Teaching a class of students from myriad countries and backgrounds (essay)

Teaching Today

Which histories matter? Which literatures? Who gets to decide? These questions are particularly complex with an international student body, writes Deborah L. Williams

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A terrifying illness reminds an academic how difficult what he takes for granted is for others starting out (essay)

I spent last year’s Halloween weekend struggling with a writing project, as I imagine many people who work or study at colleges and universities all over the world did. Specifically, my struggle was centered on my attempt to find a specific turn of phrase that kept eluding me. Saturday morning, I found myself at the computer, typing an essay that involved superheroes, art and American politics in the 21st century, and I suddenly froze. My fingers stopped moving across the keyboard as something that felt like a traffic jam occurred in my head. The words, to put it simply, weren’t moving.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. Oh, I often decided to rewrite or eliminate words or sentences as I was writing them -- entire paragraphs during the revision process -- but I had never found myself, well, linguistically impotent. I knew the next sentence was in my brain, but it was somehow not moving forward to the part of my brain that would push it into the nerves that would move my fingers along the keyboard.

I could feel my heart speed up, signaling the beginning of a panic attack, and I found myself standing up suddenly and beginning to pace. I think I rubbed my temples as I tried to encourage myself to calm down. Surely this wasn’t such a big deal. I reminded myself that there had been quite a bit of wine the night before. That I was a middle-aged man. That it was simply what some people described as writer’s block, a phenomenon I’d never really experienced. I eventually relaxed, then decided to take the rest of the day off.

Sunday, I found myself back on the computer, working on the same project. I’d written about 400 more words, having mostly forgotten about the concern of the day before. And then, suddenly, it hit me: “Oh, that expression I’d wanted to include!” It struck me as a good one, something clever that I wanted to be sure to plug into the essay. So I moved back a couple of paragraphs and placed my hands on the keyboard.

But then … nothing.

Without any trace of a hangover, I found myself less panicked and more curious about what was going on. I closed my eyes, thought of several words, but then realized none of them were quite what I’d thought I had. Eventually, I simply shrugged, gave up and went back to working.

The phrase came back into my head while I worked on campus Tuesday afternoon. Or so I thought it had. When I went to write it down, I couldn’t. I did find myself writing several words that I would find again months later, when I was able to return to work. But when I looked back down at them after I’d stopped writing, they seemed like gibberish. I was a bit confused by what was going on but not exactly concerned yet.

That night, my wife and I sat on our front porch. It was an unusually warm November night in Ohio, and we thought we’d relax outside and talk about the day before we had dinner. I mentioned that I’d had trouble coming up with this particular turn of phrase and was feeling kind of silly about it, then asked her if she would help me. She said she was game. Our memories of what happened next are quite different.

I remember that I started to describe the phrase I wanted: “It’s like when a person …” And I remember her looking perplexed as she turned her head and leaned toward me. I knew that I wasn’t explaining myself well.

What she remembers was that I immediately started a barrage of words that in no way connected to each other. She thought, at first, I was playing some type of elaborate joke -- that maybe eventually I was going to make fun of something. But I just kept saying things, linking these words that in fact had no connection. And she remembers asking me, “Are you messing with me?” and my reply, “Why would he be messing with you?”

We both remember her calmly saying, “I think we need to go to the hospital. You’re scaring me.”

And then she remembers the seizure that caused me to fall off the porch, then sitting beside me while frantically calling 911 for an ambulance.

Starting All Over

My brain slowly began to heal after the neurosurgeon removed the tiny nodule that was growing against its left side. My parents flew to Ohio to be with us, and I woke up remembering who they were, and who my wife is, and very little else. Our friends Traci and Paul came to visit -- I later referred to them honestly thinking that their names were “Trapeze and Boobs.” Or so I’m told. Another friend, Brent, came to visit us, and I remember telling him, “You’re the lawyer,” which was true but, again, not his name, obviously.

For the most part, my wife says I was pretty calm, even funny, except for when I cried when I realized I couldn’t remember her name. The doctors spoke to her about what they had found, what the long-term prognosis was, and what would come next. Tests, radiation, chemotherapy, perhaps more surgery. But the good news was that most of them seemed pretty optimistic. As it turned out, the seizure -- terrifying as it was at the time -- was actually a good development, bringing my doctors’ attention to a very small cancer before it was fatal. I might have lived for months, maybe even years, with this malignancy growing inside me without any warnings or symptoms. And then I would have died.

Yes, any way you think about it, I was quite lucky. But that’s not to say I felt particularly lucky at the time. I had these Frankenstein’s monster-esque staples in my partially shaved head (and I had been so pleased about reaching middle age with such an awesome head of hair!). I was very, very tired. My wife had to help me bathe. I lacked the attention span to read anything significant or follow even the simplest of television shows. I even had trouble writing coherent tweets and Facebook status updates.

Most of these things got better as I recovered from the surgery and began to receive radiation treatment in my head. Writing still remained hard, though. In the past, I had taken a certain amount of pride in being a relatively quick writer, usually able to finish at least a first draft of any given project in one sitting, regardless of length. In the month of December, I wrote a very, very short essay -- about how much I appreciate and love my wife -- over the course of a couple weeks.

