Friday, November 26, 2010

Barbarians and Languages

Only an idiot would destroy a foreign language program, but that is exactly what is going on at state universities.

In the Nov. 7 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rosemary G. Feal wrote:

"Throughout my career, I have observed that the advanced study of languages is not universally valued in the American educational system. Even so, I was stunned by the announcement this fall that the State University of New York at Albany will eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics (the German program was already reduced), along with theater. When financial exigencies hit, decisions to cut services and programs (and not just academic ones) must be made, but the Albany plan is astoundingly draconian: No European languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters, and 10 tenure-line faculty members will be let go."

Frightening, isn't it?  State universities have sucessfully disseminated foreign languages and culture to the middle and lower classes.  Where else does an ordinary person fall in love with Russian, turn into a French major, or become so enchanted by classics one doesn't come up for air for six years?   The elite do not as yet do not have an educational advantage, except in networking opportunities.  We can study everything at state universities that is offered at Ivy League schools.   If languages are cut from the state university curriculum, we no longer have equal educational choices.  For most of us an expensive school is/was not an option.  I went to school on loans, grants, jobs and assistantships. What if I had been unable to study classics? 

When I was a student, I was determined to get a good education.  I wanted to learn subjects the "privileged" had access to. Friends had gone to prep schools and studied two languages.  It seemed like an excellent idea, and at the university I worked like a bat out of hell to catch up.

In Greek, a barbarian was a foreigner whose language sounded like "bar-bar-bar."  Apparently the budget cutters think other languages are "bar-bar-bar." 

On a small personal note, my adult education classics program was decimated on the basis of one complaint. The complainer was a control freak.  To give you an idea of her personality, here's a true story.  After taking my beginning Latin class, she left a five-minute rambling message on my answering machine on Easter Sunday (drunk or nutty?) encouraging me to apply for a high-school Latin teaching job.  She insisted that she knew "ways to get around the certification."  I was surprised and thought she must be incredibly lonely to call on Easter.  Although I wasn't interested in the job, and doubted she single-handedly could waive the certification, I called her back the next day and thanked her.

Then she called me again before I started teaching Greek to insist that it was impossible to get the book and was I sure that I had the right copyright?  Yes, I was sure, and no one else had trouble ordering it.  But this was a very, very big deal in her mind. 

Latin is difficult. The Greek, however, is more difficult.  It was the Class from Hell.  My husband says this was my first "public school teaching experience."  I'm not a snob, but that would be accurate.  Some didn't learn the alphabet, others sat in the back and talked, the complainer walked blithely about the room and chatted. I finally asked the stoned couple to leave, since some people really did want to listen and learn--the guy sat there mockingly with his hand held permanently up in the air after he asked a question and chatted while I embarked on the long explanation only for him.  The complainer told me she didn't do the homework (well, she hadn't in Latin, either).  I asked her politely to be quiet.  "It might help if everybody sat down and was quiet," I suggested desperately.

She complained to my supervisor. (The two I asked to leave didn't call to complain.) She told her "there had been a little bit of grandstanding" but nothing that merited my asking students to leave, that she couldn't read my handwriting (I mildly suggested to my supervisor that it would have helped her to learn the alphabet), and that she wanted her money back.  

"A little bit of of grandstanding," I repeated.  (The guy actually came up and got in my face.)

Now to make you understand this situation better, my supervisor doesn't know what Latin and Greek are. She's a bureaucrat.  No one was more surprised than she to be talked into Latin.  She isn't the kind of person who's in your corner.  Last year, when someone complained that I was teaching Latin grammar, though, as I tried to explain to her, in ancient languages it is necessary to analyze literary grammar in order to translate, she told me to change my approach. I added a lot of derivative study, hours of typing extra exercises, which I paid to photocopy, but it turned out that most were there to learn the language and didn't see the point of the derivative study. Half an hour of each of my two-hour classes was aimed at someone who quit.

Anyway, I didn't feel like going through this frantic reconstruction of lesson plans because one sour old woman couldn't bear to be asked to be quiet.  So I resigned.  There were, of course, students who wanted to learn. One student sent me an email saying I was an excellent teacher and that she was sorry about the situation. (I really am a very good teacher and got stellar evaluations from my Latin classes.) She said she thought some of the people in the class were "if I may say so, crazy." Another told me there was nothing I could have done but ask the two to leave, that it was absurd for those who didn't know the alphabet to stop and ask me every letter.  I was very grateful to have my version of reality supported. 

I can only imagine how serious professors of languages must feel when their programs are deemed unnecessary because of numbers of students and because they haven't been able to win a popularity contest. (Since when has liberal arts been about numbers?  This is very much a business attitude.  We need some people to know languages). Many professors have already jumped through hoops trying to popularize their subjects.

in my own case, the "classics program" was an experiment.  I had a rather sweet idea of offering classics through a program that concentrates on crafts and "fun" activities.  This program offers a few languages, lots and lots of Spanish, as you can imagine.  The Latin class was successful.  My evaluations were excellent. Most know Latin is "dead" and expected to do some work.  The Greek class...well, my guess is that most had no idea what the book was about and why I wasn't teaching  fun little phrases.  Some may not quite have understood it was the Greek of fifth century Athens, not the 21st century.  Instead of declensions of barbaros (barbarian) and agora (marketplace), I should have composed meaningless dialogues like those in language books of yore. "Plato, order a drink for me, okay?"  "I have to take this call, Socrates." "Aeschylus, where is the nearest theater festival?"  "Medea, wow, are you always so impulsive?"  "Orpheus, it was selfish to look back."

I can't take it seriously.  What shocks me is the malice of the woman who complained.  

That's life.

Happy Thanksgiving! 


Anonymous said...

My feeling is Isobel's bad experience at Queens came because it was the first time she had been in an uncontrolled public school place ever. At TC, she had an IEP, and the school was strongly disciplined; Sweet Briar was self-selected (all girls, rich or paying oodles of money, or on scholarships), Buffalo high to get into, each living alone.

NO, you're not snobbish but came up against public school life in the US -- very bad and not because of bad teachers. I cited Hofstadter off blog.

One of the girls who tormented Izzy was also called "crazy." I think she was just malicious.

All this is probably commonplace happenings but like so much reality never written about much.


Frisbee said...

Ellen, yes, I did feel sheer hatred emanating from a few of the students. Some were desperately lonely, hoping to make friends, and yet that doesn't seem to happen much in these classes.

Thank God it's over.