Responses to the Proposal for a New Modern Languages and Cultural Studies BA (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

On May 25 faculty members attending Arts Faculty Council (AFC) will be presented with a proposal coming from the department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies (MLCS). It is a highly contentious and divisive proposal, rejected by half of MLCS faculty and twice by the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC). In order to reach an informed decision members of AFC would need to hear a complete analysis of the problematic aspects of the proposal, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough time for that. Therefore we hope through this blog to provide important details that will help others across the Faculty understand the issues.

First, a few words about the context of the proposal. It was devised not as an academic plan with pedagogical value, but as a perceived solution to an accounting problem. The proposed plan is to subsume all individual programs (German, Russian, etc.) under the heading “MLCS” (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies), so that administrators see one larger number for the counting of majors rather than several smaller numbers, even though it’s the same distribution of students across programs. This approach would allegedly save the smaller programs of the department. However, half of the MLCS faculty fear that as it is currently formulated, the proposal saves the endangered programs at the expense of the larger ones (French, Spanish, CLit), weakening the latter and resulting in a department of all weak programs. By forcing us to choose between saving endangered programs or weakening stronger ones (and wiping out Comp. Lit) the proposal set some of us against the others instead of seeking consensus. Such a choice is simply unacceptable. We believe it is possible to save the endangered programs without weakening the stronger ones.

Some particularly problematic aspects of the proposal are the following: 

1) The new requirements reduce the number of language credits required for a Major, which will result in decreased language proficiency. As it stands the proposal requires students to take 24 credits (including 6 credits at the 400 level) in the target language. In the case of French, the overall number of credits is significantly lower than in other French programs throughout Canada (the standard being 30 credits at the senior level) and increases the number of courses in English (which will be one of the highest in Canada for a “French program”). The French major will be replaced by a generic MLCS major, which will penalize students in the Canadian job market competing with peers holding a BA in French (better known to employers). Overall the proposal — mostly inspired by Modern languages programs in a few universities in GB and the US models —disregards our Canadian bilingual environment.

2) It requires students to take 6 credits in Community Service Learning or CSL or study abroad. We know of no other program in Canada that makes CSL a requirement, and only a very small number require study abroad. There are problems with this requirement:

i) It puts at the same level two very different pedagogical experiences (i.e., is 20 hours of community service in Edmonton and a fully immersive study abroad the same “experience”? Making CSL an alternative for those students who can afford studying abroad is not a pedagogically sound alternative. It is also providing students with an excellent reason not to bother investing in studying abroad. Why make studying abroad a requirement in the first place? 

ii) Based on several MLCS instructors’ experience, roughly 20% (this number can vary depending on departments) of students choose CSL in optional courses. We feel it is not fair to force 80% of students to do CSL knowing that some of them work part-time or full-time, have a family, have no means of transportation, etc, and simply do not want to do CSL.

3) The new proposal will wipe out Comparative Literature (which accounts for 10 Majoring students), weaken French & Spanish (which together account for more than half of all Majors in MLCS), force students to do CSL and study abroad whether they like it or not, and make students transfers likely more difficult (because of idiosyncratic program requirements like CSL).  The Faculty of Arts expects us to grow our enrolments; for the reasons stated above, we believe the new proposal will have the opposite effect. 

Marisa Bortolussi, on behalf of concerned members of MLCS

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7 Responses to Responses to the Proposal for a New Modern Languages and Cultural Studies BA (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