But otherwise, I found I really couldn’t do it. It was difficult. I would sit in front of the computer, and every sentence was like that sentence I couldn’t come up with the weekend before my seizure. And even when I got something typed up, when I looked up the computer screen I was frequently surprised to find grammatical errors and dull prose in front of me. “That wasn’t what I meant at all,” I would think as I deleted what my fingers had belched out from my damaged mind.

I announced to my wife that I was going to retire from essay writing. I’d published a book and appeared in most of the magazines and journals I liked, I figured. I could do something else for a living, then come home and live a quiet, normal life. “I just want to be with you and the cats,” I told her. “That’s all I care about.”

My wife does love me -- I’ve never doubted it, and I’ve been especially certain of it as I have continued to get healthy and she has been endlessly patient. She loves the cats, too. You should hear this woman talk to them when she doesn’t think any other human being can hear her. But the truth is, she does want more out of life then just coming home from work and sitting on the couch with her husband and cats. What’s more, she knew me well enough to know I needed more than just love and cats, too.

My wife and I met in graduate school, working on our Ph.D.s in English. We have taught both on and off the tenure track at quite a few institutions over the years. We have both, occasionally, found ourselves frustrated with our jobs. We have struggled to help students who were struggling themselves. We have both experienced how difficult it can be to work with students who have become frustrated to the point of giving up.

That is to say, we have both known how challenging it can be to work with someone like me.

Granted, the students we have worked with didn’t necessarily have seizures or brain surgery or lesions or cancer. (Although maybe some of them have; none of us really know what our students have gone through or struggled with, after all.) Still, they know what many of us who teach or counsel them often forget: writing is hard. Making sense of literature is hard. Doing the real work that a college education demands is hard.

Education involves skills that require a great deal of training from a teacher who is devoted and peers who are encouraging. As patient as we try to remind ourselves to be, it’s far too easy to forget that this work that many of us have been doing for decades can be tremendously difficult for those who are just starting out.

As I said, I’m quite fortunate. Not only because I can realistically hope to live for a long time, but because my wife was so patient and dedicated to my recovery. After a day of talking about literary theory, King Lear, logical fallacies, John Dewey and Virginia Woolf with her students, she would come home to recommend short stories, poems and -- most important, in my case -- personal essays she had recently read and thought I should read. Or she’d simply play Scrabble to help me recover the language that was still in my head, just harder to retrieve. And gradually, I began to relearn what I had once known. At this point, six months after the seizure that started all of this, I have nearly reacquired the skills that I used to take for granted.

I have known for a good 15 years that my wife is a dedicated and talented teacher, but I didn’t really know -- or hadn’t remembered -- how important such a teacher is until I needed one again myself. As I finish my recovery and continue my own career working with students, I hope I always remember to put this lesson to good use.

William Bradley is the interim writing center coordinator at Heidelberg University. He is married to Emily Ruth Isaacson, an associate professor of English and associate dean of the honors program at Heidelberg University as well as the president of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Their cats pretty much just sit on the couch.

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A community college creates a first-rate film production program, despite the odds against it (essay)

Over the last few years, I’ve presented at a number of regional and national conferences regarding Delta College’s advanced certificate in digital film production and its more recently developed two-year degree. Keep in mind that Delta is a midsize community college in the middle of Michigan, which is pretty far removed from the film centers of Los Angeles and New York City. Michigan’s tax incentives for out-of-state production companies have dried up so, as you can imagine, out-of-state production companies are seldom coming to the state anymore.

Regardless, Delta’s film program, which is geared toward independent filmmakers, continues to thrive. As a result, I continue to have opportunities to present at conferences about the evolution of the program.

My conference presentations tend to have titles like “Can a Community College Also Be a Film School?” What those who attend my presentations lack in number, they make up for in passion and interest. As I go through the development of Delta’s film program and subsequently illustrate the courses that it comprises, I see many of my attendees go slack-jawed. If the program’s scope doesn’t wow them, then ending by showing a couple of our student films usually does. None of this is bragging. For a community college, our program curriculum is extensive. If I may say so, our best student films are quite impressive, too.

When I finish, the attendees don’t file out to the next presentation. They stay. They have more specific questions about how our program came about. I ask them questions as well. Usually what I end up hearing about are the roadblocks that they’ve encountered. One gentleman told me, “I’ve been trying to develop an introductory screenwriting course at my college for the last six years. I always hear the same thing -- ‘We are a community college. We don’t do that here.’ I just can’t believe everything that Delta has done. How did you make that happen?”

I will admit that it wasn’t easy, especially the development of the two-year program. Our course offerings must look remarkable to someone who’s been trying to develop one course for six years. Courses in our program include: Introduction to Screenwriting, Advanced Screenwriting, Digital Cinematography for Film, Advanced Postproduction and Digital Film Capstone, in addition to many courses that already existed at Delta that make up the certificate and two-year degree.

