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EAST-WEST-RESEARCH  January 2010

EAST-WEST-RESEARCH January 2010

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Subject:

How to Thrive (or Survive): foreign languages departments in difficult times

From:

"Serguei A. Oushakine" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Serguei A. Oushakine

Date:

Sat, 2 Jan 2010 14:10:48 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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...in a move that was in large part about marketing, Iowa State's
foreign languages and literatures department changed its name to "world
languages and cultures." Armed with the new name, the department started
to make the case to engineering and business faculty members that their
students needed more foreign language and cultural training.

One result was a new major -- "languages and cultures for the
professions" -- that can be only a second major. Engineering and
business students can take the second major, which requires advanced
language courses, specific language courses based on relevant business
needs, and foreign study and/or internships. For students in these
second majors -- and students who aren't -- Iowa State has revised study
abroad programs.

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/29/languages

How to Thrive (or Survive)
December 29, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Sessions at the Modern Language Association's annual
meeting are planned so far in advance that some word choices may seem
out of date by the time the meeting takes place. That was the case here
Monday for a gathering of foreign language chairs and professors to
consider "how departments can thrive in difficult times."

Dawn Bratsch-Prince, an associate dean at Iowa State University who
formerly led the foreign languages department there, started off her
talk by acknowledging that the title might be "overly optimistic,"
saying that "we may be talking about how departments can survive." This
is of course the year that the job market in foreign languages and
English collapsed, and a number of language departments have seen
programs eliminated.

But in an odd way, this may have been one of the more optimistic
sessions at this year's meeting -- at least among panels devoted to the
economic crisis facing higher education. At many sessions here (and in
hallway conversations), the gloom of the recession is all-encompassing,
with people talking about canceled job searches, adjuncts unsure how
they will pay their bills next semester, the university press editor who
couldn't afford to come visit with authors, and so forth.

But the foreign language session was focused on success stories, with
speakers arguing that language departments, even at institutions that
aren't best known for the humanities, can protect themselves.

Bratsch-Prince discussed a series of changes in the foreign languages
program at Iowa State that have increased enrollments and stature, and
even started to result in gifts. The key to the success, she said, is
something that not all professors are good at recognizing: their
individual priorities may not match those of their institution. That's a
danger sign, she said, and one that can make a program vulnerable.

Iowa State is a perfect example, she said, in that the university's
official name is Iowa State University of Science and Technology. As
such, she said, the institution is best known for programs in
engineering, agriculture, business and so forth -- not foreign languages
or humanities. And the first thing she said language departments need to
do is determine a university's overall priorities, with a focus on the
"destination majors" -- those that draw students to an institution.

The next question is whether language departments have ties to those
students, who may not be enrolled in language courses at all or who may
just be taking minimal requirements. For many language professors,
Bratsch-Prince said, this is a serious adjustment to make, as it means a
focus on students who aren't majors or even necessarily interested. "We
need to serve the student audience we have at a university, not the one
we imagined or would have preferred," she said.

So how does a language department do this at a university where the most
popular majors are in the sciences and business? Bratsch-Prince said
that the import of foreign language departments to such majors is in
promoting global competence, a set of skills and knowledge that just
about every business and education organization says is crucial for
college graduates.

But foreign languages can be held back, she said, by a sense that they
are just "service departments offering Spanish 101 or the French novel."
To the extent that foreign language programs are very much about
economics and culture and society -- as recommended by an MLA report in
2007 -- Bratsch-Prince said they need to consider whether their image
reflects their breadth.

So in a move that was in large part about marketing, Iowa State's
foreign languages and literatures department changed its name to "world
languages and cultures." Armed with the new name, the department started
to make the case to engineering and business faculty members that their
students needed more foreign language and cultural training.

One result was a new major -- "languages and cultures for the
professions" -- that can be only a second major. Engineering and
business students can take the second major, which requires advanced
language courses, specific language courses based on relevant business
needs, and foreign study and/or internships. For students in these
second majors -- and students who aren't -- Iowa State has revised study
abroad programs.

Some proficiency in foreign languages used to be required before study
abroad. This isn't realistic if you want to get science and business
students, Bratsch-Prince said. So Iowa State will now let these students
study abroad, taking some courses in English and some in the relevant
foreign language -- even if they haven't studied the language before.
Further, more short-term options have been created.

