Revising and Defending the Foreign Language Major

At MLA, professors describe how departments are rethinking curriculums and the tenure-track/adjunct divide. Beyond pedagogy, programs want to protect themselves.
December 29, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- An increasing number of foreign language programs are undergoing serious reviews of their offerings, requirements and missions -- and the process is producing considerable excitement and innovation. At the same time, many foreign language professors are worried that administrators do not understand the value of their programs, which could be vulnerable to elimination the way the University of Southern California killed off German.

This paradox was center stage at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association Sunday as leading thinkers about foreign language education discussed some of the reforms that have been undertaken and some of the questions departments are asking. The hope of many was that these efforts could bolster programs both educationally and politically -- so that faculty lines and majors can be protected. While there was widespread support for the educational changes taking place at some institutions, there was less certainty about whether they could be carried out at institutions that don’t have deep pockets.

The discussions here were part of an emphasis by the MLA on teaching and the curriculum. While the MLA meeting has of course long been known for the outrageous titles and highly specialized topics of some panels at its annual meeting, the association has in fact been spending more and more time of late on nuts and bolts of who teaches and what goes on in the classroom. The foreign language discussions reflected the MLA’s work both on curricular reform and its call for changes in the way adjunct professors are employed.

While there are “many different paths to improving the major,” it’s clear that “some programs are doing better than others,” and now is a time for renewed focus on the major, said Randolph D. Pope, a professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia. "This is the time that the major needs to be re-examined." Pope is a member of a special panel appointed by the MLA and the Teagle Foundation that just released a report calling for more coherence in English and foreign language majors and more rigor for both kinds of major in study and communication in other languages (specifically, requiring a foreign language for English majors and English for foreign language majors).

While the committee termed its recommendation that English majors gain proficiency in a foreign language a particularly bold idea, Pope said that the reverse recommendation was also important and needed more attention. He said that when his teaching shifted from being primarily Spanish courses to comparative literature, "my greatest surprise was that some of the papers written in Spanish by the undergraduate majors had better syntax than some of the students writing in English."

While Pope repeatedly said that foreign language curricular reforms need to vary by campus, he said Vanderbilt University's Spanish program was an example of how a language department's policies could enrich offerings and attract more students.

Cathy L. Jrade, chair of Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt, outlined a series of steps taken by the department. She said, for example, that Spanish has started service learning courses in which students study Spanish and volunteer with groups serving various Spanish-speaking immigrants. Courses have been added in literature and medicine, and in medical Spanish, to attract pre-med students. Courses focus on a variety of media, including film, looking at the influence of Hollywood on Latin America, and on Spanish-language film.

Other changes, she said, are more practical. Course schedules were changed so that more sections were offered at different times, so a student interested in Spanish but with lab commitments every afternoon would still have options. The introductory Portuguese course is now offered every semester instead of just once a year, to avoid the chance of missing someone interested in starting a less commonly studied language. And in a key move, the department demonstrated to a university committee that the writing required in one of its courses met the criteria for being designated a writing course -- meaning students could fulfill a general education requirement with it, through Spanish writing. Requirements have been structured, she said, to expose students to a range of Spanish language, literature and culture -- with a mix of traditional literary study and more topical, practical courses.

Jrade said that the department broadened its approach based in part based on an important reality: Most students who study Spanish or major in Spanish aren't planning to get a Ph.D. and become Spanish professors. Spanish programs that reflect that reality will be more inclusive, she said.

Pope stressed that the significance of the Vanderbilt changes was the combination of being innovative in courses and having an overall plan. The fear of the recent MLA-Teagle report, he said, was that a major has become "an accumulation of credits" that represent "a task to be accomplished" and not "a coherent whole."

Jrade also noted that the department's successes are in large part due to its reaction to another reality: a majority of courses are taught by lecturers, not those on the tenure track. She said that the acknowledgment of that reality led to a push to improve compensation for the department's lecturers and a shift from annual to three-year contracts, which can be renewed. She said that the goal has been to make the lecturer positions "stable," and to turn them into "a career choice," particularly for those who are ABD or who have doctorates but do not want research-oriented careers. Many of the course innovations lately, Jrade said, have come from the non-tenure-track instructors, and she cited the service learning course as an example.

The only way that lecturers will make such contributions and truly connect with students, she said, is if they have some job security and a decent standard of living. While this may not seem like the best time to ask deans for anything that costs money, Jrade said, it may be the right time for departments "to sell deans on the importance of raising the bar on the treatment of lecturers." And Jrade said that there is a cost-effectiveness argument to be made by noting the cost of turnover, and the relationship between having long-term relationships with lecturers and the kind of enrollment growth that depends on committed teachers. To deans, "enrollments matter," Jrade said.

While some departments are studying Vanderbilt's program, others are asking a series of questions about their offerings. The MLA unit of language department chairs has been working on developing questions that might prompt departments to reflect on their programs, and Cornelius Kubler, chair of Asian studies and a professor of Chinese at Williams College, shared some of these questions, which he termed "controversial and difficult."

  • How many courses should be required in a major? Should it concern departments if some languages at a given college differ from others in course requirements?
  • How much credit should be given to students for prior knowledge of a language? If students receive credit, should there be other courses for them to take?
  • What is the appropriate balance of language, literature and culture in programs, and what kinds of culture count? Kubler noted that while it is easy to say that literature should dominate with perhaps a little film or music added in, new media constantly come into play and need to be taken seriously. For instance, he said that animation may be an important part of Japanese study today.
  • When students major in languages such as Chinese and Hebrew, with a focus on modern language, should they also be required to study classical or Biblical versions?
  • Should there be standardized tests -- as some colleges require -- of language proficiency such that majors might not graduate, however many courses they have completed, without having passed these tests at certain levels?

One person in the audience, who identified herself as coming from a public urban university, said that she admired the Vanderbilt program and the ideas behind the questions that the department chairs group is considering. But she said that some of the discussion was "a fantasy world for me" because her budgets are so uncertain, and there isn't an institutional level of interest in improving language study.

But she expressed hope that the process being described could strengthen her department's position. "If there is no core, there is no standard, so when budget cuts hit, there go centuries of literature," she said. If departments do a better job of articulating what a language major should include "that gives us tools to take to the dean," she said.

While the MLA does articulate "best practices" in language programs, Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the association, said in an interview that the MLA doesn't tell individual colleges what language majors to offer. Those are individual decisions and the MLA isn't an accrediting group, she said. At the same time, the MLA will point out -- as its leaders did when Southern Cal eliminated its free-standing German program -- that institutions set missions for themselves that tend to be associated with certain language offerings.

In the USC case, she said, "that has been historically been a research institution with a comprehensive curriculum" and at such an institution "one would expect a full range of undergraduate language majors."

The process going on at many departments now, Feal said, is healthy and important. "We think that each program should evaluate its focus and how it delivers its curriculum on a regular basis," she said. "Times change. The needs of students change. The world changes. Foreign language technology changes. The pedagogies change. So on a regular basis, programs need to change, and say, ‘What do we want our students to know?' "


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