Tag Archives: language

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

No Comeback for the Humanities

Here is a story from the Baton Rouge Advocate that confirms the decline of the humanities in the state system (although cuts struck deep into the sciences and education as well).  Officials reviewed hundreds of programs in state colleges and universities, judging them by, among other things, the number of students they graduated each year.  If, on average, they produced less than eight bachelor’s degrees, they received a “low-completer” designation.  The result is the termination of 111 programs, consolidation of 17 programs, “consolidation & termination” of 171 programs, “conditional” maintenance of 106 programs, and “maintenance” of 51 programs (see the Regents’ report here.

A few specifics:

—–LSU ended its undergraduate major in Latin and in German (saving the university $500,000 per year)

—–Southern University, a historically black college, lost majors in Spanish and in French

—–The “Liberal Arts” major was dropped at three institutions

—–According to the Advocate, “no public historically black college in the state will offer a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language once the programs are phased out”

The move is part of a national trend that has been well-publicized in the last year.  If the terminations at LSU do not receive the same withering criticism that fell on SUNY-Albany when it dropped majors in French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Theater, it means that the humanists have lost the national debate.  Albany took the lead and absorbed the backlash.  Now, foreign language eliminations are an accomplished fact.

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Politics and the Demise of the Humanities

“But when humanism became the servant of the political or university establishment it lost its vitality and, indeed, its credibility…

         Willem Frijhoff discussing 16th century humanism in 
         A History of the University, Vol. II (Cambridge U Press), p. 45


The crisis of the humanities officially arrived on October 1, 2010. At least this is what Stanley Fish claims in the <em>New York Times</em>. The fact that SUNY Albany’s president announced the demise of the university’s French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theatre programs on this date hardly appears to be a significant omen, but Fish believes this event possesses deeper symbolic importance. It represents the empirical reality that numerous scholars have already observed: the humanities are withering away in higher education. 
What will revive them?  As a consistent postmodernist, Fish suggests politics should be the answer, by which he means “the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies—legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others—that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.”  In a follow-up column Fish specifies that this political solution also includes begging the state to provide more money for the humanities. 

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More Defenses of Languages and Literatures

As debates over the fate of French, German, and Italian in higher education unfold, it is easy to feel dismay over the material decline of those languages and the traditions they represent. But there may be a silver lining to the trend. For many years, people in the humanities have considered and reconsidered both the linguistic basic of humanistic study and the centrality of French and German in literary fields. Usually, those discussions proceeded because of ideological and multiculturalist pressures that denounced the demand that students study French and German in order to be conversant with advanced research. Accusations of “Eurocentrism,” which now seem so dated, often decided the matter, as did questions as to whether so many foreign language requirements were necessary for students who wanted to focus on contemporary literature and cultural studies. Participants in those episodes had the luxury of taking sides against foreign languages, particularly French and German, without worrying about any concrete impact their votes would have on department resources.
With cuts at SUNY-Albany and elsewhere, the grounds have shifted. Now, for instance, a change in general education requirements that reduces foreign languages represents a material threat to the departments. In other words, many language professors have discovered that their ideological positions have concrete consequences, distressing ones. This is no longer a matter of principle. It’s about survival.
This wake-up call has, I think, brought a welcome sobriety to curricular understandings in the humanities. One looks back at the anti-traditional and anti-institutional utterances of the 80s and 90s—“Let’s not privilege literature,” “We need to break down disciplinary boundaries,” “We need to get rid of survey courses and philology requirements and historical coverage and do ‘theory'” etc.—and wonders, “What did you think was going to happen? Did you believe that the rest of the campus would respect you if you undermined the integrity of your own field?”

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An Omen for the Humanities Everywhere?

