Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A noble ideal, but will it fly?

At Inside Higher Ed there's article on a joint report by the MLA and the Teagle foundation. (Read it. I'll wait.)

While I can see where the recommendations are coming from and I like them overall, I'm trying to fit these ideals into the university systems that we all know and love. Here are the four and some possible real-world reactions.

1. English majors should be able to read literature in a second language. The short version is that about 4/5 of universities had this requirement forty years ago and about 1/5 have it today. Is the MLA on crack?

No, that's too harsh. I think this is a praiseworthy requirement for all the reasons that the report mentions. But is this a realistic requirement? At a minimum, English majors could decamp in droves for less demanding departments. Also, there are only so many credits that a university can require, so many courses that it can offer with a given number of faculty, so many classrooms, and so forth. So what gets tossed out of the Graduation Credits Lifeboat to make room for, say, 15 hours of foreign language instruction?

2. Coherence of course sequences and requirements. Nobody ever says, "Hey, let's make an incoherent course sequence." All the reasons for course requirements seem logical at the time.

But over time, course requirements are subject to mission creep. Maybe the administration has a pet idea that it thinks all students should be exposed to and mandates* required courses in that area. Maybe Dr. Famous Senior Scholar thinks all students should learn about the poetic qualities of widgets and bullies the curriculum committee into making a required course in Widget Poetics. The best use of this part of the report may lie in getting departments to rethink these requirements.

3. The primacy of the study of literature. Again, I like the idea (this being my job, after all), and at first couldn't see any harm in advising that students learn to read complex texts and write well about them. On second thought, though, I can see how all this talk about richness of literary texts, discussing complexity, etc. is going to bring out faculty with the long knives who hate any signs of life in F.R. Leavis and the Great Tradition. Also, new forms of media get mentioned only as "information retrieval systems." Ouch. That isn't going to please people working in this area.

4. Inclusion of all faculty ranks in decisions and teaching. Absolutely right, although again: how might this work in the real world? I don't mean shared decision-making; I mean the recommendation to have senior people teach first-year and gen ed courses.

This would be beneficial in a lot of ways, but here's the problem: How will you get them to do this, aside from making some kind of mandate? Who's going to tell Professor Senior Scholar, Endowed Chair, that he's been assigned an Intro to Lit instead of Widget Poetics? Unless every, and I do mean every, senior person signs on to this and understands its value, it won't happen.

So am I being too much of a pessimist here? How would these work at your university?

*[Edited to add: Not "mandates," of course, but "suggests," as in suggesting that if you ever want to see adequate funding again, you will consider teaching courses in this area.]


Anonymous said...

No, I think as usual you're totally right.

In terms of the rhetoric of these things, I'm not sure the objective is realism, any more than the objective of the speed limit is everyone going 55 or the objective of drug laws is everyone sober. What they're up to, I suspect (insofar as they're not just playing at symbolic logrolling) is setting a high threshold of transgression. That is, the real practical objectives are most speeds under 65, private recreational marijuana, and preservation of lit in English in an environment hostile to all humanities.

heu mihi said...

Short answer: Couldn't be done at my college.

We barely even *have* a foreign language program, first of all. Second of all, as you point out, the college can only require so many credits. What with gen eds and major requirements, adding proficiency (let alone fluency!) in a foreign language would make this a 55-hour major. We'd lose all of our students. And as we are currently in a position of trying to recruit majors in order to prove the value of our department (and petition for a new hire), this is the last thing that we want to do.

I became more or less fluent in a foreign language in college, partly through a study-abroad program in France. I am extremely glad that I did so and I do think that it helped me as an English major. But the fact is that I was *only* able to do this, receive a broad education, and graduate on time because I'd had unusually good training in French prior to coming to college. Given how poorly most of our students are trained in foreign languages at the pre-collegiate level, I don't see how they could possibly acquire enough proficiency in college to reach the goals set by MLA.

