[lg policy] [From the CHE Archives]: A University Plans to Promote Languages by Killing Its Languages Department

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 28 14:22:37 UTC 2009

A University Plans to Promote Languages by Killing Its Languages Department

Russian professor-turned-president eliminates all jobs in French,
German, and Spanish

David Maxwell has a message for prospective foreign-language students:
If you want to study French, take a college course. If you want to
learn to speak it, take a plane  to Paris. But steer clear of American
classrooms, Mr. Maxwell suggests, because that's one of the last
places on the planet where you'll master French -- or German, or

Face it, says the president of Drake University, foreign-language
instruction in the United States, long plagued by plummeting
enrollments, is in a state of "national malaise," and all those
grammarians and Goethe gurus pontificating at the front of the
classroom are part of the problem, not the solution.
In fact, Mr. Maxwell isn't convinced colleges in this country need
foreign-language classrooms at all. And, at Drake at least, they won't
be around much longer.

Last month, a year and a half after Mr. Maxwell took over the
presidency of the Des Moines institution, the Board of Trustees voted
to get rid of Drake's foreign-language program and the eight tenured
and tenure-track professors and seven part-timers who teach in it. In
their place, Mr. Maxwell has proposed a constellation of approaches --
study abroad, internships, and online discussion groups among them --
to transform sputtering foreign-language students into
conversationalists at ease in Munich or Madrid. The details of Drake's
plan, where languages aren't -- and will not be -- required, are still
up in the air. But one thing is certain: By the end of 2002, formal
classroom language instruction and faculty members trained to provide
it will be as dead at Drake as Latin.

Many foreign-language professors -- especially at Drake -- wish it
were Mr. Maxwell's plan that would die an untimely death. This is,
after all, the first time a liberal-arts institution has done away
with all classroom instruction in foreign languages in favor of study
abroad, an unnerving precedent for language professors. "I have a
fundamental problem with the idea that you can improve language
instruction by eliminating the faculty," says Virginia L. Lewis, a
tenured professor of German at Drake who will be out of a job come
2002. "That notion goes beyond the radical. It's insane."

However radical Mr. Maxwell's decision may seem, in one sense it is
completely rational: If you want to avoid running afoul of the
American Association of University Professors' guidelines, one of the
only ways you can fire a tenured professor who hasn't, say, violated
the law is by cutting an entire program. That means pink-slipping
everyone who worked in it. And Mr. Maxwell hasn't hesitated to do it,
although it may seem out of character for a man who earned a Ph.D. in
Russian; taught it at the college level for 20 years at Tufts
University and Whitman College; and spent the six years before he came
to Drake directing the National Foreign Language Center, a research
institute whose goal is to improve Americans' ability to speak
something besides English.

But Mr. Maxwell is the first to admit that, as a professor of Russian,
he was little more than "a pretty good example of a fairly ineffective
model." His approach to language instruction: "Pound out two years of
grammar, composition, and great works, and then go to Leningrad to
learn to speak like me."
Leningrad might have changed its name, but little else is different
since Mr. Maxwell stood before the blackboard, he says. Students still
can't speak a language they've spent two years, even four years,
studying. They can translate Baudelaire and have a handle on the
Bundestag, but they can't shoot the breeze with a bank teller
overseas. Only immersion in a country can achieve that, Mr. Maxwell

Foreign-language professors focus on great works and grammar, he says,
because that's what they did as graduate students. The catch, Mr.
Maxwell adds, is that most students aren't interested in pursuing
graduate studies in another language. They want to work for a French
drug company or help Russia rebuild its economy. They're looking for
basic communicative competence, and reading Pushkin in the original
won't supply it.

Today, few students are enrolling in language courses to begin with.
Between 1995 and 1998, the most recent data available from the Modern
Language Association, enrollments slid south in French, German,
Russian, and Japanese. And although there were some gains in Spanish,
Italian, Chinese, and Arabic, over all, in 1998, foreign languages
made up just 7.9 percent of college enrollments. In 1960, the figure
was at 16 percent.

The picture looks even bleaker at Drake, where only French, German,
and Spanish are still taught. Take German, for example. This semester,
there are five students in Ms. Lewis's introductory-German class, 10
in her intermediate course, and only seven in her advanced session.
All told, out of nearly 5,000 undergraduates, the department mustered
up two majors last year and only about a dozen minors.

