Saturday, May 26, 2007

The MLA report

As noted a couple days back, the Modern Language Association has released its eagerly awaited (or, for some, deeply dreaded) report on foreign language departments (here). I've seen very little reaction so far — Inside Higher Ed has something here, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, too, but it's behind a pay wall. This topic has been a theme here for a while (a search this blog for 'language department' will get you the key posts).

The MLA's report gets a lot of important things right. They sketch a "two-tiered system", dominated by literature faculty:
It would be difficult to exaggerate the frustration this rigid and hierarchical model evokes among language specialists who work under its conditions. Their antagonism is not toward the study of literature--far from it--but toward the organization of literary study in a way that monopolizes the upper-division curriculum, devalues the early years of language learning, and impedes the development of a unified language-and-content curriculum across the four-year college or university sequence. This two-track model endows one set of language professionals not only with autonomy in designing their curricula but also with the power to set the goals that the other set of professionals must pursue. In this model, humanists do research while language specialists provide technical support and basic training. The more autonomous group--the literature faculty--may find it difficult to see the advantages of sharing some of its decision-making power over the curriculum as a whole. We hope to convince this group that it is in our common interest to devise new models.
The authors conclude, "The two-tiered configuration has outlived its usefulness and needs to evolve." Very true assessment and I hope they succeed.

MLA’s executive director "stressed that the report was not 'against literature' but arguing for a 'multiplicity of approaches' of which literary study is one part" (Inside Higher Ed). The idea that the place of literary study is not privileged above all else seems simple, but those in power don't give up without a struggle, even when the ship is sinking fast. Every language department I know well has been damaged by this literary hegemony, and non-lit people may have to pry power from the cold, dead hands of those who've been in charge. But the transition needs to happen, fast.

But why dwell on drowned rats, let's turn to solutions: The goal the report sets for language programs is to train students with "deep translingual and transcultural competence"(too jargony, guys, ease up) and getting there means having "multiple paths to the major", and a dramatically broader curriculum.

I argued earlier that the University of Wisconsin's Department of German has turned this corner. The lit program is basically dead at the grad level: they have some talented students, I gather, but too few to teach many courses, despite the fact that they have about 10 faculty in German lit. But a smaller group of faculty is thriving and drawing students interested in second language acquisition, Dutch, linguistics, immigration, German-American Studies. A grad student from that department even wrote in to agree with my impressions, and further conversations with folks there support them as well. Indeed, the report notes the same sentiment expressed on this blog back then:
Many colleges and universities have made a successful transition toward this broad understanding of language study, and we urge others to follow.
When the deans and central administration at Wisconsin demand that our language departments heed this MLA report, German should argue vigorously that they have in fact been leading the way, for 15 years or so. And they should insist that the University needs to step up and support the grossly understaffed (= non-lit) parts of the program.

Specifically in the realm of linguistics, our usual focus here, the authors argue:
The presence of linguists and second language acquisition specialists on language department faculties is also an essential part of this vision. Linguists enrich the foreign language major through their ability to offer courses in second language acquisition, applied linguistics, dialectology, sociolinguistics, history of the language, and discourse analysis. In addition to learning the history and underlying structure of a particular language, students should be offered the opportunity to take general courses in such areas as language and cognition, language and power, bilingualism, language and identity, language and gender, language and myth, language and artificial intelligence, and language and the imagination. These courses appeal broadly to students who major in languages as well as to those who do not.
From the whole report, some won't be entirely sure that they're endorsing linguistics as a full and equal partner in this (rather than pushing 'cultural' stuff that is very close to literary study, like film and art history), but Wisconsin's linguists in German cover about all of that territory in a serious way.

Let's build a pluralistic approach to language departments and get this ship righted.


Anonymous said...

We must critically consider how these departments are (still) organized in a time where enrollments are going down and there's this automatic assumption that students who take foreign language, want to study literature; that's not always true. There are many people out there who enjoy(ed) their language classes until they got into literary theory and just were turned off by the imposition of the language's literary canon and the whole body of criticism that accompanies it. Departments should have an integrative multidisciplinary approach if they want students to take classes and so that in the end, there will be jobs for people out there. Lit people balk at teaching intro language, but who is going to take their lit classes then in the future? I think enrollments are very telling.

Mr. Verb said...

Exactly right, Anonymous. The MLA is responding to funding and enrollment pressures, surely. I see plenty of value in literature, but it should never have become the center of language study.

I've often heard of departments advertising for someone to coordinate their TAs and run their basic language program. When it comes time to hire, they don't go for a Second Language Acquisition specialist, but rather a lit person, since "anybody can do this stuff." That's stunningly wrong.