Of course, we also pay our junior faculty about $16k less than the MLA's suggested Asst. Prof. salary, and no one from the Assoc. is beating down our door to demand that we get raises. So carldyke is probably right about this being intended to raise the "threshold of transgression."

(Sorry this is so long!)

Bardiac said...

The second language thing wouldn't work for most of our students, but we send a lot of students to study abroad, and some come back pretty fluent (at least for the time being). But would those old schools have accepted fluency in Japanese? And how about Hebrew?

The literature thing? Do they count graphic novels? Film? Web sites? Because those are complex texts that my students learn about, while they're also learning about more traditional lit forms.

I think the senior prof teaching intro courses is more of a problem at R1s, and as usual MLA concerns itself more with R1s than the bulk of us. At every non-R1 I've had reason to look at, senior folks taught intro courses along with everyone else.

Fretful Porpentine said...

But the fact is that I was *only* able to do this, receive a broad education, and graduate on time because I'd had unusually good training in French prior to coming to college. Given how poorly most of our students are trained in foreign languages at the pre-collegiate level, I don't see how they could possibly acquire enough proficiency in college to reach the goals set by MLA.

Yup. I'd be on board with a substantial second-language requirement if high schools were on board with it, but many of my students are coming to college with no foreign language training, and I just don't see how such a requirement would be practical in their cases.

I also think there's something to be said for an incoherent education, or at least one that leaves plenty of room for students to choose offbeat courses and pursue random interests, although I'm not sure exactly what the MLA means by "coherence."

Anonymous said...

Well, we do have a version of #4 here and in my opinion it doesn't work well for a variety of reasons.

We also have a language requirement and it's easily staffed, and fits easily into curricula, but it doesn't work well for a variety of reasons, related to the reasons the version of #4 doesn't work.

I do think it's important to keep up with #2. The key is to keep requirements really simple and to have a lot of courses called things like "Topics in 20th century literature" as opposed to "Joyce."

I like #3 and can defend it, I think, but culture sells better.

Bardiac said...

Hmm, 40 years ago is 1968?

I'm wondering how much of a change happened with the GI bill, but '68 is late for that.

We have a foreign language requirement, but I'd guess it's not at a high enough level to study literature in that language. Or maybe that depends on what one means by "studying literature" in the appropriate language?

undine said...

carldyke, I think you're right about this being more a Platonic ideal, like the 55 mph law, than an actual set of guidelines for realistic practices. I hadn't thought about this as a declaration of the importance of lit in a hostile environment, but that is true.

heu mihi, if the schools would start good language training early enough, well before high school, it might be that others could have the same kinds of experiences that you did. European countries do this, and their students don't seem to suffer from learning a second and third language.

Bardiac, I didn't read the report, just the summary, but my impression was that the literature thing was more "traditional literature" than graphic novels, etc. I remember reading somewhere else that the sixties were the high water mark of language instruction, so that part didn't surprise me.

Fretful Porpentine, I hadn't thought about "coherence" as a restriction, but yes, there should be enough flexibility so that students have a chance to wander into fields that they wouldn't normally see. I think that faculty are sometimes threatened by giving those kinds of choices--you know, fearing that students are looking at a graphic novels course and saying "woo hoo! Pictures!" instead of seeing the serious study that can go on there.

Z, yes--the requirements seem to be geared a bit toward controlling WHOSE culture gets taught. Maybe I'm wrong, though.

Bardiac said...

The 60s were also the high mark of government funding for education, no? Sputnik "scare" for science funding, cold war for languages and such?

Fund us with 60s level state funding; give our students grants instead of loans, and see how much things improve!

Anonymous said...

60s level funding, yes, that would do it. !!!

undine said...

Bardiac--ah, the 60s, when all things were going to be funded, including community mental health clinics so that the inhumane mental hospitals could be closed down. I do wonder what would happen if those levels of funding could materialize--say, take 1/1000 of what we're spending on the CEOs of this country and put it toward education.