The seed of the idea for a film program was planted years ago. While teaching my fiction-writing course, I continued to encounter students who really wanted to learn screenwriting, but Delta didn’t offer anything like that. Eventually, having heard students express the desire for a screenwriting course enough times, I went back and took courses in the genre. I used my experience to develop Introduction to Screenwriting. As I recall, it went through the curriculum process fairly quickly and was available to students in less than a year. As rationale, I had presented evidence of student desire for the course, and the evidence must have been accurate, because when the course was offered for the first time, it filled in six days. That was seven years ago, and since then, the course has run every fall and winter semester (and some spring semesters). Its sequel course, Advanced Screenwriting, runs at least once a year.

While I kept meeting fiction writers who really wanted to be screenwriters, a colleague of mine in the humanities was encountering broadcasting students who really wanted to be filmmakers. As a result, we sat down and cobbled together the advanced certificate in digital film production. To make it as easy as possible, we used existing courses and only later developed the more nuanced offerings mentioned above. After the certificate program existed for a few years, we began to hear from students who wanted more: the opportunity to earn a two-year degree in film production.

The endeavor of expanding into that kind of offering, admittedly, did take longer. In fact, it ended up taking about three years. We had to conduct a needs study and consult with our advisory board multiple times. We twice had to essentially start over due to administrative turnover, which meant bringing a new dean up to speed on the program. So, yes, there were hurdles and roadblocks, but never once did I have a chair, associate dean, dean, vice president or even a board member say, “A film production program? We are a community college. We don’t do that here.”

Instead, what I encountered sounded closer to, “A film production program? That sounds complicated and involved. It also sounds innovative and like a growth opportunity for the school. Proceed.” OK, nobody actually ever stated it quite like that, but that’s the vibe I felt as I worked through the process.

Had I been told “We don’t do that here” enough times, I probably would have backed down from the Introduction to Screenwriting course, which really got everything started in the first place. I have worked at other institutions where I heard “We don’t do that here.” It is the kiss of death to innovation, change and growth.

Had I heard “We don’t do that here” and listened, Delta College would not have an advanced certificate in digital film production or an associate’s degree. The college would not have all of the credit hours or the students the program generates. Many mid-Michigan students would not be able to pursue their dreams of film production, at least not at such a reasonable tuition.

Since we formed the program, our student films have begun to appear in regional film festivals. Some have won awards. One of our students recently landed a job in New York with the production company of a very well-known filmmaker. Why? Because the powers that be at Delta College didn’t say, “We don’t do that here.” Instead, they said, “Maybe we could do that here.” And that has made all the difference.

Jeff Vande Zande teaches fiction and screenwriting at Delta College. He has written screenplays that have been developed into short films and screened at regional and national film festivals. His novel American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. His most recent novel, Detroit Muscle, was influenced by his screenwriting knowledge.

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German universities oppose plan to compete on teaching quality


But plan could still go forward.

Why plagiarism is not necessarily deceitful or deserving of censure (essay)

“College Plagiarism Reaches All-Time High”

Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception”

Headlines like these from The Huffington Post and The New York Times scream at us about an increase in plagiarism. As a society, we feel embattled, surrounded by falling standards; we bemoan the increasing immorality of our youth. Plagiarism, we know, is an immoral act, a simple case of right and wrong, and as such, deserves to be punished.

However, nothing is simple about plagiarism. In fact, the more we examine plagiarism, the more inconsistencies we find, and the more confusion.

How we think about the issue of plagiarism is clouded by the fact that it is often spoken of as a crime. Plagiarism is not only seen as immoral; it is seen as stealing -- the stealing of ideas or words. In his book Free Culture, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig questions what it can possibly mean to steal an idea.

“I understand what I am taking when I take the picnic table you put in your backyard. I am taking a thing, the picnic table, and after I take it, you don’t have it. But what am I taking when I take the good idea you had to put a picnic table in the backyard -- by, for example, going to Sears, buying a table, and putting it in my backyard? What is the thing that I am taking then?”

Lessig gets at the idea that, when a person borrows an idea, no harm is done to the party from whom it was taken. But what about loss in revenues as a form of harm? Surely there is no loss of revenues when a student plagiarizes a paper. From Lessig’s metaphor we can see that theft, and even copyright infringement, are not entirely apt ways to think about plagiarism.

But Lessig’s metaphor does not help us understand that, in academic writing, acknowledgment of sources is highly valued. Neither does it reveal that taking ideas and using them in your own writing, with conventional attribution, is a sophisticated skill that requires a good deal of practice to master.

There are at least three important things to understand about the complexity of using sources. First, ideas are often a mixture of one’s own ideas, those we read and those we discuss with friends -- making it hard or even impossible to sort out who owns what. Second, writers who are learning a new field often “try out” ideas and phrases from other writers in order to master the field. That process, which allows them to learn, involves little or no deceit. And third, expectations for citing sources vary among contexts and readers, making it not only confusing to learn the rules but impossible to satisfy them all.

It is quite hard to separate one’s ideas from those of others. When we read, we always bring our own knowledge to what we’re reading. Writers cannot say everything; they have to rely on readers to supply their own contribution to make meaning. One difficulty arises when you read an argument with unnamed steps. As a good reader, you fill them in so you can make sense of the argument. Now, if you were to write about those missing steps, would they be your ideas or those of your source?

