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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Real Reasons to Support Language Study

This piece, published July 27, 2009, in Chronicle, is particularly relevant given the recent announcement by UCLA to issue lay-off letters to its state-funded, post-six lecturers (lecturers who have taught for more than six years and thus require one year's notice for termination). Most of the affected lecturers are, not surprisingly, in the humanities and social sciences.

In language departments, such as the one that houses me, languages are predominantly taught by lecturers. Language department ladder-faculty are not usually trained in language pedagogy, but rather in literary, historical, and cultural analysis. If the order to lay off lecturers stands, then we will be looking at language classes staffed mainly by less experienced lecturers (who would be cheaper for the university) and by graduate students (probably native speakers from outside of the department). This could well entail a lowering of quality for the undergraduates who would be paying higher tuitions -- and getting less in return.

Language study is important not only because it gives American students access to foreign cultures, in the actual languages of the foreign culture, but also because it provides students with an expansive perspective on their local American identity. Most academics would reject the parochial view that knowing English is sufficient in this emerging global culture and economy, yet what UCLA is threatening to do is to gut the best means by which students can attain both an understanding of the international community and an international understanding of American culture.


Gerry Barnett said...

These are really important observations. Where does one take it? Undergraduate education appears to be the most vulnerable in this mess. The undergraduates will be carrying the load on higher tuition. The undergraduates will have the hardest time arguing for quality or even recognizing where the corners are cut. If various distribution requirements are also suspended, where does this put accreditation? Is that mechanism up to challenging these impact of these moves?

Jack Chen said...

Gerry, thanks for the comment (and for the thoughtful, lengthy comments on earlier posts -- I've been thinking about what you've noted about the appearances game that the admin might be playing and will try to respond at greater length.) In practical terms, it seems that UCLA is asking language departments to either become more like science departments (whose lecturers are largely funded extramurally) or to cheapen the costs of lecturers. Asian Languages will be exploring the possibility of increased summer teaching, so that a portion of those monies comes back to the department to protect both lecturers and graduate students. It's not a long-term strategy, though, since it accepts the new funding situation and the shift towards the privatization of language departments.

The question you raise concerning accreditation is an intriguing one. There has been various noises about the possibility of fewer undergrad requirements, including lowering the language requirements. Since that's our bread & butter, this would be disastrous for language departments. Are you suggesting that we should hit back on this point?

Daniel Ozer said...

Is it not just a little problematic that the majority of ladder-faculty are unprepared to teach courses that enroll the largest numbers of students? I realize this is typically the case in both language and composition instruction, but doesn't that mean the problems are discipline-wide?

Jack Chen said...

No, this is the function of disciplinary specialization. Language pedagogy is different from literary and cultural analysis. Moreover, Asian Languages at UCLA is actually "Asian Languages & Cultures," which includes a good number of historians and political scientists. There are a handful of linguists, who teach regularly in the languages or provide oversight of the language programs, but again, linguistics is not the same as language pedagogy. I do teach two quarters of classical Chinese, which is my own specialty, as do other members on the China side. Also, a couple of modern Chinese literature / cinema ladder-faculty offer instruction in advanced modern Chinese. But the short answer is: the training for language teaching is completely different than the training for literary, etc., studies. It's to the undergraduates' benefit to have the best-trained people teach in both of these areas.

Jack Chen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerry Barnett said...

I think one ends up with accreditation as the place where one makes the case for educational quality in a serious way and it counts for something if you are caught lying about it or demonstrating ignorance about it.

Would appear there's an opportunity in the process:


If radical changes are taking place that affect large portions of the undergraduate curriculum, requirements, and learning conditions, then the proposals made in 2006 and under review now should be revisited, otherwise WASC is pretending to review conditions that no longer exist.

Accreditation is where expert performers review the claims and practices of performers. The claim is that the review is not merely for public show or rankings. The expectation might be, this is the kind of rating agency or "educational SEC" review of practice that stands as protection of students' interests and the government that still subsidizes them.

1) does WASC take its role seriously enough as a regulator to call out changed conditions as a matter of action?

2) will anyone challenge WASC to defend the undergraduate experience in the face of UC approach to budget?

Gerry Barnett said...

In my experience, lecturers in language programs play a hugely important role. Providing access to native speakers who know how to teach is critical, regardless of whether a bunch of courses are taught by ladder faculty. It's like having local entrepreneurs teach courses in the b-school. They know the street, they know practice and idiom. It's not a matter of *teaching the course* (an administrative issue, selecting and paying instructors to staff a scheduled course), but a matter of *participating in the learning environment, including teaching in the course setting*. You can have all the ladder faculty you want swarming around. They *know* the training is better with the lecturers contributing to the learning experience.

If "teaching" comes to mean slopping pre-formed, pre-approved "content" to "registered students"--that is, being the host of a video and no more, then yeah, who cares?--get cheaper help, or better, find prettier help, film it, and play it on youTube or iTunesU as a digital campus, so that UC can finally "go to 11".

Perhaps in this way folks in admin really do think that languages, say, or humanities in general, should be taught like the undergraduate sciences, which *are* largely pre-formed curricula, and perhaps *that's* why it is so hard to get talented creative people into STEM, and ironically why it is so *horrible* that so much money is being put by NSF into recruiting more talented, creative students ("non-traditional learners") into STEM, when the change that ought to be funded is to rebuild science curriculum so that it is *exciting and relevant* again.... more like the humanities curriculum....

There is a point at which "organization" becomes "tidiness for appearances" and "coordinated purpose" becomes "go through the motions with least effort". Perhaps it's something more like this that is happening. People committed to quality sense the slip from governance to management. And from management to metrics, and metrics to whatever looks good to management. And there begins the bozonet.


Toby said...
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