The news circulating among humanities professors across the country is the decision by SUNY-Albany to close programs in Classics, French, Italian, Russian, and Theatre. (Judaic Studies, too, has been virtually eliminated and journalism will be cut in half.) The general dismay is palpable, but faculty members should prepare for more of the same in the coming years. It’s easy to attribute the decision to bean-counting administrators who don’t respect the humanities, but we should keep in mind how much pressure the leadership at SUNY-Albany must have felt in order to take a drastic step that they knew would evoke indignant protest and piles of bad PR.
The email sent out by President George Philip (reproduced here) spells out the financial state of affairs:

This year’s State Budget reduced the level of State assistance to our campus by nearly $12 million. In fact, over the past three years, the campus has cumulatively suffered more than $33.5 million in State tax support reductions – more than a 30% decline. Since 2008, we have addressed these reductions to our revenue base through the elimination of approximately 200 vacant lines resulting from resignations and retirements, a soft-hiring freeze, reductions in non-personal expenditures and temporary service, reductions in graduate student support, a moratorium on non-essential travel, energy savings, operational efficiencies and more.

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The Suicide of English

In The Weekly Standard, James Seaton has a review of the new edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism that illuminates a basic mistake the discipline of literary studies committed many years ago. Here is the second paragraph of Seaton’s review:

Despite its length, the new NATC is most revealing in its omissions, the most significant of which occurs in the title. The NATC claims to deal with ‘theory,’ not with ‘literary theory’ and with ‘criticism,’ not ‘literary criticism.’ One cannot help but be impressed by the effrontery expressed by the deletion of the qualifying adjective. The strategic omission of ‘literary’ intimates (without explicitly declaring) that English professors who use the NATC are equipped to provide guidance to all those who employ any sort of theory, presumably including their colleagues in the social sciences, and even in physics and chemistry. Such pretension has not been seen since the heyday of the Hegelian system, which claimed the intellectual authority to give the law to every particular science and discipline, from physics to history and everything in between. ‘Theory’ with a capital ‘T’ deserted philosophy with the demise of Hegelian idealism early in the 20th century, but it seems to have reappeared in the unlikely precincts of the English department.’

The point gets to the heart of how literary studies changed over the course of the 1980s and 90s. In a word, much of the field stopped being “literary”—or at least it claimed such. English professors branched out into media, cultural studies, popular and mass culture domains, and several other non-literary fields, and they pursued non-literary themes of race, sexuality, imperialism, the environment, etc.

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How Corrupted Language Moved from Campus to the Real World


In some quarters I’m viewed as a lawyer with a professional identity problem: I’ve spent half of my time representing students and professors struggling with administrators over issues like free speech, academic freedom, due process and fair disciplinary procedures. The other half I’ve spent representing individuals (and on occasion organizations and companies) in the criminal justice system.

These two seemingly disparate halves of my professional life are, in fact, quite closely related: The respective cultures of the college campus and of the federal government have each thrived on the notion that language is meant not to express one’s true thoughts, intentions and expectations, but, instead, to cover them up. As a result, the tyrannies that I began to encounter in the mid-1980s in both academia and the federal criminal courts shared this major characteristic: It was impossible to know when one was transgressing the rules, because the rules were suddenly being expressed in language that no one could understand.

In his 1946 linguistic critique, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that one must “let meaning choose the word, not the other way around.” By largely ignoring this truism, administrators and legislators who craft imprecise regulations have given their particular enforcement arms—campus disciplinary staff and federal government prosecutors—enormous and grotesquely unfair power.

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How Is Yiddish Doing?

