US: Hispanic Studies Must Reform to Stave Off Obsolescence

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 16 17:17:16 UTC 2008

>>From the issue dated December 19, 2008

Hispanic Studies Must Reform to Stave Off Obsolescence

The opening of preregistration at Connecticut College is often
signaled by panicked e-mail messages from my advisees: "There are no
courses in Spanish next semester." At naïve moments earlier in my
career, I checked course schedules to confirm that there were, indeed,
upper-division offerings, but I soon realized that I was missing the
point. "There are no courses" means that none of the department
offerings — primarily literary — are of interest. The extent of that
aversion to literature became apparent last spring after I distributed
a survey to majors and minors in Hispanic studies. I asked colleagues
at other institutions to give the survey to their students, too, and
professors at American University, the City College of New York, Colby
College, Gettysburg College, the Johns Hopkins University, New York
University, Villanova University, and Yale University responded. My
intent was not to collect data scientifically but to informally gather
students' attitudes toward the nature — not the quality — of
Hispanic-studies courses as it pertained to student interests and

The results were to some degree predictable but nevertheless shocking:
Of the 148 students who returned surveys, only 20 indicated a primary
interest in literature. Thirteen said they were primarily interested
in culture, 12 in interdisciplinary area studies, and three in
linguistics. The overwhelming majority, 100 students, said their
primary reason for taking upper-division Hispanic-studies courses was
"to learn the Spanish language." That strong preference for language
was corroborated by write-in comments: "REALLY NEED more high-level
grammar/language classes"; "more intensive conversational practice for
advanced speakers"; "more courses on just learning the language." One
student registered the common complaint that "the literature classes
don't help improve my Spanish-speaking skills," and another hoped for
"just a Spanish major, rather than Hispanic studies."

When the students commented on topics courses — I use "topics" as
shorthand for all nonlanguage courses — a leitmotif was "less
literature!" They commonly asked for "more anthropology, sociology,
current-events-based courses"; "more about contemporary culture"; and
better political coverage. Courses on Hispanics in the United States
and related social issues were also repeatedly requested. Students'
negative perceptions of literature are determined by a general
depreciation of nonutilitarian humanities, by aversion to textual
analysis, by inability to comprehend assigned readings in Spanish,
and, most important, by a major change in the profile of our students.
Extensive Hispanic immigration and the rise of Spanish as an informal
second language of the United States have radically altered the nature
of undergraduates who sign up for Spanish courses. Previously students
chose upper-division Spanish courses to pursue literary interests and
perhaps prepare for graduate study. But today most of the students are
double majors or minors with primary interest in a range of

Those students view Hispanic studies in the context of broader
academic and career goals. They seek a working knowledge of Spanish
and an understanding of Hispanic-world regions to enhance their
effectiveness as professionals among Spanish-speaking peoples here and
abroad. Students' career aspirations, my survey showed, are commonly
in business, education, engineering, government, journalism, law,
medicine, psychology, public policy, and a range of international
professions. Our classrooms are thus populated by a widely mixed
collective united by interest in the Spanish language and in regions
of the Hispanic world. Such students are receptive to literature and
culture courses insofar as they seem relevant to acquiring language
skills and basic regional competence.

Yet most Hispanic-studies departments have been slow to respond to
student objectives and, as a result, offer a curriculum on the brink
of obsolescence. Students expect one type of course and receive
another, then find themselves in the predicament of needing the
language and wanting the major but having little interest in the
content of their studies. As noted in a report in 2000 on the National
Forum on the Future of Spanish Departments on College and University
Campuses, by Orlando R. Kelm, associate professor of Spanish and
Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin, "The end result is
that students passively continue to enroll in traditional Spanish
classes that do not provide opportunities to develop proficiency in
their areas of interest." Thus, they experience frustration,
disillusionment, and loss of motivation as one course after another
fails to improve their Spanish or to satisfy their academic curiosity.

Given the demographic changes in the United States, the more
vocational perception of undergraduate education (even in the
humanities), and the resultant priorities of mostly double-major
students, Hispanic-studies departments nationally are in need of
comprehensive reform. Such reform must begin with an overhaul of
language instruction. Inadequately trained graduate students, adjunct
instructors, and even uninterested tenured and tenure-track faculty
members trained for other purposes should be replaced by professionals
educated for and committed to language teaching. In lieu of the
current arrangement, in which lower-division language courses are
qualifiers for upper-division topics courses, language-acquisition
courses must be offered at all levels of the four-year program.
Whenever possible, such courses should be complemented by Spanish for
professions (business, medicine, law, social work), courses for
heritage speakers (students from Spanish-speaking families), and
translation and interpretation courses or certificate programs.

