Should we recast the language requirement?

About this: should we rethink the language requirement? Here is why I ask: the options, for action on the “adjunct crisis,” appear to be cutting the number of students allowed to finish graduate programs, so as to reduce the alleged overproduction of Ph.D.s, or making sure people who do the Ph.D. are also trained for nonacademic jobs (that still use the Ph.D.-based knowledge and skills). What about insisting that all jobs be tenure track, rather than continue to hire so many contingent people?

In my program we do not have adjuncts or T.A.s, so we are not as exploitative as some, but instructors with M.A.s outnumber research faculty with Ph.D.s two to one. Now we are asked to hire yet another of these instructors; I want an assistant professor, but it is said that our greatest need lies in service to the language requirement. What is right and wrong with this picture?

The student credit hours the language requirement produces for our department does fund the graduate program and apparently some other things, so we have an economic incentive to maintain it; it is also a state requirement for a liberal arts degree. But most students who fulfill this requirement do it with great resentment, and it is nearly impossible to get them to learn anything, and there are other problems with the language courses. One of the best ways to improve the quality of these courses would be to release from them those students who are simply sitting through them, finding ways to pass with a D.

If we redefined the requirement, such that students would still take it in our department but could fulfill it with some language courses but also culture and literature and even linguistics courses given largely in English, so long as they were all centered on the same language, we might be able to justify hiring more Ph.D.s and fewer M.A.s. Quality could rise, people might suffer less, and more Ph.D.s would get jobs.

What do you think: Spanish Professor, Pan, Clarissa, Bemsha Swing, others?



27 thoughts on “Should we recast the language requirement?

    1. I would be for that, but it would be impossible practically, since research PhDs are outnumbered 2 to 1 and instructors are teaching a 5 course load. Most of these instructors could teach a good language course if some of the least interested students could be siphoned into courses of greater interest to them, or at least less painful, that I could teach. Part of the problem is that here, language courses are considered the most time consuming of all — something I don’t relate to because they are less time consuming for me, as a student, than other courses — but it remains true that this is how people perceive them. What I could do in translation would be less onerous for them, and inspire them perhaps, about language courses. So, say, they opt into my culture course in English and then finish the language requirement with 3 rather than 4 courses in the language… ?

  1. We are in the middle of that discussion at my institution. I tend to agree with you, although I have the feeling we get more interested students than you do. But I do feel this the language requirement as it stands is a waste of time. Problem is, we lack a qualified SLA acquisition specialist that could orient us in developing a more attractive and intellectual language sequence. The so-called expert in my department is anything but. If we had somebody who knew about pedagogy, I would feel better about the requirement.

    1. How did you even get them to start this discussion? I would love it if we could even begin it. People take certain things as so set in stone: there must be a traditional language requirement, it must cover hypothetical sentences and make people memorize facts about bullfighting, etc.; also, training people to talk at the level of conversation in cafés is valuable. Seriously, I think the reason the students find it so meaningless is that all that is taught is mechanical grammar and vocabulary for business tourists and cultural clichés; no wonder they find it meaningless.

      1. We have a insanely large core curriculum (66 credit hours). It includes 6 credit hours of a FL requirement. You know where I work, check it out. There have been talks about modifying and shortening it for years, but finally it started happening this year: university- wide Commitee was formed, listening sessions, intense discussions. We’ll see what the end result is.

  2. Aha, I see: a committee on the whole thing. We’ve got state rules for language requirement, but a smart committee from department could get university to accept a revamping of its actual content. I think only I see this solution, in the department; I say these shedding khawatir-like things and people are either scandalized or simply do not understand. 😦 (Beam me up, Scotty…)

  3. The places with no language requirement suffer an even faster erosion of tenure lines and an even greater casualization of teaching faculty. A close friend of mine worked at such a place for 5 years as a Visiting Prof, and the administration’s only excuse to deny the department’s constant requests to offer him TT was that this isn’t justified since there is no language requirement. While he was there, tenure lines in foreign languages were closed down.

    I think you are taking way too seriously the administration’s claims that the destruction of tenure lines and the hiring of adjuncts is somehow related to actual financial and teaching needs. Irrespective of what courses are/aren’t offered/required/planned, administrations will keep trying to close tenure lines.

    1. I am not saying no language requirement, I mean radically recast its content, what we do with it, making it more serious. Have courses people are willing to take, and that are meaningful.

  4. “Or make your language classes require research PhDs, and they will improve in quality”

    – I teach language courses on all levels, and I don’t think they are beneath me. And the quality is, indeed, much higher because I have had very extensive training in pedagogy and teaching methodology. And I have the time and energy to prepare them and teach them well.

      1. Yes, what it takes is a batalla descomunal I have to wage every year against my colleagues who are bent on creating a uniform structure and the same syllabus for all language and even some literature courses.