On 2 December 2009 the curtain of Harvard’s famed Agassiz Theater rose on a production of Avrom Goldfaden’s Shulamis, one of the most famous plays in the Yiddish repertoire. An operetta set in the Land of Israel in late biblical times, it was last performed in Warsaw in 1939, and forcibly shut down by the German invasion of September 1. To stage the current production its co-directors, Debra Caplan, a Harvard graduate student of Yiddish and Cecilia Raker, an undergraduate concentrator in drama, assembled a cast willing to learn their parts in a language most of them had never heard. The directors kept all the musical numbers in the original Yiddish and used a new English translation for the dialogue, adding dancers to the production to compensate for the verbal delights an English audience would miss.
Of the dozen plays I had studied with these students in a course on Yiddish drama, Shulamis was by no means the most obviously appealing to contemporary taste. Its theme is trustworthiness: a young man Absolom neglects the vow of marriage he made to the rustic Shulamis, who endures bitter years of waiting until he repents the alliance he made instead and returns to her. Beneath the intricacies of the love story throbs the Jewish national motif of keeping faith with covenant. What most intrigued the student-directors was the moral and psychological fallout of such faithfulness: How do we account for the suffering of the woman Absolom marries, and for the death of their two infant children in apparent retribution for his sin? When Absolom leaves his wife and fulfils his promise, can an audience forgive him as fully as Shulamis does, and is the reconciliation at the final curtain really meant to erase the effects of those intervening years? The excitement generated by such questions among cast, musicians, technical crew, and among scholars and graduate students invited to participate in an intercollegiate symposium on the play seemed to bear out the website’s claim for “a resurgence of interest in Yiddish among young people.”
Much of that interest is currently stimulated by institutions of higher learning, like Columbia, NYU, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Stanford, Emory, Brandeis, and universities of Indiana, Michigan, Albany, and Texas, all of which offer programs in Yiddish. Harvard’s current cohort of eight PhD candidates in Yiddish is its largest and liveliest since the inception of the program in 1993. Yet the field of Yiddish is hardly stable. The University of Maryland has just announced that it may drop its Yiddish position as a cost-saving device, sacrificing an apparently marginal subject—one unlikely to figure prominently in the college ratings of US News and World Report. The news from Baltimore generated anxiety in what had until recently been the expanding sphere of Yiddish studies. Comings and goings of faculty sometimes determine the status of the language, since many university positions in Jewish Studies are open ended, and shift their priorities according to the specialty of the person hired.

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The Poetry Wars

Last semester, in an unguarded moment, I did what literature teachers should never do. I told a student her interpretation of a poem was wrong. From that moment I was regarded as an enemy to freedom.

I invited my students to engage with me in online debate on whether an interpretation could be wrong. What follows is their side of the argument. My arguments failed to dent their belief that a poem means whatever a reader thinks.

The debate erupted with Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi,” where Browning, impersonating a Renaissance painter and with much complexity, presents his artist’s credo.

My students resolved that complexity by leaping to conclusions. One young woman found the poem disgusting because the wayward monk enjoys a night out with the ladies. For her, this poem was just another male pleasantry purchased at women’s expense. That was her personal feeling, and therefore, the class argued, a perfectly acceptable account of Browning’s poem.

Another student, who disliked religion, saw Browning’s objective to expose the monk’s hypocrisy. Religion – he was ecumenical in his contempt – was a lie, and Browning showed how true this was.

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How English Is Your Department?

The Harvard English Department appears on the verge of changing its official name, from the “Department of English and American Literature and Language” to the “English Department.” This sounds like a good thing, a bucking of a trend that started nearly 30 years ago toward renaming university English departments in order to make them appear more hip and relevant (in 1981, for example, the Georgia Institute of Technology restyled its English department a “School of Literature, Communication, and Culture”). A recent editorial in Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, praised the proposed new name as promoting the precision of diction that George Orwell (not to mention countless freshman English teachers) had pinpointed as crucial if a language is to preserve its meaning. “The Department of English and American Literature and Language is not actually in the business of teaching English and American literature and language,” the Crimson editorialist noted. “Rather, it teaches about the structure and works of the English language.” Anyone who has read the novels of James Joyce or Joseph Conrad – two masters of English prose style who were neither English nor American by origin – would have to agree.

Nonetheless, the decision of Harvard’s English faculty to give their department a more succinct and accurate name may deserve only two cheers instead of three. Harvard’s move may actually signal a desperate effort to entice more undergraduates to major in English by expanding the curriculum to include just about everything except the study of works of English literature. The name “English Department” is on many campuses nowadays a catchall home for courses in gender studies, “postcolonialism,” movies, television shows, and whatever else seems trendy or likely to induce young people who would rather not plow through Ulysses to sign up. The number of English majors at U.S. colleges and university has been in a state of free-fall since the 1960s, and now, according to the Department of Education, only 1.6 percent of the nation’s 19 million undergraduates choose English as their major.”

Surveying advertised job openings at universities for holders of Ph.D.’s in English in his widely publicized article in The Nation about the moribund state of literary studies, Yale English professor William Deresiewicz wrote, “There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism – whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children’s literature, even in something called ‘”digital humanities.'” (Yale itself is a case in point of declining student interest coupled with faculty flailing; the number of English majors at Yale fell from 238 in 2001 to 157 in 2007.)