As for French, last year there were some 10 majors. Spanish had 19.
("A school of our size should have three times as many," especially in
light of Des Moines's burgeoning Spanish-speaking population, says Ron
Troyer, Drake's provost.) In 1997, Drake dropped Russian altogether.
The numbers don't lie, Mr. Maxwell maintains. "There is a crisis in
foreign-language instruction in the United States." Mr. Maxwell hopes
that the solution to this domestic crisis lies overseas. The details
have yet to be hammered out, but the overall sketch is in place. At
its center is study abroad. Drake students who want to learn a foreign
language will be sent "in country" to do it, where they will be
enrolled -- at Drake prices -- in programs at foreign institutions
that are specially tailored for non-native speakers. Mr. Maxwell is
busily trying to set up academic partnerships, concentrating first on
German, French, and Spanish programs. (Arrangements are already well
under way with Eberhard-Karls-University Tubingen, in Germany.) But
the president hopes to expand the partnerships even farther afield to
include any number of languages Drake hasn't had the resources to

Ideally, students will arrive at Drake with a couple of years of a
language already behind them. If they don't, they'll take an
"Introduction to Language Learning" course -- a broad overview of the
different language groups and a primer on the basics of language
acquisition. After spending anywhere from a semester to two years
abroad, living, Mr. Maxwell hopes, with foreign families, the students
will return to Drake and sit down with the university's soon-to-be
hired "second-language-acquisition specialist," who will advise
undergraduates on the best way to build on what they've learned.

A student could, for example, sign up for an internship at a hospital
with a Spanish-speaking population. Or participate in an online
discussion group involving students and professors here and abroad. Or
take an online tutorial on Spanish verbs of motion. Or meet with a
Spanish exchange student to discuss -- in Spanish, of course -- what's
being covered in an English-speaking class on Latin American history.
Or they could do all of the above.

Before graduating, Drake students will take an oral-proficiency exam,
and, if they pass, be handed a tidy certificate of competency to shop
around on the job market. Mr. Maxwell doesn't doubt that they will
pass. This is a language-across-the-curriculum approach to German,
French, and Spanish, he says. It's unabashedly pragmatic. Defiantly

And inherently flawed, critics say.

"There's no question" that there are problems with classroom
instruction in the United States, says Arthur D. Mosher, the
language-department chairman at the University of Dayton and the
president of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. "Is
there conservatism among the professoriate to do what we've always
done? No question. But getting rid of departments of foreign
languages? I think they're being shortsighted."

Mr. Mosher notes that experiments are already addressing the very
problems Mr. Maxwell cites: St. Olaf College's
language-across-the-curriculum program, in which students can earn
additional credit if they read and discuss in, say, French, the texts
for an English-speaking existential-philosophy course; the on-campus
immersion programs at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities or
Middlebury College; Georgetown University's revamped German
curriculum, which includes substantive content in history, politics,
and cultural studies from the first day of German I.

And that's just the half of it. There are courses in Japanese for
business, Spanish for law, French for medicine. The University of
Rhode Island offers a dual degree in German and engineering. As for
Mr. Maxwell's hobbyhorses -- study abroad, online education, bringing
more native speakers to college campuses -- those tools should be
thought of "as a complement, not a substitution, for classroom
instruction," says Lourdes Ortega, an assistant professor of applied
linguistics and English as a second language at Georgia State

Ms. Ortega co-wrote an article last year examining the effectiveness
of classroom language instruction, and she hopes Mr. Maxwell will
check out the results. She analyzed nearly 50 language programs and
found that students who receive formal classroom training learn
significantly more than those who don't. "There's no doubt that
foreign-language instruction is effective." Especially, she adds, when
there's no indication that language instruction abroad is more
advanced than what's offered here, and in some parts of the world,
it's decidedly worse.

