A Dubious Victory

I’m very happy because I finally managed to convince (almost force, to be honest) a student to conduct her graduating project on Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Before you decide I have gone insane and turned to spoiling my students’ literary tastes, let me explain what the alternative was.

The student had been insisting that she wanted to write her research project on a Hollywood movie The House of the Spirits. Got it? A Hollywood movie. In English. To graduate with a Spanish Major.

And you know the absolutely worst part? This student is a native speaker of Spanish.

I’m really bugged by Spanish-speaking students who enroll in our program because they think they can get an “easy” degree out of it. The way the program is set up, they can keep taking endless language courses (which they need like I need another Kindle), wasting their time, aggravating the non-native students, and persecuting the teacher with their exaggerated sighs of boredom. After 3 years of this, you can’t get them to read anything or do anything labor-intensive as much as you try.

Which brings me to the same old point: we need to stop spawning these stupid language courses and start doing something different.

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30 comments on “A Dubious Victory

  1. Yes! Good! I’m almost afraid of asking who she was and discover she had a senior class about film with me, although I believe there’s a 25% in any case!

  2. Can you not kick them out of the language classes for being at an inappropriate level? At my old university, there was a policy against this, and at my new one there is some crazy system where they can buy credits for placing out of these classes (which is also ridiculous, but better than having native speakers in 101).

    • Unfortunately, we have the opposite kind of policy and I’m now fighting a losing battle to force them to take EVEN MORE language classes. I know this makes no sense but nobody hears me.

    • Buy Credits? Do you mean actually paying for credits, or taking a placement test and getting credit for whichever courses you test out of?

      • Normally, they take a placement test and are awarded credit for free for the 100-level courses and for money for 200-level courses at our department. I consider this to be very bizarre, but there must be some logic behind this.

        It’s like native speakers of a language get credit just for existing. Even if it’s a language we don’t offer at our department.

    • This is not at all surprising. Many autistics start doing massively better when they become adults and are not subjected to the company of their smothering, horrible, oppressive parents. As I always say, show me an autistic, and I show you a parent who can’t tire of abusing her.

  3. We used to have the buying credit system and we would force native speakers to do it. In those days everyone had to “account” for 101 etc. somehow so if you came in as a non native but with knowledge and wanted to start above 101, above 102, etc., you still had to buy the credits. Now, cleverly, all of that is a prerequisite to the major but if you can satisfy the prerequisite by just happening to speak the language, regardless of how you learned it, you do not have to buy the credits. The major is defined as 300 level and up. There is a writing course at the 300 level and an advanced writing course at the 400 level, and native speakers can take them but they are then working on writing qua writing, not on language acquisition.

    We also have a course for heritage speakers, intended to get them out of the basic classes and give them the skills they need (e.g. spelling, formal grammar, professional vocabulary, etc.) to take the advanced classes. It is problematic because native speakers try to take it for the easy credit, and native speakers who really are not all that literate and who could therefore really learn something in that class, take it and then are resentful because they are expected to learn something.
    And we have business Spanish which is sometimes problematic in similar ways.

    I am looking for the titles of the courses in your major but the website doesn’t put them easily before one’s eyes. I am gathering that in the 300 and 400 level electives there are a lot of language courses?

    Also, I feel your pain. We have a new dictum from above whereby students who are minors are allowed to substitute assignments on their major, written in Spanish, for assignments I would give. It would be fine to have a History major / Spanish minor whose History professor reads Spanish, write papers in Spanish just to get more practice. But these would still be history papers, on the concerns of that discipline, etc. I am somewhat perturbed that a history major/Spanish minor who takes a lit. class from me now gets to give me history papers and not lit. papers — not least because I am not a historian and I am not qualified, really, to be in charge of someone’s history paper.

    • “I am gathering that in the 300 and 400 level electives there are a lot of language courses?”