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MLA Shrinks From Radicalism, Hell Freezes Over

Inside Higher Ed’s report on the proceedings of the delegate assembly at this year’s Modern Language Association conference is titled “A Moderate MLA” – the title seems to have been chosen mainly for its alliterativeness – moderation, by MLA standards, being a quality far from centrism or temperance in the larger world. The MLA, for one, still passed a resolution criticizing the University of Colorado for the manner in which its investigation of Ward Churchill was begun and conducted. One professor asked if the MLA could simply indicate an opposition to politicized investigations and omit direct references to Churchill – his suggestion was not incorporated. And this is moderate? Only for the MLA, whose recent resolutions have, among other things, rejected the scholarly relevance of the “philosophical defense’ of any one nation-state”, and labeled government language surrounding the Iraq war as an effort “to legitimate aggression, misrepresent policies, conceal aims, stigmatize dissent, and block critical thought.”

For once, the MLA radical caucus, accustomed to steamrolling opposition with markedly political resolutions, was halted, with two of their statements watered down substantially. A resolution condemning the firing of Ward Churchill was transmuted into the form above, and another calling for the defense of critics of Israel and Zionism was replaced by much less specific text. For a real sense of the zaniness of the MLA proceedings, take a look at a direct look at the story:

[Grover] Furr [who teaches at Montclair State University] was the author of the original resolution on the campus climate for critics of Israel. The resolution as he wrote it said that some who criticize Zionism and Israel have been “denied tenure, disinvited to speak… [or] fraudulently called ‘anti-Semitic.'”The resolution called this a “serious danger to academic study and discussion in the USA today” and then resolved that “the MLA defend the academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel.” The resolution made no mention of the right of others on campus to embrace Zionism or Israel or to hold middle-of-the-road views or any views other than being critical of Israel and Zionism.
Nelson offered a substitute – which was approved to replace the original by a vote of 63 to 30 – after heated debate. Nelson’s substitute noted that the “Middle East is a subject of intense debate,” said it was “essential that colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on all sides of the issue,” and urged colleges to “resist” pressure from outside groups about tenure reviews and speakers and to instead uphold academic freedom. Nelson’s resolution did not identify one side or the other as victim or villain in the campus debates over the Middle East and said that academic freedom must apply to people “to address the issue of the Middle East in the manner they choose.”

In arguing for his version, Nelson – a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and also president of the American Association of University Professors – said that the original version would be “incredibly divisive and quite destructive” to the MLA.

The response? Those advocating the original language faulted the new resolution for being “even-handed.” They demanded a resolution targeted at Israeli and Zionist sympathizers. I don’t think many would have been surprised had the MLA passed the original resolution. Although it’s a wonder where they’ve been for the last twenty years – while even the New York Times happily mocks their leftist demeanor – it’s good to see that some within the organization seem to have finally realized the harm that their political declarations might do to their pretenses of scholarly authority. An obvious solution would be to simply stop issuing these resolutions – but the MLA seems leagues away from that. For the moment, it’s encouraging to find any academic moment at which the somewhat left prevailed over the radical left, but it’s clear that there are still countless professors for whom any deviation from naked activism is a bit too “even-handed” to stomach.

Diversity In Linguistics

Since the Supreme Court last week decided against Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky’s policies of assuring a certain degree of racial diversity in public schools, we have heard much about the undoing of Brown v. Board.

However, I have a hard time mourning the decision, though the brute notion that we must ignore race to get beyond it is, surely, simplistic.
Preliminarily, I think of the plethora of schools nationwide where all the students are brown and yet excellence is a norm. I think of the fact that to the extent that black teens tar excelling in school as “acting white,” it tends to be when they go to school with white people, as scholarly studies have shown.

Yet I openly admit that my discomfort with racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences in education is also based in part on gut impressions – based on my own experiences in academia over, now, almost 20 years. Too often, commitment to “diversity” has nothing to do with recognizing the humanity and individuality of the persons in question, and much to do with reaffirming other people’s sense of moral legitimacy.

As it happens, it was ten years ago this week that I had one such experience.

Every two summers, linguists have a kind of summer camp, the Linguistic Society of America Institute, where linguists from around the world give mini-courses for students on a college campus. I was invited to teach at the one in 1997.

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