[lg policy] Foreign-Language Programs, Facing Cuts, Find a Champion in 'Tennessee Bob'
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 24 13:43:55 UTC 2010
Foreign-Language Programs, Facing Cuts, Find a Champion in 'Tennessee Bob'
Trey Clark for the Chronicle
Robert D. Peckham is "Tennessee Bob," a professor of French at the U.
of Tennessee at Martin, who puts his heart into fights anywhere in the
country that foreign-language instruction is threatened with cutbacks.
By Mary Helen Miller
Robert D. Peckham, a professor of French, had more to deal with this
spring than his usual end-of-semester duties. The countryside in
western Tennessee was bright green and dotted with the yellow of wild
mustard blooms, but Mr. Peckham was less than cheerful. His department
at the University of Tennessee at Martin was restructuring. The oldest
of his four kids had just moved back home, so the family was
adjusting. Most of all, Mr. Peckham was anxious that a university more
than 400 miles away was thinking about cutting its programs in Spanish
Albany State University, in Georgia, included the elimination of the
two languages in a proposal to save $3.6-million that it submitted to
the Board of Regents in February. Mr. Peckham, a national advocate for
foreign-language programs known among his colleagues as "Tennessee
Bob," felt he had to act. Albany State's dean of arts and humanities,
Leroy E. Bynum Jr., says that the programs were included on the list
because they are "vulnerable," but that the university has no plans to
actually discontinue them.
Still, Mr. Peckham says, program eliminations always start as
"worst-case scenarios." So he is crafting arguments showing how
language skills are a key to students' success—arguments that faculty
members at Albany State can use.
"Administrations see getting rid of a foreign-language program as a
politically low-cost thing to do," he says. "What we're trying to do
is say, You can't get away with that."
This is not an easy time for foreign-language departments. Programs at
California State University at Fullerton and the University of Maine
at Orono, to name two, were recently shrunk, and decisions about the
fate of some language programs at the University of Nevada at Reno and
University of Tennessee at Knoxville are pending.
Mr. Peckham is chair of the Commission on Advocacy of the American
Association of Teachers of French, but he sees all languages as his to
defend. Every week he spends roughly 20 hours scouring the Web for
reports of threatened language programs and giving advice to those
that ask for it. He does research on institutions and their
surrounding areas, and passes along material for faculty members to
use to defend their programs.
His work has been "very helpful," says Raymond J. Pelletier, chair of
the department of modern languages and classics at Orono. Mr. Peckham
pointed out to Mr. Pelletier that nearly half of Maine's export
revenue comes from countries whose languages are taught at the
university, a fact that informed the Orono faculty's campaign to save
French and Spanish.
Languages for Leaders
When he was a student, Tennessee Bob recalls, a person had to know a
foreign language to be considered well educated. The same should be
true today, he believes. Learning a foreign language is crucial to
becoming a strong leader, he says. Most of the schools and colleges he
helps are public, and he would especially like to see good leaders
come from those institutions. That desire drove him to become vice
president of the French teachers' association, in 2003. He was "never
one of those people who was gung-ho to be part of an organization," he
says, but the group seemed to be a good vehicle for advocacy work.
"I want to see people given the chance," Mr. Peckham says. "If all
we're going to do is take folks from Harvard and Yale and put them in
the best jobs, eventually we're going to have the same problem that
you have with an ecosystem that's not varied. You're going to lack
certain types of thought." To faculty members at Orono, he wrote a
letter suggesting that they point out that while well-to-do private
colleges in Maine offer foreign-language majors, only 10 to 12 percent
of their students are Mainers, "and so, while the sons and daughters
of the wealthy summer residents you might see at a posh Bar Harbor
cocktail party will have the advantage of an informed international
point of view, those of the hard-working Maine taxpayers will have to
satisfy themselves with something less." He added some political
advice to be used in discussions with the administration: "Twist this
to be just a little bit embarrassing."
Now, as the head of advocacy for his association, he maintains a
section of its Web site with data on foreign direct investments in the
United States, statistics on imports and exports, and other material
that faculty members can use to argue for the relevance of
foreign-language instruction. He leads workshops at conferences where
he teaches people how to make alliances with local politicians and the
most effective ways to contact alumni. (He also advocates against
language cuts at K-12 schools, advising teachers on how to present
solid arguments to parent-teacher associations.)
Working as a behind-the-scenes strategist, he has been joined recently
by another foreign-language scholar who tries to rally the masses
directly. Glenn S. Levine, an associate professor of German at the
University of California at Irvine, is president of the American
Association of University Supervisors and Coordinators, which promotes
foreign-language instruction. When he hears of a threatened program,
he'll post a call to arms on his organization's e-mail list, which he
estimates has a few hundred members. "I actually completely sympathize
with the plight of the university," Mr. Levine says. "We're saying
that simply cutting language departments with the assumption that it
will lead to savings ... is shortsighted." Language programs generate
money through tuition, he says, and if an institution decides later
that it wants the program back, it would be very expensive to start
Mr. Levine and Mr. Peckham became aware of each other's work through
their attempts this spring to save languages at Fullerton. Mr. Levine
received a message from Tennessee Bob in response to one of his e-mail
posts. Mr. Peckham provided Mr. Levine with some statistics, which he
forwarded to colleagues at Fullerton. Mr. Levine also persuaded dozens
of people to write letters to Fullerton's president.Their effort was
only partly successful. A major and two master's programs were cut,
although the university agreed to continue them as minors.
Losses and Victories
Inevitably, some fights are simply lost. Despite Mr. Peckham's efforts
to help Meredith College, a women's college in North Carolina, the
guillotine fell on its French program last October. He exchanged
e-mails with faculty members there, asking for details of their
situation and providing them with material, such as statistics about
North Carolina's exports to Francophone countries.
But because he became ill for a time last fall, he couldn't do as much
as he had hoped. "I felt very, very sad," he says, his voice dropping.
He also recently failed to save the Latin program at Centenary College
of Louisiana and the French program at Winona State University, in
Minnesota. No date has been set for a decision at Albany State.
Last spring Mr. Peckham found himself fighting on the home front. The
French and Spanish programs on his own campus, at Martin, were put on
notice by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission because they
didn't have the minimum number of 10 majors that the state thought
every program should produce each year. In testimony before a
commission panel, Mr. Peckham suggested that the university would risk
its top-tier ranking by U.S. News & World Report if it cut French and
Spanish. He also argued that, in terms of the university's educational
goals, it would be hypocritical to eliminate those programs.
And he had backup: more than a dozen supportive letters from
schoolteachers and academics around the country. "I've done things for
people, and they returned the favor," he says.
The commission decided to keep the programs, and the experience
reaffirmed Tennessee Bob's commitment to helping others win their
fights. "It really pushed me to want to be in the action," he says. "I
could taste part of the anguish that people were having."
But tempering the anguish is the pleasure of familiarity with another
tongue and another culture. Mr. Peckham sings in a trio, Au Coeur du
Vent, at French-immersion weekends at state parks and at
foreign-language conferences in Tennessee. And each spring, at
Martin's humanities-and-fine-arts barbecue, in the basketball stadium,
he takes the stage with his autoharp. This year one of his three
daughters, who is a junior minoring in French at Martin, accompanied
him on vocals.
"Marjolaine, j'ai ta vie dans la mienne," they sang, he with his eyes
closed, shaking his head slowly. "Marjolaine, I have your life in
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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