      – A LOT. Our students place out of the 100 and 200 levels only to get bogged down in the 300-level language courses. Can anybody explain to me why people need to take “Advanced conversation” and “advanced grammar”? That’s on top of two REQUIRED advanced language courses. Plus another course in linguistics, business Spanish, Spanish for nursing (like nurses need to speak some separate form of Spanish, you know), and we are just getting started. We are about to develop a course in Spanish for construction workers, and I am not kidding. Why can’t students converse on an advanced level while simultaneously absorbing culture and literature courses? Can anybody explain this to me?

      This is not, of course, directed at you but at the universe.

      “I am somewhat perturbed that a history major/Spanish minor who takes a lit. class from me now gets to give me history papers and not lit. papers”

      – Who comes up with these ridiculous ideas?

      • On that last ridiculous idea, it is that they do not know what a language major really does. They think it is like a Berlitz course. Here, many seem to think real reading and so on only starts in graduate school.

        That sounds ridiculous, your curriculum. Something like that, not quite as bad but along those lines, had been done to the curriculum here when I arrived, and it had killed the major. They wanted me to get majors and I said that to do that we would have to actually have a discernible major to offer, not just a bunch of language courses. Their idea that you had to be PERFECT in the language first was really ingrained, as was the idea that the field itself was not interesting and they had to make up for that by offering these very utilitarian skills. BUT I insisted on tearing the curriculum apart and putting real literature, real cultural studies, and real linguistics back in, and now I quite like it, even with the remaining flaws. Yes, it took all my research time and people thought I was autocratic, but they do recognize that now people take the major whereas before they did not, so, mission accomplished.

        But seriously, where they get these ideas is that they have no idea what the field is and no respect for it, and that unfortunately has been internalized by some faculty.

        • “Their idea that you had to be PERFECT in the language first was really ingrained, as was the idea that the field itself was not interesting and they had to make up for that by offering these very utilitarian skills. BUT I insisted on tearing the curriculum apart and putting real literature, real cultural studies, and real linguistics back in, and now I quite like it, even with the remaining flaws. ”

          – I’m in the exact same situation here. It is uncanny how these things keep repeating in completely different places. I know there is something that is driving this obsession with achieving absolute linguistic perfection before drills and grammar rules are left behind but I don’t know what that is yet.

      • “business Spanish, Spanish for nursing (like nurses need to speak some separate form of Spanish, you know), and we are just getting started. We are about to develop a course in Spanish for construction workers, and I am not kidding.”

        For non-language students, it could be interesting, but not for language and litterature students.

  4. Languages are not only beautiful but also very useful to sustain openness to different perspectives on the world. Teaching them properly is more than critical bellemani.

    • Of course, you are right. But after a certain time, learning a language by stupidly repeating grammar rules just stalls. I insist that the only way to get from intermediate to advanced level is by a) reading b) speaking (especially about what has been read.) There is no other method.

  5. ” I know there is something that is driving this obsession with achieving absolute linguistic perfection before drills and grammar rules are left behind but I don’t know what that is yet.”

    It is a very old fashioned idea but a lot of the French and German faculty still seem to have it. The language is sacred and has to be used exactly right all the time, you do not get to discuss anything really interesting or serious until you are perfect, etc.
    That is why they make the undergraduate major so light in terms of intellectual content. Which, of course, in turn slows down the teaching of the language itself.

    Also, if the students have to keep striving for perfection in grammar and usage, and any content that might make the professor have to think in terms other than right or wrong is put off until after perfection is attained, then the professor, with their language (French/German) which is culturally superior (according to them), also has de facto superior skill. This makes their life very simple.

  6. I’ve never had the courage to read an Allende novel (and avoided the movie in question as if it were a rattlesnake).

    Still, I’m sure there’s an interesting project to be made in how the meaning of the book was or wasn’t preserved in the movie (I’m betting the latter) and how the novel (whatever it is like) was ground into hollywood formulas and lots of interesting questions about cultural privilege (hollywood gets to sell back its cheap bowdlerized versions of cultural products to the cultures that produce them where they may attain more prestige than the original works.

    But a slacker looking for an easy out is most likely not a student who can produce that….

    • “But a slacker looking for an easy out is most likely not a student who can produce that….”