Writers may reuse the ideas of others, but surely they know when they reuse words, so should they attribute them? Perhaps not. Words are not discrete entities that can be recombined in countless ways, rather, they fall into patterns that serve certain ways of thinking, the very ways of thinking or habits of mind that we try to instill in students.

The fact is that language is formulaic, meaning that certain words commonly occur together. There are many idioms, such as “toe the line” or “cut corners” that need not be attributed. There are also many co-occurring words that don’t quite count as idioms, such as “challenge the status quo,” “it should also be noted that …” and “The purpose of this study is to …” that similarly do not require attribution. Those are called collocations. Student writers need to acquire and use a great number of them in academic writing. What this means is that not every verbatim reuse is plagiarism.

Moreover, imposing strict rules against word reuse may function to prevent student writers from learning to write in their fields. When student writers reuse patterns of words without attribution in an attempt to learn how to sound like a journalist, say, or a biologist, or a literary theorist, it is called patchwriting. In fact, not only student writers but all writers patch together pieces of text from sources, using their own language to sew the seams, in order to learn the language of a new field.

Because of the complex way in which patchwriting mixes text from various sources, it can be extremely difficult to cite one’s sources. Despite this lack of attribution, much research has shown that patchwriting is not deceitful and therefore should not be punished. In fact, some scholars are interested in exploring how writing teachers could use the concept of patchwriting to help student writers develop their own writing skills.

The third reason that it is not always easy to acknowledge sources is that expectations for referencing vary widely and what counts as plagiarism depends on context. If, for instance, you use a piece of historic information in a novel, you don’t have to cite it, but if you use the same piece of information in a history paper, you do. Journalists typically do not supply citations, although they have fact checkers making sure their claims are accurate. In business, people often start their reports by cutting and pasting earlier reports without attribution. And in the academy, research has shown that the reuse of words in science articles is much more common and accepted than it is in the humanities.

In high school, student writers probably used textbooks that did not contain citations, and once in college, they may observe their professors giving lectures that come straight from the textbook without citation, cribbing one another’s syllabi and cutting and pasting the plagiarism policy into their syllabi. They may even notice that their university lifted the wording of its plagiarism policy from another institution!

In addition to those differing standards for different genres or fields of study, research has also shown that individual “experts” such as experienced writers and teachers do not agree whether or not a given piece of writing counts as plagiarism. Given such wide disagreement over what constitutes plagiarism, it is quite difficult, perhaps impossible, for student writers to meet everyone’s expectations for proper attribution. Rather than assuming that they are trying to pass off someone else’s work as their own and therefore deserve punishment, we should recognize the complexity of separating one’s ideas from those of others, mastering authoritative phrases and meeting diverse attribution standards.

While most people feel that plagiarism deserves punishment, some understand that plagiarism is not necessarily deceitful or deserving censure. Today, many writers and writing teachers reject the image of the writer as working alone, using (God-given) talent to produce an original piece of work. In fact, writers often do two things that are proscribed by plagiarism policies: they recombine ideas in their writing and they collaborate with others.

Interestingly, the image of the lone, divinely inspired writer is only a few hundred years old, a European construct from the Romantic era. Before the 18th century or so, writers who copied were respected as writers. Even today, rather than seeing copying as deceitful, we sometimes view it as a sign of respect or free publicity.

Today, millennial students often copy without deceitful intent. Reposting content on their Facebook pages and sharing links with their friends, they may not cite because they are making an allusion; readers who recognize the source without a citation share the in-joke.

In school, millennials may not cite because they are not used to doing so or they believe that having too many citations detracts from their authority. In either case, these are not students trying to get away with passing someone else’s work off as their own, and, in fact, many studies have concluded that plagiarism, particularly that of second-language student writers, is not done with the intent to deceive.

Despite these complexities of textual reuse, most faculty members nevertheless expect student writers to do their “own work.” In fact, student writers are held to a higher standard and punished more rigorously than established writers.

What is even more troublesome is that teachers’ determinations of when plagiarism has occurred is more complicated than simply noting whether a student has given credit to sources or not. Research has shown that teachers let inadequate attribution go if they feel the overall sophistication or authority of the paper is good, whereas they are stricter about citing rules when the sophistication or authority is weak. Furthermore, they tend to more readily recognize authority in papers written by students who are members of a powerful group (e.g., whites, native English speakers or students whose parents went to college). Thus, in some instances, plagiarism may be more about social inequity than individual deceit.

As we come to realize that writers combine their ideas with those of others in ways that cannot always be separated out for the purposes of attribution, that writers often reuse phrases in acceptable ways, that citing standards themselves vary widely and are often in the eye of the beholder, and that enforcement of plagiarism rules is an equity issue, the studies and articles panicking over plagiarism make less and less sense. In looking at plagiarism from the different perspectives offered by collaborative writers and today’s millennial student writers, we can see that much plagiarism is not about stealing ideas or deceiving readers.

Unless plagiarism is out-and-out cheating, like cutting and pasting an entire paper from the internet or paying someone to write it, we should be cautious about reacting to plagiarism with the intent to punish. For much plagiarism, a better response is to relax and let writers continue to practice the difficult skill of using sources.

