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Coherence, Literature, Languages

December 23, 2008

When literature and language professors gather in San Francisco this weekend for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, one topic on the agenda is the state of the undergraduate major in English and foreign languages. A report prepared jointly by the MLA and the Teagle Foundation outlines a series of goals for these undergraduate programs -- at least one of which the report calls "radical."

That stance is that all English majors should have the language skills to study literature in another language -- and that foreign language majors be able to study literature in English. Other key emphases of the report -- which focuses on themes, not specific course assignments -- are not likely to find much opposition among the MLA rank and file. For example, the report stresses the importance of literature and of coherence as students in the major move from course to course.

On the question of foreign languages, the Teagle/MLA panel offered a mix of philosophical and practical reasons for making sure that English majors can read in other languages.

"We are committed to the notion that all students who major in our departments should know English and at least one other language. This is a radical stance, and it is not one with which students -- and faculty members -- can always comply with ease," the report says. "Our political and social lives are not 'English only' domestically or internationally. The value of fluency in multiple languages cannot be overstated in the 21st century, when the emergent conditions of life bring more of us more often into circumstances that, on the one hand, ask us to travel through the complex terrain of a globalized economy and, on the other, bring far-flung local parochialisms to our doors through the vastly expanded reach of new communications technologies.

"Students who study languages other than English are achieving not merely formal communication but also sophistication with the nuances of culture -- both in the sense of culture as art, music, and poetics and the broader sense of culture as way of life. The translator, international lawyer, or banker who successfully conducts business in a language other than his or her native tongue shows linguistic capacity and cultural understanding, something a university education in languages is uniquely capable of instilling."

The recommendation goes both ways in the report: it applies to those studying English and foreign languages. "We believe that students who major in foreign languages should be required to have a good command of English and some knowledge of English and American literature; likewise, English majors should be required to learn another language and become familiar with literature in another language," the report says. The study rejects the idea that translations suffice for such study. "While readings in translation of world literature can broaden understanding of other cultures, translations do not necessarily induce deep or subtle sensibilities toward the stranger within our community or far distant from our shores," the report says.

Further, it suggests that literary study -- not just communication -- must be central in measuring language knowledge. "The pedagogical emphasis in recent decades on language for communication seems sometimes to entail the willingness to accept approximations of pronunciation, grammar, and syntax, so long as the intended idea is more or less conveyed," the report says. "This notion of efficiency may be adequate for non-academic language teaching programs," the MLA/Teagle panel says, but college students majoring in a language also need to understand issues of aesthetics, and "the correspondence between sharpness of thought and aptness of expression."

As the report acknowledges, many English departments do not come close to requiring proficiency in a foreign language. The most recent data on requirements for the English major come from an MLA survey in 1984-5, which found that English majors were required to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language in 61 percent of programs. In two thirds of those programs, the requirement was institutional; in one third, departmental. The 61 percent figure was a decline from 81 percent in a 1967-8 survey.

While current data do not exist about language requirements for English majors, statistics on requirements for all undergraduates suggest that the MLA/Teagle group may have a way to go to achieve its goals and that requirements may be looser now than in 1984-5. A May report from the American Council on Education found that fewer than one in five colleges or universities had any foreign language requirement for undergraduates -- let alone one of proficiency.

Some of the other themes of the new report:

  • Coherence of course sequences and requirements. While not endorsing any particular course or approach to course requirements, the panel calls for an approach that is "integrated" and "structured," and where students proceed from course to course in ways that reflect an intentional progression designed by departmental leaders. "The requirements for a major should amount to more than a list of courses, the prevailing model now at some institutions; requirements should form a series of course options that combine to fulfill curricular objectives," the report says. "The aim should be to develop students’ linguistic abilities, acquaint students with representative cultural examples through a designated body of works, and engage them with specific concepts, ideas, issues, cultural traditions, and traditions of inquiry. In addition to dispensing knowledge of the field, the course of study in English and other modern languages should also make improving writing and analytic skills two of its central tasks."
  • The primacy of the study of literature. "The role of literature needs to be emphasized. Sustained, deep engagements with literary works and literary language open perceptions of structure, texture, and the layering of meanings that challenge superficial comprehension, expand understanding, and hone analytic skills," the report says. "While we advocate incorporating into the major the study of a variety of texts, we insist that the most beneficial among these are literary works, which offer their readers a rich and challenging -- and therefore rewarding -- object of study. Our cybernetic world has brought us speed and ease of information retrieval; even where the screen has replaced paper, however, language still remains the main mode of communication. Those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment."
  • Inclusion of all faculty ranks in decisions and teaching. Consistent with a recent MLA report on the growing use of adjuncts, the Teagle study stresses both the importance of including non-tenure track professors in making curricular decisions and including those on the tenure track in teaching introductory courses. "We strongly believe that all teaching faculty members, regardless of rank and status, are stakeholders in the educational mission of the department. All should be involved in the organization of the curriculum," the report says. "Moreover, to attract students to a major, departments should showcase their best and most experienced professorial-rank faculty members in general education courses and not reserve them for specialized courses only. Withholding professorial-rank faculty members from general education courses accentuates the disparity between non-tenure-line faculty members (including graduate assistants) who often teach first-year and general education courses and tenure-line professors who offer students a more integrated educational experience."

The panel that wrote the report was led by Michael Holquist, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University who is a former president of the MLA. Among the literary scholars on the panel were two sitting college presidents: Carol T. Christ of Smith College (who started her career teaching English) and Joan Hinde Stewart of Hamilton College (who started her career teaching French).

 

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