US: Dramatic plan for Language Programs

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 3 17:33:25 UTC 2007

Dramatic Plan for Language Programs

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 panels 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 panels 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 associations 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 isnt 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 couldnt 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 cant 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

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 isnt 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.

Were going to need a good bit of retooling and supplementary hiring, he
said. But he stressed that the panel wasnt 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 MLAs 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. Yales 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 MLAs flagship journal, ran a
similar ad.

Saussy said that an environment where the federal government is suddenly
interested in foreign languages and (if the committees 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
Universitys German program. In the program, content has been broadened,
and professors have tried to eliminating the language/content dichotomy.
NYUs 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 wasnt sure what the MLA
would decided to do with them.

Feal, the MLA executive director, said that the groups 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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