Jennifer A. Mott-Smith is an associate professor of English at Towson University. She has been teaching college writing for more than 20 years and researching plagiarism since 2009. This is the second in an occasional series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe for an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries.

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Undergraduate foreign language requirements aren't particularly effective (essay)

Learning and Languages

The concern over rising tuition has led people to increasingly evaluate higher education in terms of a return on investment. And that, in turn, has been a source of anxiety among faculty members, especially those in the humanities.

Could it be that tackling computer science or organic chemistry has a higher return in postgraduate salary trajectories than a major in French literature? Further, why is it that so many colleges and universities require that their undergraduates demonstrate some level of proficiency in a foreign language? This persisting language requirement for graduation piqued my curiosity. Typically any language qualifies for the requirement: Urdu, Navajo, Spanish and, in increasing popularity, American Sign Language.

Most colleges and universities are clear about the underlying rationale for their language requirement. Take for example, Columbia University’s undergraduate requirement.

The foreign language requirement forms part of Columbia College’s mission to prepare students to be tomorrow’s conscientious and informed citizens. Knowledge of another’s language and literature is the most important way to begin to know a country and people. The study of a foreign language:

  • Sensitizes students to world cultures, simultaneously making them aware of their own culture within that context;
  • Introduces students to the differences in structure, grammar and syntax that distinguish two languages, and to the intimate links between language and cultural meaning; and
  • Contributes to the development of students’ critical, analytical and writing skills.

Yet the question remains whether the requisite student investment in foreign language proficiency matches up meaningfully with the intended intellectual outcomes.

Most language requirements use the phrase “language proficiency” as the requirement’s goal and assess it by a language exam or passing grades in several semesters of beginning or intermediate college-level language instruction. At those levels, language classes and exams by their nature focus on vocabulary, conjugation and syntax. So it is unlikely that the cultural issues associated with the requirement are often meaningfully addressed. They could be, but that would require two or perhaps three or four times the commitment in classroom hours. That is simply not practical, given all the other important breadth and skill requirements of most undergraduate programs.

And, as far, as I can tell the question of whether elementary foreign language learning enhances students’ critical, analytical and writing skills in their native language has not been seriously researched. I contacted a number of academic foreign language scholars and staff members at a variety of associations that promote foreign language learning in postsecondary education to ask about research. As best as I can determine from the responses I have received, other than a few fragmentary statistics, the question about language learning outcomes remains largely unanswered.

We do have some estimates on language proficiency. By one estimate, less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a United States classroom. Another study estimated the proportion at a little less than 2 percent. A third calculated 10 percent. These are difficult estimates to make because they are based on gross numbers of language students and separate surveys of adults reporting on their language skills.

Yet they may be realistic, given the views of some in the language community. Eckhard Kuhn-Osius, a professor of German language at Hunter College in New York and chair of the American Association of Teachers of German Testing Commission, asserted in a study in 2001 that “practically no student who fulfills a language requirement of two, three or four semesters will have acquired professionally relevant language proficiency.”

Given the lack of hard evidence in the scholarly literature about language-proficiency outcomes, I decided to undertake my own independent survey of American four-year college graduates through Survata, which conducts online survey studies. We know that 84 percent of American adults have some form of online access, and the number is probably well above 90 percent for college graduates, so an online study seemed appropriate. (Traditional telephone surveys have response rates under 10 percent, so the alternatives to an online survey may actually be more problematic.) Survata uses a variety of techniques to provide a census-representative sample with a sampling accuracy of plus or minus about 3 percent for samples of 1,000 respondents. (In this case 1,003.)

The Study’s Results

Here’s what the survey revealed. Of this sample of American college graduates, 61 percent reported that, when they enrolled, their institution had no language requirement, and 39 percent reported that a foreign language requirement was in place. Students at institutions where it was required took an average of three semesters of a foreign language, while those at institutions that didn’t require it took a little more than one semester. Clearly, requirements make a big difference in exposure to foreign language instruction, but there appears to be significant language study in nonrequirement institutions, which may be taken to be a good sign. Exactly half of the respondents who have graduated recently reported their institution had a foreign language requirement. Older respondents, however, were more likely to report that they had no language requirement when they were students, which may mean there were fewer requirements decades ago or that it was more difficult to recall the rules in force back then.

We turn to a key question: What is the relationship between adult foreign language proficiency and the number of semesters of study, and how does the existence of a language requirement interact with these dynamics? First, let’s take a look at the distribution of self-reported levels of current adult fluency among those who studied foreign language in college.

Bar chart showing five categories of fluency. 1: Able to use the language fluently and accurately (11% of respondents). 2. Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements (13%). 3. Able to use questions and answers for simple topics and basic needs (29%). 4. Understanding limited to occasional isolated words and phrases (39%). 5. Can't remember a single word (8%).If we consider the top two categories as a reasonable level of language proficiency, we find that, among those in this sample of college graduates who studied foreign language in college, a little less than a quarter (24 percent) are proficient. But if we exclude those who were language majors or who reported that the language was spoken extensively in their home or community, the level of proficiency drops by half to 12 percent. Interestingly, the number of those who said they were proficient but didn’t major in a language or speak it at home was 15 percent in institutions without language requirements and 10 percent in institutions with language requirements.