Not only are enrollments up in language courses at Iowa State -- from
beginning to advanced -- but there have been other signs of success,
Bratsch-Prince said. An engineering alumnus was so impressed with the
program that he gave money to support hiring a new staff member to help
build up study abroad programs. And the agriculture college has now
asked the world languages and cultures department to collaborate on a
"global resource system" program for which two full years of foreign
language study will be required. That's another "destination major" at
Iowa State.

Concluding, Bratsch-Prince said that "we must situate ourselves
strategically" and do so at "the center" of institutions, not at the
periphery.

Overcoming Invisibility

Jane Hacking, associate professor of Russian and chair of languages and
linguistics at the University of Utah, focused her talk on getting more
visibility for foreign language scholars. She talked about a range of
seemingly small issues that add up to many language professors being
invisible in their institutions or communities -- which can in turn make
programs vulnerable.

Among her suggestions: Chairs must be sure that central university news
offices, if they publicize faculty accomplishments, are including the
language departments. Chairs should invite prospective students to
navigate the department's Web site and identify what doesn't work. Those
within a department, Hacking said, "are so used to the dysfunctionality
that you don't realize what's wrong." Department newsletters need to
keep both students and alumni informed about programs and
accomplishments.

None of these activities are likely to appeal to a scholar's research or
teaching agenda, Hacking said. But chairs need to make them a priority.
Further, she said that language departments need to look for broader
outreach activities in the humanities to get more support from the
public. At Utah, there is a Humanities Happy Hour in which members of
the public pay to join the club, for which every third week they meet in
a bar for a 10-minute talk by a humanities professor on some provocative
topic (yes -- only 10 minutes -- it's called an "intellectual hors
d'oeuvre") and then enjoy (non-intellectual) hors d'oeuvres and drinks.
These talks are regularly heard by 100-plus people who get to know more
about the humanities, Hacking said.

Mary Wildner-Bassett, a German studies scholar who is dean of humanities
at the University of Arizona, called on her fellow humanities professors
both to change their own behavior in some regards and to assert their
right to a fair share of university resources. Citing numerous studies,
she said that there is no doubt that humanities programs are in fact
subsidizing other parts of higher education (by providing general
education courses) and yet are losing tenure-track slots to areas of
study seen as more lucrative.

Part of the solution to this problem, Wildner-Bassett said, is to
conduct more rigorous analysis of university budgets, tracking where
tuition dollars arrive and how they are spent relative to the
departments providing the most instruction. At Arizona, she said, such
analysis has surprised some of her colleagues in other parts of the
university, who assumed they were subsidizing the humanities.

But there are prerequisites to joining the conversation, Wildner-Bassett
said. She called on all humanities faculty members to "learn about the
university budget, to learn to speak that language. It takes time and
focus and is a new language for many of us, but we need to speak it."
Further, she said that speaking the language requires a firm grasp of
the numbers and statistics.

"I have many dear colleagues who say to me, 'I don't do numbers'" and
who as a result will never serve on university budget committees or have
influence on them, she said. "Do numbers," she implored her colleagues.
And then demand seats on the relevant committees that give out money or
-- in bad times -- allocate cuts. "If we don't have a voice in that
world, we will remain less privileged," she said.

Knowledge of university finances won't make things in any sense easy,
she said, but can change the dynamic. "We can walk through the campus,
with our heads high, and argue about our legitimate claim to a larger
share of the university's resources," she said.

The audience was generally receptive and there was a lot of detailed
note-taking going on, with attendees citing ideas they wanted to adapt.
The one criticism of the approach that came up several times in the
question period was whether some language programs have already lost the
critical mass needed to carry out these ideas.

One audience member said that these ideas assume a close connection
between the faculty and the curriculum. He said that the loss of
tenure-track positions in his department has meant that most of the
instruction is done by adjuncts so that the full-time faculty members,
many of them approaching retirement, aren't connected enough to what
students want.

Another audience member said that the ideas presented would work well at
large universities like those where the speakers work. But he said that
there aren't as many options for small programs. "I'm chair of English
and modern languages, and modern languages is two faculty and one is
retiring in May," he said. "We have nine Spanish majors and now the
discussion is: Do we keep the major? Do we dump the major?" With only
two faculty members, and one about to leave, he said, it was hard to
imagine carrying out the ambitious ideas discussed.

"I have nothing. Literally," he said.
- Scott Jaschik 

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