  1. Sathya Rao says:

    It is true, Micah, that the overall number of credits a student takes depends on his or her level of proficiency. This is a truism. The point is that some languages like Spanish and French can offer more than a minimum of 24 credits to ALL their students (regardless of their proficiency) because they are lucky enough to have the staff, the enrolment and the breath, which for some reason Micah seems to deny. In Canada where French is the other official language, one would expect French to be taught at a higher level than German. As a matter of fact the standard in most French language programs throughout Canada is 30 credits at the senior level. The French program in Lethbridge requires 15 courses and the one at UofC Calgary 12. I am mentioning these programs among many others because – quite interestingly – their representatives wrote letters in support of the new MLCS BA (which will offer a minimum of 8 courses in the target language). As mentioned in Marisa’s email the MLCS BA proposal is modelled after 3 universities (2 British and 1 American), none of them Canadian. The new MLCS BA will be an anomaly in our country (where most if not all programs are language-specific) and is likely to make students transfers to the UofA a headache given our peculiar program requirements. At least we will be able to boast about one thing: having the highest number of required English courses in the French program! I am sure this will get us some students (not necessarily the best though…). There is a lot I could say about the MLCS 410 capstone project course… but if the proposal passed I am curious to see how FEC will deal with the extra work that will be required from the project supervisor.
    There is a long and glorious history of CSL and study abroad in MLCS… Those who have been involved in these experiential activities know very well that only 20% to 30% of students do CSL when given the choice. Colleagues recruiting for study abroad programs experience the hardship of getting students on board. CSL and study abroad are sure great ideas, admirable concepts, but the truth is few students (and instructors) go for it even in MLCS based on our collective experience. Those of us who have been engaged in CSL for years (8 in my case) know for a fact what is behind the concepts. So how is making CSL and study abroad a program requirement more than admirable idea? How realistic is forcing 80% of students (imagine if they were instructors!) to engage in CSL regardless of their personal situation, availability, and own preference? The general assumption is that all CSL placements are great… Well, Micah should do more CSL and you will find out that the reality is far more nuanced. I am particularly intrigued by the concept of “language immersive CSL” used in the proposal: how can 20 hours in a mostly Anglophone city like Edmonton be immersive? This pedagogically monstrous oxymoron was probably coined to convince the vast majority of students who cannot afford studying abroad that somehow one can learn French in Edmonton as well as in Paris. Then why should they even bother studying in Paris if they can enjoy a comparable experience in their own city at a much lower cost? It is a no-brainer. Instead of deceiving students or discouraging them (even if it for a good cause), why not dropping the CSL and study abroad requirements and let students decide what is best for them? It is our job as instructors to encourage and motivate them, not force them.
    Sure the BA proposal looks like a noble attempt to save endangered program. The catch is that Micah wants to convince us that this cannot be done without harming French and Spanish, Comp. lit (and therefore losing enrollment). Playing the ones against the other is unavoidable: somehow there has to be a loser so that some of us could claim the title of saviour. This is how the whole proposal has been presented to us and will be presented to you today: either you vote for it or several programs will be suspended. (I am sure you have noticed that on today’s AFC agenda the “honors suspension” item is dangerously close to the “MLCS BA proposal”). The only reason the proposal made it so far is not because of the fair “process” (Micah’s does not mention that the proposal was rejected twice by the Academic Affairs committee and its decision was overruled – as if it were not part of the process, a mere trifle) but because we in MLCS care about small programs more than everything, even more than our own specific areas. Whatever happens today, MLCS will be the greatest loser. Not because of how you will vote but because of the very choice the proposal compels us to make. MLCS has a reputation of being a divisive department – division would be in our genes… Well, this is wrong: we have never been more united in our desire to save endangered programs. What has divided is not our mixed breed (I am proud of it!), but the proposal itself and the way it was it has been and will be passed.
    Sathya Rao
    MLCS citizen

  2. Natalia Pylypiuk says:

    It would be interesting to know why the Academic Affairs Committee rejected the proposal. Those of us who oppose the proposal are not arguing against subsuming all programs under the MLCS heading, but rather that the current proposal has many flaws. We believe it is possible to improve the proposal so that the strong areas remain strong while the smaller ones are also protected. Interestingly, the Curriculum Committee that constructed this proposal was not representative. For example, in the last two years there was not a single Slavist serving on the Committee, despite of offers to serve. This has negatively affected the integrity of the Ukrainian, Polish and Russian programs.

  3. I would like to state that we do NOT oppose a single MLCS degree, but that there is a better way to do this. We need a French and Francophone route to the BA, and a Spanish and Latin American studies one, and a German and Germanic studies, and a Slavic studies one, and one for Comp. Lit., and one for Folklore, neither of which would require a European language. As Canadians, we celebrate diversity. As teachers of languages, we know that different languages are learned in different ways. We also understand that language is not the only thing what we teach. I, for one, teach fieldwork techniques (ways to do documentary work) and the opportunity to learn those techniques attracts many students.

    I would further like to stress that 1) the current proposal has little dept. support 2) it has been rejected by Academic Affairs, 3) we have been doing assorted rehashes of this proposal since 2014. Some people in the dept. voted in favor of the current proposal from fatigue. In fact, some Slavic colleagues told me so.

    In my opinion, this proposal is a dead puppy. I certainly appreciate my colleagues’ devotion to this proposal – they have worked on it long and hard. I admire their sincere and determined efforts to keep this proposal alive. But we need to let it rest in peace and start on a new proposal for a single BA.

  4. Arts Squared says:

    For those of us who were not able to be there this afternoon, can anyone offer a brief report on what unfolded?

    • Kathleen Lowrey says:

      I was there but will not venture a summation. One processual observation going forward about Arts Faculty Council: for contentious meetings handling controversial matters, a professional parliamentarian should be employed to run the discussion dispassionately.

      • Natalie Kononenko says:

        Indeed. The side bringing the new MLCS BA up for a vote was allowed rebuttal. The other side was not. For myself I can say that, exacly 2 years ago, when an earlier version of the proposal that was passed on Thurs. was rejected by Academic Affairs, I wrote to Laura Beard and attached a detailed description of a multi-route approach to a single MLCS BA. I was told not be bring this proposal before the Curriculum Com. Laura Beard’s exact words were “We need to allow the process to move forward before introducing new changes there … ” So, essentially hold off and do not bring your ideals before CC. If the multi-route path was indeed ever considered by the Curriculum Comm. I have no evidence of it. One would think, that, if there were such a discussion, I would be asked to speak about the multi-route path and how it might work. This never happened.

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