MLCS is going generic or, Why French will no longer be an exception (Guest Post by Sathya Rao, Modern Languages & Cultural Studies)

Modelled after the modern languages departments at the universities of Exeter (UK), Sheffield (UK), and Saint Louis (US), the controversial Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS) major proposal – which passed last May 25 at Arts Faculty Council – is the first of its kind in Canada and therefore deserves special attention. Under the guise of saving the last of the few small programs that survived the budgetary cuts of recent years, the MLCS major proposal completely transformed our program, making it an anomaly in the Canadian academic landscape. While all sizeable modern languages departments throughout the country (e.g., UofT, UofC, and UBC) have maintained a strong French program in order to capitalize on the opportunities arising from Canada’s bilingual context, the new MLCS major no longer gives preferential treatment to French. In fact, French and Spanish – which together amount to more than half of all majors in MLCS – are aligned with German (15% of majors enrolment), which sets the new lowest common denominator for the whole program in terms of course requirements. In practice, this means that students majoring in French (and Spanish) will be required to take fewer courses in the target language (even though there are more than enough faculty members to teach these) along with more courses in English. By comparison to other Canadian research universities, MLCS students majoring in “French” will have one of lowest course loads in the target language (i.e., a minimum of 24 credits at the senior level compared to 30 or more on average) and one of the highest – if not the highest – course load in English (i.e., 9 credits).

Paradoxically, the reduction in the number of target language courses comes with a new 6-credit requirement in study-abroad OR “language immersive” Community-Service Learning. Beside the fact that a 20-hour CSL placement in Edmonton could hardly qualify as “immersive,” compelling students to engage in CSL as a low-cost alternative to studying abroad is pedagogically questionable. Given that few MLCS students choose to engage in study abroad or in CSL based on our experience (this also extends to instructors), bringing these up to the level of program requirements will not only be constraining for students (especially for those working full-time who cannot afford the extra 20 hours per semester required by CSL) but also very risky for an already under-enrolled program like MLCS. Not to mention the extra pressure on instructors who will feel compelled to include a CSL in their courses in order to accommodate students looking to get their 6 credits. As exhilarating as the idea of CSL may be, those of us who have been practically engaged in it are well-aware that the success of a CSL placement should not be taken for granted. Compelling students to engage in CSL instead of convincing them to do so might not be the best way to ensure that their experience is successful. 

Instead of a language-specific major, students will receive a generic major in “MLCS” likely to penalize them (as some students pointed out in a survey on the new major) when competing on the job market with peers holding a good old major in French or Spanish from other Canadian institutions (including Campus Saint-Jean). It was suggested by the promoters of the MLCS majors that students could submit their transcripts along with their CV. Yet no market analysis was conducted to make sure whether non-academic employers would actually consider going over the additional material or whether students would be comfortable disclosing their transcripts. In fact, nowadays most employers use automated systems to scan resumés for degree titles, and it is rare for transcripts ever to be considered in job applications.

The levelling down of our two most enrolled programs (and incidentally the slow agony of one of our most reputed programs, namely Comparative Literature) was presented as the necessary price to pay to save small programs — indeed, as a necessary sacrifice. But how will these programs be “saved” exactly? Instead of a full-fledged BA (which can no longer be provided given the insufficient enrolment), small programs such as Scandinavian, Ukrainian, and Russian will be granted the opportunity to offer 4 courses (12 credits) in the target language along with 4 (12 credits) content-specific courses in English as part of the “Cross-Cultural Studies” route. For “homeless” or rather “major-less” programs as dynamic as ours, this is certainly a better prospect than losing the little that was left. Yet it is hard to understand why rescuing these majors from extinction would entail harming bigger ones and potentially putting the whole department at risk and in a state of crisis. Hence it is no wonder that the whole discussion about the new MLCS major turned into a tragedy. It is important to keep in mind that French, Spanish & Comparative Literature altogether furnish 75% of majors in MLCS. Also, it is unclear how these newly saved small programs will grow strong enough to make up for any anticipated loss in French, Spanish, and Comparative Literature. The biggest winner in all this is German whose enrolment has been steadily declining in the past 5 years from 27 (in 2011) to 19 (in 2016) and yet now sets the standards for French and Spanish in terms of course requirements. By having its majors pooled into the common new MLCS major while preserving its status of “big” language alongside with French and Spanish, German deftly escapes the potential threat of program suspension. Finally, little consideration was given to the moderate satisfaction rate – 3.9 out of 5 – expressed by the 520 students who were surveyed about the new major. This rate even drops to 3.5 out of 5 for the 62 students involved in MLCS programs (e.g., majors and certificates).

In any case, one could object that there was something truly heroic and yet anomalous not only in the goal the MLCS major proposal set for itself, but also in the support it received from the Faculty of Arts (given the lack of data and contextual information provided to Arts Faculty Council for its decision-making and the fact that the proposal was turned down twice by Academic Affairs with substantial modifications). As a desperate attempt to save some endangered programs, the proposal gave rise to a “generic” model where all languages (French is no exception) are reduced to their lowest common denominator⁄ requirements. For the same cost as a “brand name” or traditional language programs, a generic program will offer more courses in English, affordable local “immersive” experience (as an alternative to more expensive travel abroad experience), fewer courses in the target language, overall decreased proficiency in the target language (but increased experiential learning for more students and improved knowledge in the generic field of “cultural studies”), and a degree in a potentially greater number of languages than any traditional model could provide. While this new model has some merits of its own (e.g., simplified administrative structure and emphasis on experiential learning), it remains to be seen how it will be welcomed in an environment unlike the UK or the US where bilingualism prevails (and within a province with a strong francophone community and a lasting network of Francophone schools & immersion programs), where combined degrees have proven to be unsuccessful (as evidenced by the closure in 2013 of most of our combined majors, except French and Spanish), where proficiency standards and professional expectations for French (and Spanish) speakers are higher (especially for students envisioning a career in the booming sector of bilingual education), where there is already a Francophone campus offering a full-fledged French major, where experiential learning in many programs is either optional (through programs such as Co-Curricular Record) or mandatory through curriculum-embedded travel abroad opportunities (as at Augustana, which as far as we know, was unfortunately not part of the discussion, just as Campus Saint-Jean was not), where most employers are not familiar with the concept of “cultural studies,” and where students are already busy engaging in experiential learning of their own to pay for their tuition fees.   

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