can do, and part of what I am (also) talking about has to do with the question of adjunctification.

On the question of culture in the FL classroom there is a huge bibliography and there's a huge one
on L2 acquisition also.

But my views are essentially those Alonso expresses in his critique of the philological model of curricula.

Anonymous said...

But one example - I'm against culture as add-on or as something to look at passively.

One of the video segments in our ex FL textbook had real Latin Americans talking about real racial conflict in LA (and using 2 past tenses in verbs, and 2 subjunctive tenses, which was the grammar point) but to teach that comfortably you'd have to be up on the news and OK with discussing race so it had to be deep sixed. But that was true content based instruction, and I'm for it.

Anonymous said...

Et finalement - it's the empty boring confusing pain of FL study my students and also I react to. Most of the country doesn't teach these things anywhere near as modern-ly and fun-ly as they were when I started studying decades ago. But still I realize my views on basic FL ed are eccentric and I'm not an expert, also don't want to be / it's not my main interest / etc. But on FL curricula generally, I am sure I'm on a right track.

Anonymous said...

OK just *one* more thing. Questions like "who is Hispanic?" are deep and raise issues people may not have thought of. And that there are interviews people can watch on, etc. Whereas "culture" still seems to mean to most people, explaining to students that tortillas and tapas and Picasso exist. *Of course* students zone out and disengage, especially if at the same time you're giving them super tricky exercises about fine distinctions between tenses and looking for ways to take points off. When they didn't want to be in a FL class in the first place, and have trouble with English grammar too, and now you are torturing them for it. It is absolutely awful and I really do not blame people for "hating" FL when this is what their experience of it is.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Could you please point me to the part of the document you link to that addresses language education in general, the part I'm meant to be responding to? Thanks.

I now think I see what you were saying re: MAs. Before I hadn't been clear if you meant ABDs whose MAs are a distant memory, or those with terminal education degrees. I think you mean the latter?

Re: your last comment, I don't quite agree with your assessment of passive culture segments interspersed with "looking for ways to take points off," at least in terms of the program I've taught in. I mean, all of school is teachers taking points off. It's still teachers taking points off if the exam involves critical analysis of what "Hispanic" means. Someone will still get a B+ and think he deserved an A.

And is it really such torture to study the grammar of a foreign language? Sure, students aren't 100% on English grammar, but the student contemplating "Hispanic" may not have a deep grasp on "American" or whichever term most describes their own identity, if not "Hispanic," either. Sometimes students really do enjoy grammar, sometimes more than their instructors did back in the day. It's always a pleasant surprise.

But in terms of "culture," the French classes I've taught have definitely gone deeper than this-is-a-baguette, both because the instructors want to go deeper and because that's built into the curriculum. But "culture" is still in English for elementary language students, so when a student asks (for example) if we can further discuss French national myths about participation in the Resistance, it's not that this is a superficial question, but it's also not clear that the student is interested in that topic, and not just trying to stall and not learn the passé composé, to stall and not have to communicate in French, which is exhausting for a student new to a language, of course. Exhausting but, I would think, necessary.