Thus, statistically speaking, the foreign language requirement appears to have no meaningful effect on the language proficiency of graduates from those institutions. All of the variation in proficiency is explained by students opting for majoring or minoring in language study and/or exposure to the language in their home or community. Males had modestly higher levels of language proficiency than females, older respondents modestly lower than younger ones.

Another key question is the impact of language study in college on cultural sensitivity and global awareness. I had limited opportunity to assess those dimensions in our short survey, so I asked simply if the respondents were inclined to seek out or to avoid foreign cultures and languages. The percentage reporting from institutions requiring language instruction that they seek out foreign cultures and languages was 23 percent and from nonrequirement institutions it was 20 percent -- a difference small enough that it cannot be distinguished from sampling error.

It seemed possible that a language requirement could have a boomerang effect -- turning some students away from further language learning. That turned out not to be the case at all. Fully 45 percent of the respondents volunteered that they enjoyed language learning (the same percentage for requirement and nonrequirement institutions) and only 9 percent noted that they disliked language learning. And, again, we found no significant difference for requirement and nonrequirement institutions.

Such complex phenomena as critical thinking skills and cultural or linguistic sensitivity are not easily assessed. Part of the challenge is a lack of clarity about what educators mean when they use such terms. The increased attention to learning outcomes and systematic assessment in higher education may bring some greater definition to these iconic and potentially overused educational catchphrases.

What conclusions might we draw from this preliminary analysis? It appears that the language requirement does not generate a boomerang effect, turning students off or leading them to avoid foreign cultures languages and literatures. But it appears, as well, perhaps as should be expected, that three or four semesters of language instruction, required or otherwise, does not make much of a difference in adult linguistic capacities.

My view is that the current tradition of language-proficiency requirements has it backward. It requires the study of foreign language vocabulary and grammar under a potentially false pretense that exposure of a few semesters leads to cultural and linguistic sensitivity and critical thinking skills.

My proposal is that colleges and universities should start with courses focusing on globalization and cultural diversity, reinforced by study abroad opportunities, which will generate a natural demand for foreign language instruction as part of a more globally oriented curriculum. We should set aside bureaucratic requirements and instead focus our attention on motivating students’ intellectual pursuits with a curriculum that takes outcomes and assessment seriously.

W. Russell Neuman is a professor of media technology at New York University’s Steinhardt School and author of The Digital Difference: Media Technology and the Theory of Communication Effects (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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Intercultural perspectives and the study of languages should inform the academic content of many disciplines (essay)

Learning and Languages

Those of us who teach and research in departments of world languages engage in work that spans the globe. We are multilingual, multicultural and interdisciplinary. But in the current climate of utility, we are struggling to prove our relevance, even as our universities espouse the values of internationalization and cultural competence.

A recent publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century,” reports on this contradiction, concluding that the United States needs more people to speak more than just English: “There is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in human history.”

How did we get here? We can point to three recent trends in postsecondary education that have negatively impacted the study of world languages in significant ways.

First, the number of colleges and universities across the nation that require language study has dropped from 53 percent to 37 percent. Perhaps accordingly, enrollments in languages other than English between 2009 and 2013 dropped at a precipitous rate, a decline that includes French and Spanish alike. As a result, at a growing number of colleges and universities, language departments are ceasing to offer majors, with surprising losses at institutions situated in heritage-learner communities (Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and the University of Southern Maine dropped the French major, for instance).

Second, to better understand this statistical plummet, we can look to current trends in American higher education, where the very goals of learning are up for debate. As Robert Thompson has written, the notion of higher education as knowledge in the service of society is being contrasted with, and sometimes replaced by, a neoliberal model that connects college education to economic needs, positing students as consumers. Fields of study are marketed based on their use in “the real world,” and our students feel pressured to prioritize job placement over intellectual exploration.

In such an environment, a biomedical engineering degree is appealing because of its clear path to a job in biomedical engineering. A French degree, on the other hand, does not lead to a job “in French.” Students with second-language majors must be resourceful self-marketers who are able to position themselves for a variety of jobs that will value their skills in critical thinking, teamwork and cross-cultural communication.

And finally, related to degree professionalization is the renewed focus on STEM education. In response to shortages in STEM-related disciplines, federal and state governments have increased funding for those fields, incentivizing programming in K-12 schools through postsecondary institutions. In the current financially challenged climate, however, public figures have unfortunately positioned STEM in opposition to the humanities. As Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin recently remarked about his state budget allocations, “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” That kind of divisive discourse elevates STEM by disparaging French studies, implying that education is a zero-sum game.

Comments like Bevin’s mischaracterize our field entirely, casting it as a solitary intellectual pursuit rather than as a communicative practice that grapples with real-world issues. Our French literature colleagues link 18th-century travel narratives to today’s mass migrations, and Molière’s theater to political satire. These approaches help students decipher contemporary concerns through a historical lens, offering proffered solutions to consider, value or reject. Our colleagues also teach courses in translation and interpretation, in business, and in community health. Comments like Bevin’s -- and the ensuing media attention they garner -- ignore the breadth of our collective offerings and attempt to remove them entirely from the politically charged bargaining space of public education.

