How to Thrive (or Survive)

Foreign language chairs consider strategies to bolster departments' standing -- and minimize cuts. For many, key issue is demonstrating relevance to people outside the humanities.
December 29, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Sessions at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting are planned so far in advance that some word choices may seem out of date by the time the meeting takes place. That was the case here Monday for a gathering of foreign language chairs and professors to consider "how departments can thrive in difficult times."

Dawn Bratsch-Prince, an associate dean at Iowa State University who formerly led the foreign languages department there, started off her talk by acknowledging that the title might be "overly optimistic," saying that "we may be talking about how departments can survive." This is of course the year that the job market in foreign languages and English collapsed, and a number of language departments have seen programs eliminated.

But in an odd way, this may have been one of the more optimistic sessions at this year's meeting -- at least among panels devoted to the economic crisis facing higher education. At many sessions here (and in hallway conversations), the gloom of the recession is all-encompassing, with people talking about canceled job searches, adjuncts unsure how they will pay their bills next semester, the university press editor who couldn't afford to come visit with authors, and so forth.

But the foreign language session was focused on success stories, with speakers arguing that language departments, even at institutions that aren't best known for the humanities, can protect themselves.

Bratsch-Prince discussed a series of changes in the foreign languages program at Iowa State that have increased enrollments and stature, and even started to result in gifts. The key to the success, she said, is something that not all professors are good at recognizing: their individual priorities may not match those of their institution. That's a danger sign, she said, and one that can make a program vulnerable.

Iowa State is a perfect example, she said, in that the university's official name is Iowa State University of Science and Technology. As such, she said, the institution is best known for programs in engineering, agriculture, business and so forth -- not foreign languages or humanities. And the first thing she said language departments need to do is determine a university's overall priorities, with a focus on the "destination majors" -- those that draw students to an institution.

The next question is whether language departments have ties to those students, who may not be enrolled in language courses at all or who may just be taking minimal requirements. For many language professors, Bratsch-Prince said, this is a serious adjustment to make, as it means a focus on students who aren't majors or even necessarily interested. "We need to serve the student audience we have at a university, not the one we imagined or would have preferred," she said.

So how does a language department do this at a university where the most popular majors are in the sciences and business? Bratsch-Prince said that the import of foreign language departments to such majors is in promoting global competence, a set of skills and knowledge that just about every business and education organization says is crucial for college graduates.

But foreign languages can be held back, she said, by a sense that they are just "service departments offering Spanish 101 or the French novel." To the extent that foreign language programs are very much about economics and culture and society -- as recommended by an MLA report in 2007 -- Bratsch-Prince said they need to consider whether their image reflects their breadth.

So in a move that was in large part about marketing, Iowa State's foreign languages and literatures department changed its name to "world languages and cultures." Armed with the new name, the department started to make the case to engineering and business faculty members that their students needed more foreign language and cultural training.

One result was a new major -- "languages and cultures for the professions" -- that can be only a second major. Engineering and business students can take the second major, which requires advanced language courses, specific language courses based on relevant business needs, and foreign study and/or internships. For students in these second majors -- and students who aren't -- Iowa State has revised study abroad programs.

Some proficiency in foreign languages used to be required before study abroad. This isn't realistic if you want to get science and business students, Bratsch-Prince said. So Iowa State will now let these students study abroad, taking some courses in English and some in the relevant foreign language -- even if they haven't studied the language before. Further, more short-term options have been created.

Not only are enrollments up in language courses at Iowa State -- from beginning to advanced -- but there have been other signs of success, Bratsch-Prince said. An engineering alumnus was so impressed with the program that he gave money to support hiring a new staff member to help build up study abroad programs. And the agriculture college has now asked the world languages and cultures department to collaborate on a "global resource system" program for which two full years of foreign language study will be required. That's another "destination major" at Iowa State.

Concluding, Bratsch-Prince said that "we must situate ourselves strategically" and do so at "the center" of institutions, not at the periphery.

Overcoming Invisibility

Jane Hacking, associate professor of Russian and chair of languages and linguistics at the University of Utah, focused her talk on getting more visibility for foreign language scholars. She talked about a range of seemingly small issues that add up to many language professors being invisible in their institutions or communities -- which can in turn make programs vulnerable.

Among her suggestions: Chairs must be sure that central university news offices, if they publicize faculty accomplishments, are including the language departments. Chairs should invite prospective students to navigate the department's Web site and identify what doesn't work. Those within a department, Hacking said, "are so used to the dysfunctionality that you don't realize what's wrong." Department newsletters need to keep both students and alumni informed about programs and accomplishments.

None of these activities are likely to appeal to a scholar's research or teaching agenda, Hacking said. But chairs need to make them a priority. Further, she said that language departments need to look for broader outreach activities in the humanities to get more support from the public. At Utah, there is a Humanities Happy Hour in which members of the public pay to join the club, for which every third week they meet in a bar for a 10-minute talk by a humanities professor on some provocative topic (yes -- only 10 minutes -- it's called an "intellectual hors d'oeuvre") and then enjoy (non-intellectual) hors d'oeuvres and drinks. These talks are regularly heard by 100-plus people who get to know more about the humanities, Hacking said.

Mary Wildner-Bassett, a German studies scholar who is dean of humanities at the University of Arizona, called on her fellow humanities professors both to change their own behavior in some regards and to assert their right to a fair share of university resources. Citing numerous studies, she said that there is no doubt that humanities programs are in fact subsidizing other parts of higher education (by providing general education courses) and yet are losing tenure-track slots to areas of study seen as more lucrative.

Part of the solution to this problem, Wildner-Bassett said, is to conduct more rigorous analysis of university budgets, tracking where tuition dollars arrive and how they are spent relative to the departments providing the most instruction. At Arizona, she said, such analysis has surprised some of her colleagues in other parts of the university, who assumed they were subsidizing the humanities.

But there are prerequisites to joining the conversation, Wildner-Bassett said. She called on all humanities faculty members to "learn about the university budget, to learn to speak that language. It takes time and focus and is a new language for many of us, but we need to speak it." Further, she said that speaking the language requires a firm grasp of the numbers and statistics.

"I have many dear colleagues who say to me, 'I don't do numbers'" and who as a result will never serve on university budget committees or have influence on them, she said. "Do numbers," she implored her colleagues. And then demand seats on the relevant committees that give out money or -- in bad times -- allocate cuts. "If we don't have a voice in that world, we will remain less privileged," she said.

Knowledge of university finances won't make things in any sense easy, she said, but can change the dynamic. "We can walk through the campus, with our heads high, and argue about our legitimate claim to a larger share of the university's resources," she said.

The audience was generally receptive and there was a lot of detailed note-taking going on, with attendees citing ideas they wanted to adapt. The one criticism of the approach that came up several times in the question period was whether some language programs have already lost the critical mass needed to carry out these ideas.

One audience member said that these ideas assume a close connection between the faculty and the curriculum. He said that the loss of tenure-track positions in his department has meant that most of the instruction is done by adjuncts so that the full-time faculty members, many of them approaching retirement, aren't connected enough to what students want.

Another audience member said that the ideas presented would work well at large universities like those where the speakers work. But he said that there aren't as many options for small programs. "I'm chair of English and modern languages, and modern languages is two faculty and one is retiring in May," he said. "We have nine Spanish majors and now the discussion is: Do we keep the major? Do we dump the major?" With only two faculty members, and one about to leave, he said, it was hard to imagine carrying out the ambitious ideas discussed.

"I have nothing. Literally," he said.

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