Spanish acquisition should also be a principal objective of topics
courses. (A year ago I would have found that idea inappropriate; now I
consider it our only responsible option.) That can slow the pace of
topic instruction, but it enhances a course's relevance for students
whose primary goal is to learn the language. In my ideal world,
colleges would offer three types of upper-division topics courses:
senior-level seminars taught in Spanish and sensitive to language
acquisition but focused on the seminar content; upper-division courses
taught in Spanish with a hybrid approach, dividing class time between
the topic and language acquisition; and courses taught in English. The
last type, unencumbered by language limitations, would provide for
speed, depth, and rigor in topic coverage. They are also ideal venues
for area-studies courses, which attract students beyond the
Spanish-speaking population to which the other courses are limited.

In addition to those structural changes, the content of
Hispanic-studies courses must be freed from the confines of literary
and even cultural traditions and diversified in ways responsive to
student goals. I advocate not a concession to limited student
interests but rather an integration of new offerings into a
pedagogically sound curriculum that makes sense to and for its target

Literature courses should remain, as should linguistics courses in
contexts that can sustain them. But the field implied by "Hispanic
studies" is wide open beyond them. The Modern Language Association's
report on foreign languages, in 2007, advocated a reformed curriculum
that would "situate language study in cultural, historical,
geographic, and cross-cultural frames within the context of humanistic
learning." To serve students "with interests beyond literary studies,"
the report recommends that "departments should institute courses that
address a broad range of curricular needs."

The case is all the more compelling for Hispanic studies, and its
faculty members should be sufficiently informed socially, culturally,
historically, and politically — each professor will find his or her
own mix — to design and teach interdisciplinary courses on themes and
regions of expertise. I refer not to literary texts organized around a
topic and dressed up with multimedia and a sexy title, but rather to
thoroughly interdisciplinary courses that draw information and
interpretive strategies from many sources. A course on immigration,
for example, would benefit from ethnographic, historical,
sociological, political, economic, legal, and cultural contributions,
as well as from literary texts, migrant narratives, nongovernmental
organizations' reports, and film. Such courses, because they are
supplementary, don't preclude the teaching of literature for its
intrinsic worth, regardless of students' career goals.

Hispanic-studies departments should also engage in outreach efforts
that maximize off-campus opportunities for students. Wherever colleges
are reasonably close to Hispanic communities, the departments should
offer, as a complement to internships and study abroad,
service-learning or community-based courses, which provide a necessary
bridge between classroom instruction and its practical applications.
The momentum of reform depends largely on the capacity and good will
of professors who recognize and are responsive to the need. No
professor should be pressured to do a job other than the one for which
he or she was trained and hired. Yet administrations can accelerate
reform by providing incentives: sabbaticals, summer stipends, and time
off for the development of interdisciplinary syllabi. More-permanent
change will occur when vacant tenure lines are reassigned to positions
in language instruction and interdisciplinary area studies based in
the humanities.

But sustainable change in Hispanic studies will occur only when Ph.D.
programs are reconceived to better prepare grad students for the
demands of the profession. Degree requirements should include courses
in any discipline pertinent to a student's regional, period, and
topical interests. Such requirements would situate students' literary
competence in a broader context, thereby fostering interdisciplinary
scholarship and teaching. The same principles of interdisciplinarity
should extend to the dissertation. And for students who are
interested, a curriculum in second-language acquisition should provide
classroom and practicum training.

Immigration to the United States from Spanish-speaking countries has
created a historic opportunity for Hispanic studies. We can rise to
the occasion by offering a language and area-studies curriculum
relevant to today's society and student, or we can entrench ourselves
in tradition until obsolescence invites the imposition of reform. The
positive choice affords Hispanic studies a leadership role in a
campuswide transformation that is as imminent as it is inevitable.

Frank Graziano is chair of the Hispanic-studies department at
Connecticut College. His books include The Millennial New World
(1999), Wounds of Love (2004), and Cultures of Devotion (2006), all
from Oxford University Press.
Section: Commentary
Volume 55, Issue 17, Page A25


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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