Dramatic Plan for Language Programs

Panel wants departments to move beyond literature -- with overhauls in staffing and curriculum for undergrad and Ph.D. education.
January 2, 2007

A panel of some of the top professors of foreign languages has concluded that the programs that train undergraduate majors and new Ph.D.'s are seriously off course, with so much emphasis on literature that broader understanding of cultures and nations has been lost.

The panel, organized by the Modern Language Association, wants to jettison the traditional model in which language instruction is followed primarily by literary study. In its place, the panel would like to see departments merge study of language and literature while adding more study of history, culture, economics, and society -- in some respects turning language programs into area studies programs. The changes might be most dramatic in graduate programs, in part because the panel's members believe that the professors who teach undergraduates need a much broader conception of their field.

The implications of this call for change are, several panel members said, "revolutionary" and potentially quite controversial. For example, the measures being called for directly challenge the tradition in which first and second-year language instruction is left in many departments to lecturers, who frequently play little role in setting curricular policy. The panel wants to see tenure-track professors more involved in all parts of undergraduate education and -- in a challenge to the hierarchy of many departments -- wants departments to include lecturers who are off the tenure track in planning the changes and carrying them out.

The overhaul could also prompt a rethinking of the way foreign language departments relate to the U.S. government. The last year has seen federal agencies take new interest in foreign language education -- a shift that is welcomed by language professors but that also raises concerns for many who question whether military and intelligence officials really understand language education or have the right motives.

Professors involved with planning this overhaul said that they were doing so for educational reasons -- and that part of their role is to promote federal policy that embraces educationally valid language programs. But some of the professors involved said that the effort would produce graduates who were far more valuable to the government (and business for that matter), as well as for education.

The MLA panel's report has been completed, but it is still being reviewed by association leaders and has not been released. But some of the professors involved in the effort provided a briefing on their work last week at the association's annual meeting, in Philadelphia. Formal steps to push the agenda could come as early as the spring.

Ending the 'Literature-Centered' Ph.D.

In graduate language education, "the teaching of literature has become an end in itself," in a "triumph of historically dehydrated theory," said Michael Geisler, a panel member who is dean of the language schools and study abroad and a professor of German at Middlebury College.

"Why do we insist on specializing" in literature, Geisler asked, when there are so many "urgent tasks" for language Ph.D.'s? He portrayed the ideal mission of these programs as providing new professors (or other professionals) with a deep understanding of culture and current societies that goes far beyond the literary tradition. "Narrative isn't an end in itself," he said.

For an association where members have historically been more focused on the meaning of Cervantes or Pirandello than that of the Euro or a united Germany, these are potentially fighting words. And Geisler stressed that the changes needed couldn't be accomplished with a smattering of film or media studies. In fact he said he was not impressed with the "audiovisual creep" already seen in some programs. Rather he said that the "nice and cuddly" study of literature had to be revised based on "a re-evaluation of the entire content."

Specifically, he said that the Ph.D. students who will be future professors (and through retraining, some current professors) need to understand both the "linguistic and metalinguistic" stories of their departments' countries and regions. Every graduate program should include a course in applied linguistics, he said, focusing on the latest advances in understanding of cognition, identity, bilingualism, and other topics.

Proficiency needs to be demonstrated, he said, not only in language, literature and art, but in the mass media, society, history, economics, social welfare, religion, government and other aspects of society. A true "transcultural understanding" of a place is needed that can't be achieved with a literary-dominated program, he said.

Geisler stressed that the panel was not against the study of literature, but against a "literature-centered model." He said that the panel wants literature to be seen as "one of many forms of narrative to help us understand a given culture."

Adding Relevance to the Major

At the undergraduate level, literature may still play a central role, but for majors as well, the program needs more breadth and relevance, said Haun Saussy, a panel member who is professor of comparative literature at Yale University. Without change, he said, the language major could become "a quaint artifact."

Beyond adding more content beyond literature and language, Saussy said that the structure of most programs needs to change. Rather than starting with a focus on language basics and then moving to literature, a blended program will be sought. "We need high quality content from the beginning, and language to the end," Saussy said.