Meeting Students Where They Are

What are we to do in the face of this news-media discourse, knowing that it has a significant effect on parents and policy makers, students and administrators? Do we dig in our heels and defend the study of Balzac and Cervantes? Or do we focus exclusively on languages for specific purposes, or LSP, which addresses immediate and specific industry needs, to align ourselves with STEM fields? Such binary choices create internal conflicts and can pit colleagues against each other in battles for student enrollment.

Another approach is to take some of our languages out of language departments and place them throughout our campuses, making us more visible and valuable within the university at large. Serving students across various disciplines, Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum, or CLAC, offers a way to help reconcile what has become a polarizing debate. On the one hand, CLAC’s focus on integrating languages and cultures across a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts aligns with recent trends in higher education. CLAC courses help students gain discourse competence for work in fields like global health and environmental sciences, demonstrating the value and utility of language study. An introduction to a public policy course, for instance, offers a discussion section in Mandarin that explores policy briefs and case studies from China. Perhaps as a result of this applied learning, the CLAC consortium has expanded to include 25 institutional members, with an increasing number of independent programs.

On the other hand, unlike courses that focus specifically on developing skills for the workplace, CLAC engages students by exploring culturally specific solutions to real-world issues, thus mirroring the intellectual values of the traditional university model. Students in a global health Hindi CLAC explore the underlying beliefs and behaviors that are associated with health disparities in India, while students in a public policy Spanish CLAC analyze case studies of Latinx voting trends. Community-based learning can be incorporated easily into CLAC, further showcasing applications of language acquisition. At its core, the CLAC movement demonstrates that intercultural perspectives can and should inform the teaching of academic content in many disciplines, making language study relevant -- even indispensable.

The current climate of utility poses a challenge for the humanities -- and for world languages in particular. For our departments and the interdisciplinary, international work that we undertake, we must show that we play an important role in student learning and development. As the American Academy’s recent report suggests, “Ultimately, it is up to all of us -- parents, students, educators, policy makers and businesses -- to make language learning a valued national priority.” And in order to survive, and even thrive, we must be visible.

That does not mean giving up the intellectual work of our field, but it does mean that we must meet students where they are, both mentally (worried about job prospects) and physically (not solely in our departments). By embedding language across our campuses, CLAC’s expanded opportunities can help us claim our space in strategic ways and provide invaluable benefits to students, our institutions and indeed the world.

Deb S. Reisinger directs the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum initiative at Duke University, where she is an assistant professor of the practice in the department of romance studies. Her current research focuses on community-based language learning.

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A professor bemoans representing in class the status quo that she originally hoped to challenge (essay)

Teaching Today

The classrooms that we as professors have tried to create -- spaces where inequities are voiced and the status quo challenged -- are becoming reality, writes Lynn Cockett. The problem is we now represent that status quo.

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Colleges aren't coddling students by teaching them how to handle disagreeable situations (essay)

Very few issues in higher education have captured the attention of commentators across the political spectrum over the past few years like the supposed “coddling” of college students. It’s rare that Ruth Marcus and Breitbart agree. But on the need to stop “coddling” students who seemingly cannot handle unexpected outcomes (e.g., the 2016 presidential election) or alternative viewpoints (e.g., pick your favorite “controversial” speaker), they made similar pleas. Calls for students to “grow up” -- or, as Republican Representative Bobby Kaufmann’s bill in the Iowa Legislature said, “Suck it up, buttercup” -- are widespread. From the left to the right, calls for college students to grow up are pointed, and getting louder and sharper.

Let’s be clear. Much of the commentary has been aimed at free speech issues -- many of which had roots in the 2016 presidential election -- and at microaggressions, trigger warnings and other aspects of language flowing from social structures and concerns that cause people pain. For our purposes here, the specific content or precipitating event is not the point. We are concerned with the diagnosis that the fault, the reason “coddling” is needed, is a character defect in students and, to a slightly lesser extent, in higher education institutions.

Considered together, the collected commentary framing the coddling issue appears grounded on a set of core assumptions: 1) that students simply need to show more fortitude, 2) that colleges are refusing to live up to their claim that they are the marketplaces for open discussion and debate of issues and ideas across the full spectrum of thought, 3) that we are reaping the fruits of the “everyone wins a trophy” philosophy, and 4) that we are experiencing the result of a failure to eradicate bigotry of all sorts from society.

Perhaps those assumptions are correct.

We argue they are not.

We propose that, when looked at from a different perspective, students’ behavior becomes more easily understood and, essentially, expected. A bit of history will set the stage.

A Matter of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

There was a time not long ago when a common experience on a campus was the statement “Look to your right. Look to your left. Two of you won’t be here at graduation.” At the time, those and similar statements and actions -- faculty members never providing lecture notes to students who missed class, math classes having grade distributions of majority D’s and F’s, students being told that if they needed additional tutoring they did not belong there -- reflected a certain understanding of rigor and were touted with pride.