    1. Yes, this is exactly what I mean. If language classes only require an MA, but “literature” or “culture” classes require a PhD the latter will always be better. Either let the MAs teach lit classes, or require a PhD for language classes. I think that you do need a common syllabus and proficiency-based assessments, but this doesn’t mean each class does the exact same drills every day, which is unfortunately the usual interpretation of this. If you let each section do whatever, and the instructors are not well trained, you have to do a lot of resocializing each semester which is frustrating for everyone and has terrible results.

      1. So, common, proficiency based assessments and a common syllabus, but not lock step on lesson plans.

        What about tests? The new plan calls for old-fashioned chapter tests, which means a lot of testing time, especially with classes meeting only 2 days a week in some cases.

  5. We are not allowed to offer courses in English because every time we suggest that, the English department has a conniption. And whatever the English Department wants, it gets.

    We are also prohibited from teaching anything with the word “culture” in it because then the Anthropology department has a conniption.

    1. Christ. We, on the other hand, have literature in translation, cross listed courses with other departments, and culture upon culture. Everything about my department and its curriculum is good, actually, because there are a lot of courses in the original language as well … except this basic language sequence that goes to the language requirement, it is h.e.l.l., due to years of mismanagement and non-management.

      1. Literature in translation is taught by the English department at my university BY SOMEBODY WHO HAS ZERO EDUCATION RELATED TO THE LITERATURE THEY ARE TEACHING.

        I wanted to teach such a course when I was first hired but I was shushed down aggressively.

      2. They do that here, too, but it doesn’t stop us. What they won’t let me do is teach in the English department, or cross list with them, which I am qualified to do per SACs due to having graduate level training in English, etc.

  6. About that batalla descomunal, above: what do you do about common course goals for the language sequence? What if I want students to be able to talk, but someone else never does audio in Spanish? What if I believe in writing, and others believe in multiple choice? How are the students to navigate among courses, in a multi-term, multi-semester situation with a common textbook, if expectations diverge very greatly?

    1. Common, proficiency-based assessments. Teaching to the test can be terrible if the assessments are bad, and wonderful if they are good. If you can control the assessments, your life might be easier. For example, if there is an oral exam and no multiple choice grammar test, the teaching methods will have to change. Common textbooks do not make common syllabuses or goals.

      1. Agree, although administration apparently wants written and “objective.” And faculty apparently cannot agree on any goals that would actually be meaningful.

        But keep saying these things.

  7. Clarissa’s method:

    “I continue to be curious as to how your dept. agrees on language program policy, goals, etc., enough so that students are not entirely confused about what the program is or might be.”

    – We all use the same textbooks for the same sections. The textbooks come in a sequence, they are all from the same publisher. There is a lab component that is 25% of the final grade in all sections. It’s conducted on the same Quia website for all sections. We all have to cover the same kind of material in terms of grammar and vocabulary every semester. Everybody has the final exam, the oral exam, midterm (although the exercises on them are mostly different.)

    The difference of opinion begins when I say that the above-mentioned is more than enough to create uniformity between sections. Other people, however, insist on the same syllabus and a language supervisor. This is what I oppose.

    I also have to confess that I barely ever use that textbook and that I offer alternatives to Quia for those who hate online exercises.

    1. Hmm… interesting… this is what the instructors here do, each one of them, and it has created enormous chaos. Here, at least, it means superficial similarity but in fact everyone has completely different underlying goals. (NB going rate here for someone hired to complete QUIA is $100/semester. And I note that if you actually read what they write in QUIA, many either are typing in something random or are having someone other than themself do it.)

  8. I do chapter tests and no midterm. Each chapter test is part “traditional” (grammar and vocab) and part proficiency based (focused on reading, listening, speaking, or writing). So traditional test + listening text or oral exam or writing prompt or reading text. I make the traditional part very short so there is time for the rest and can do it in 50 mins. The final exam contains all of these parts, although the oral part is not at the same time. This is not the only way to do it, but if you are required to have certain parts, it might work. To make the oral exam or writing or whatever “objective” I use a rubric, and in the case of the oral exam put recorders with each group that I can listen to later to grade it. Actually one oral exam involved filling out a family tree, so perhaps that is written? 🙂 Importantly, it is impossible to pass the test without doing well on the second section as it is always 50% or more of the grade.

    By common syllabus, I mostly mean common assessments as well (like there is homework, and participation, and the skit, etc. and these are all worth the same amount in each section and the same things). In terms of lesson planning, I think there should be a common language goal across sections for each lesson (like activate the past tense in interpersonal communication, global listening, etc.) but the actual implementation should be up to the teacher based on the context. It should definitely not be something like “cover page 2 in the book” or “do drill 6” because this can lead to varying interpretations. However, if the teacher knows the students are going to be tested on their listening skills, for example, they are more likely to have them do an actual listening activity than, say, dictation.

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