This will require what he termed "a revolution" that will likely upset some senior faculty members, he said. Currently, most departments delegate instruction for the first few years of  language study to lecturers, typically people who are off the tenure track and who in many cases lack Ph.D.'s. Recruitment of lecturers isn't always taken seriously, and those hired are rarely included in curricular planning or development, Saussy said. Their job is viewed as "to drill students" on vocabulary and grammar.

"We're going to need a good bit of retooling and supplementary hiring," he said.

But he stressed that the panel wasn't calling for the lecturers to be replaced. Rather, he said, it was time to "break down the hierarchy" and fully involve the lecturers in course planning and not to limit their roles.

At the same time, he said that to meet the needs the panel identified, he expected departments -- especially those with both undergraduate and graduate programs -- to broaden their hiring. For example, he said that a Chinese department at a major university (which he declined to name except to say that it is not his own) is currently negotiating to recruit an expert in Chinese law -- who currently works at a law school -- into its department.

How Close to Washington?

A subtext to the MLA reconsideration of how language programs should be run is a desire to benefit from the increased government interest in foreign cultures and languages. Language professors have complained for years that, although their work has the potential to help government, business, and society, they have not been turned to for advice.

Mary Louise Pratt, chair of the MLA panel and a professor of Spanish at New York University, said that a "perennial question" for scholars has been "how to secure public investment" in the contradictory environment of the United States. The United States is "a multilingual country" that views itself as the top world power and yet has had a "monolingualist ideology."

In the last year, Pratt said, the Bush administration has started to reach out to academics on these issues, and she noted the summit meeting of college presidents organized by the Departments of State and Education. "We are in the room now," Pratt said, noting that Rosemary Feal, the MLA's executive director, was among those at the invitation-only event.

In discussions with those concerned about international education, Pratt said, she has heard "tremendous frustration about how literary study monopolizes the curriculum." And while Pratt said that frustration was legitimate, she stressed that the association wanted to oppose "the securitization of language study." For example, she said that political demands for training people in various languages tend to be short term, based on whatever part of the world has become a hot spot. But "language learning always a long-term process," she said, adding that it was important to push an "intellectually driven agenda."

Yale's Saussy said that language professors may need to rethink some of their assumptions. He noted that the magazine of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages -- many of whose members are in secondary schools -- features ads from the Central Intelligence Agency seeking instructors. Saussy imagined the uproar that would follow if the PMLA, the MLA's flagship journal, ran a similar ad.

Saussy said that an environment where the federal government is suddenly interested in foreign languages and (if the committee's recommendations are adopted) departments are making their programs more relevant, professors may feel like they face "Faustian bargains" if they work with the government.

In such situations, he said, academics should not make their decisions based solely on their views of the Bush administration, since future administrations may "require less nose-holding" to work with. He also noted the positive contributions scholars could make to policy by training a generation of experts who might know much more about different parts of the world than do those who have run U.S. foreign policy in recent years.

Federal support for foreign languages might be viewed "as a rose to be plucked," Saussy said -- even if there are thorns of which to be wary.

Prospects for Change

In discussing their ideas, panel members noted that there are programs that are already making the kinds of changes that they want. Among those cited were the "multiple literacies" program being used at Georgetown University's German program. In the program, content has been broadened, and professors have tried to eliminating the language/content dichotomy. NYU's Latin American studies program was also praised by several.

But while those and some other programs exist, panel members stressed that they thought their criticisms applied to the vast majority of programs today. Pratt, the panel chair, said she realized that many of the ideas being proposed were controversial, and she said that she wasn't sure what the MLA would decided to do with them.

Feal, the MLA executive director, said that the group's Executive Council had already reviewed the report once, "with great interest and enthusiasm." While leaders of the group have "great respect for what traditional scholars have done," and have no intention of denigrating literary study, Feal said that it may be time for language departments "to evolve."

"Everybody in society benefits," she said, when foreign language programs receive more support and produce graduates at all levels with more skills. "But yes, we are talking about shaking things up in languages."


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