No more. We have come to understand that the students who used to be among the two not there at graduation didn’t discontinue because they didn’t belong there. We figured out that the problem had to do with knowledge, learning, skills, experiences and support. Institutions responded to that discovery by creating and providing a wide array of supports: on-demand tutoring, intrusive advising systems, high-impact teaching practices, sophisticated data analytics that inform faculty members where students are having difficulty. The result? More students learning more and achieving credentials at a higher rate. By most people’s estimation, we are more successful now, with many more students, that we ever were with a misguided understanding of rigor. Institutions no longer assume that students come fully prepared.

We argue that the lessons learned through this change in attitude and understanding regarding academic success would greatly benefit us in rethinking the coddling accusation. Consider this: just as students come to college with the knowledge, skills and abilities they have honed in and outside class in their educational experiences up to that point, along with the social skills learned along the way, so too do they come with the ability to handle disagreeable situations and ideas different from their own. Simply put, we do not expect students to show up at college possessing all the requisite skills to be successful in life; otherwise, we would have no expected learning outcomes and college would be unnecessary. On the contrary, we expect that students will grow in knowledge, skills and abilities across the arc of their college experience, exiting with demonstrably higher competence levels than those they possessed upon arrival. That is true for not only academic skills but also for handling disagreeable and challenging situations.

The trouble is, that’s not the way most people see it. Why? Why don’t we view the issues swirling around the coddling debate as a matter of knowledge, skills and abilities? Why do so many commentators insist that it’s a character defect in students, or yet another example of liberal institutions run amok, overly concerned with fragile egos?

It troubles us that such observers also fail to see the inherent contradictions in their own arguments. Consider: Why are we more understanding that a veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder might occasionally need a “safe place” than we are that a person who has survived a serious physical assault might need one? For that matter, why do people of every background create “strategic retreats,” closed off-the-record briefings, secret societies, clubs with exclusionary and/or affinity-based membership rules, and so on if not to provide a “safe space” to go and share mutually supportive thoughts and feelings? Why are they taken for granted as acceptable and expected while safe spaces for LGBT students are somehow coddling?

Similarly, why would we expect students who have come of age in neighborhoods and schools surrounded by people who largely look and think as they do to be highly skilled at handling personal insults hurled by those with different, yet similarly narrowly shaped, experiences and beliefs? Why should we expect that people who have experienced different outcomes of a society still struggling with racial and class issues will magically know how to get along? Why would we expect students to arrive a college skilled at civil discourse when their only understanding of political debate consists of well-compensated people on opposing sides shouting to drown one another out?

Viewed through such contexts, coddling is not the issue. Rather, the issue becomes how we can best provide the experiences that result in the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to handle challenging and complex situations effectively. It becomes recognizing that the outcomes on which we stake our institutional reputations, especially critical thinking and communication skills, must also include effectively dealing with people, ideas and behaviors that live way outside our comfort zones. It becomes understanding that no one is born knowing how to deal with people and ideas that shake you to your core. Everyone, irrespective of background or privilege, must learn how to do that.

To the core outcomes of critical thinking and communication, we would add contemplative listening, a skill we have argued elsewhere is both essential and overlooked as a prerequisite for the other two. For example, although it can be claimed that the pundits are adept at critical thinking, and are expert at communication, they lack contemplative listening while they are on the air. In previous papers, we presented a case for adding contemplative listening to the list of core outcomes in general education, grounding that discussion in theories of adult cognitive and personal development.

The listening-thinking-communicating triad forms an essential foundation for helping students develop the skills necessary for success in a society based on free and open debate. Bloom’s taxonomy could be a good initial framework. And just as we provide wraparound support structures for writing, math and so forth, we will need to ensure that similar supports are in place regarding all sorts of challenging and complex situations. In that approach, safe spaces, for instance, are no more problematic -- nor is the label any more pejorative -- than math lab.

From this perspective, colleges do not coddle anyone. Whether they provide sufficient opportunities and support for learning and practicing the requisite skills to handle intellectual and emotional challenges may be a very different matter. Only when we adopt a mode of creating supported learning opportunities, through scaffolding, a technique used to gradually move a learner progressively and incrementally from one level of understanding to another by providing temporary support, or other approach, will we adopt the more appropriate stance that handling challenging and complex situations is something we learn how to do. Robert George and Cornel West adopted this perspective in their well-known course on how to listen to contrary points of view. Our main point is this: telling students to “grow up” is no more helpful than telling them that if math is hard for you, you simply don’t belong.

Perhaps if we all were better at listening, we’d know this from our students already. Perhaps if we started demonstrating more effective ways of handling challenging and complex situations, we would have more opportunities for people to imitate more effective behaviors. Perhaps if we just understood that bursting our own bubbles is difficult and often traumatic, we would be better positioned to guide our students through the same process. Perhaps then we would move on, more productively and effectively, to confront the underlying issues that drive the content of the debates.

John C. Cavanaugh is president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Christine K. Cavanaugh is president of Pathseekers II Inc.

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Boston students protest Trump's election.
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Trial and Error: Lehman and Hunter Colleges boost chemistry course passing rate to 80 percent

Students taking general chemistry at Hunter and Lehman Colleges were passing at 60 and 35 percent rates, respectively. A new course format that includes videos, podcasts and no textbooks quickly improved outcomes.


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