What's more, novice language learners need a "greenhouse or incubator"
-- a.k.a. an American classroom -- before plunging overseas, says Dan
E. Davidson, a professor of Russian and second-language acquisition at
Bryn Mawr College. "What little data we have suggest that the success
rate at the elementary level" for students sent abroad "is no higher
than one in three or four." Most students need a basic grasp of
grammar and vocabulary before heading overseas to edge those numbers

Besides, the critics maintain, even if students learn how to do
business in Stuttgart or navigate their way around Tokyo by train,
there's more to language competence than basic skills alone. Cultural
competence -- the kind that comes from studying the history,
literature, and customs of a country -- is critical, too. And not
every exchange student or study-abroad program can provide that.

"I'm always dissatisfied with methods that reduce language instruction
to ordering cups of coffee in a foreign restaurant," says Claire
Kramsch, a professor of foreign-language acquisition and German at the
University of California at Berkeley. Having foreign-language Ph.D.'s
on campus "allows you to have a higher view of things, to see how
language study versus language instruction can deepen the relationship
between yourself, your culture, and other cultures."

Michael Holquist, the chairman of the comparative-literature
department at Yale University, puts it even more baldly. "This could
be the suicide of the profession," he notes. "We have a definite gift
to give, and we must find a way to be effective in providing it.
That's the answer, not getting rid of it."
What's really being gotten rid of, critics worry, is the liberal-arts
mission. President Maxwell's plan "attacks the whole concept of the
liberal arts, where learning is supposed to be oriented toward an
understanding of the material itself," says Arthur J. Hughes, an
assistant professor of Spanish at Drake. "This is a vocational
attitude." It's "superficial Berlitz," adds Ms. Lewis, the Drake
German professor.

Not everyone at Drake thinks so. The Faculty Senate overwhelmingly
voted to abolish the language program. Allen Scult's was one of the
few voices raised in dissent. "It's difficult to imagine a university
without language instruction in the classroom and foreign-language
majors," the philosophy professor says. "Languages have always been a
very important part of a liberal-arts education. It will be the loss
of a presence on campus." Heidi Byrnes, a German professor at
Georgetown, couldn't agree more. Study abroad, online education,
internships: They're just "outsourcing," she says; they're cheap
solutions to a complicated problem. "Drake, for all its seeming
radicalness, is taking the easy way out instead of investing in
faculty development. That's very problematic both for the faculty
members and the profession."

Ms. Lewis concurs. It is well known that Drake wants to cut costs by
about $4-million so it can limit how much it dips into its endowment,
and what better way to do that, she muses, than by cutting some
programs. Fifteen got axed in the last review, the language program
among them. (Division I sports teams, however, managed to eke out a
stay of execution.)  "This is a move of desperation," Ms. Lewis says.
"There's a lot of whitewashing going on."

That's nonsense, parries Mr. Troyer, the university's provost. He
spent six years as the dean of arts and sciences trying to reform the
language program. "We just could not make progress." As for cost
considerations, "what we spend on international travel can quickly eat
up the equivalent of eight tenure-track salaries. If this program is
as successful as we think it will be, it will probably cost more."

Mr. Maxwell is unfazed by the criticism. Sure, it would be nice to
send students abroad who have prior experience with a language, he
says, and to retain some foreign-language professors while making the
transition to a different language curriculum. But, given the
A.A.U.P.'s policy on dismissing tenured professors, Drake doesn't have
that luxury. And Mr. Maxwell doesn't have any regrets. "I admit that
our whole approach is very pragmatic. Will students have the same
nuanced understanding of German culture as they would if they'd had
three years of reading Goethe, Rilke, and Mann in the original? Of
course not. But I'll also say -- only somewhat facetiously -- that
they will be able to speak German."

He should know, he adds. After four years of college Russian, one year
of graduate school, and War and Peace in the original under his belt,
he arrived in Leningrad ready for action. As he struggled up the
dormitory steps, two big suitcases in hand, a man shouted in Russian
after him. What? Mr. Maxwell asked. The man repeated himself -- once,
twice. Finally, Mr. Maxwell made out what he was saying: "Do you need
help?" The sentence was only two words in Russian. It might as well
have been two paragraphs. "I couldn't hear the word boundaries," Mr.
Maxwell says. After a summer in Leningrad and a year in Moscow, he
could. Mr. Hughes, the Drake Spanish professor, remains unmoved by the
president's tale. "It's a stock anecdote," he says.


http://chronicle.com Section: The Faculty Page: A14

[This article originally appeared in the  CHE in 2001 (hs)]


 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 gmail.com

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