      – I want to hope for the best, of course. We’ll see but I’m not extremely optimistic.

      On the positive note, one student will be analyzing the movie Motorcycle Diaries and the real Che Guevara that this movie concealed from the viewers.

    • I am fairly sure many commentators have taken care of that in 250 words or less. The book resembles the kind of film you describe.

  7. “Spanish for nursing (like nurses need to speak some separate form of Spanish, you know”

    As a course for nurses who will be dealing with hispanic patients (or medical staff) this makes a lot of sense. There will be different terminology (that knowing general Spanish won’t help you understand). And there are questions of appropriate ways of dealing with patients as well (the sickness experience can be just as full of cultural variables as anything else).

    As a course for everybody it’s nuts but for the right people (or those interested) it could be very valuable.

    • Before you get to any terminology, you still need to learn the basic stuff: the grammar tenses, the basic vocabulary, the word order, etc. But this is something impossible to explain to people at the school of nursing. They think that learning the verbs “ser” and “estar” (to be) is a waste of time and we should only offer terminology. Which, of course, is completely insane.

      The reality is that if one can speak the language, picking up terminology is a matter of a few days, so absolutely no special course is needed. What is hard is learning to organize words into sentences, not memorizing lists of words that even a parrot can do.

      • “we should only offer terminology. Which, of course, is completely insane’
        agreed

        I was assuming students who are already very fluent in general Spanish (possibly natives) but who don’t know their way around a medical environment in Spanish (because all their training was n English). There are also those who may not realize that effective ways of communicating with patients may vary by national origin etc.

        “The reality is that if one can speak the language, picking up terminology is a matter of a few days”

        I’d say one can start in a few days, it might take months to get everything in context (and it could happen you absolutely need to know a term you haven’t naturally happened across yet).

        A course built only around terminology is dumb. A course with a terminological compenent (along with cultural issues and some other stuff aimed at improving the students overall communication skills) is not dumb.

    • If they are proficient enough to have a basic conversation then they are proficient enough to look up a couple of words. And it is broader cultural experience and familiarity that will help them deal with patients, not some rote set of rules for hospitals on some .ppt. There is just a whole lot more to know, Cliff, and these shortcuts won’t make it unless what you’re talking about is phrasebook level stuff for a weekend away — which would not have the kind of substance you would need for your school to keep its accreditation.

      • Okay I’m thinking if I were assigned to teach Spanish for Nurses (assuming I was qualified to teach either)

        I would have (very rough order):

        Some introductory materials on pragmatics and practical problems of cross cultural communication (do these play any role in modern language majors?)

        Some introductory materials on translation and interpretation (including why a bilingual person without special training is liable to be a disaster as an interpreter) and some more specialized materials on medical interpretation, maybe some role-playing exercises (with outside volunteers/aides kind of like at the beginnng of Almodovar’s Flor de mi secreto)

        (materials for both of the above would be in Spanish whenever possible)

        The heart of the course would be (more academic) readings on nursing practice in Spanish.

        without too much trouble I found three samples (none of which might make the final cut, but just to give you a general idea)

        more general:

        http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=3891485

        http://www.elsevier.es/es/revistas/enfermeria-clinica-35/la-investigacion-enfermeria-una-realidad-invisible-90169231-editorial-2012

        more specialized:

        http://scielo.isciii.es/pdf/nefro/v7n3/art05.pdf

        In general I’d collect some general not too long academic texts on nursing practice (maybe nursing training in various spanish speaking countries) as well as (over time) build up a collection of appropriate articles in various subfields (for individual students). The more general texts would be for the whole class and the more specialized would be for students to read on their own and either do written or oral reports on (maybe some of both)

        There’s probably more but that’s a start and is sufficiently academic, rigorous and practical, I think to satisfy most critics.

      • “will be using these GREAT suggestions in preparing my new course”

        I had _no_ idea you were charged with preparing such a course (now I understand why you were so down on it) so they weren’t intended as suggestions – just a quick mental exercise for myself. I’d be very happy if any of my ideas are any help and/or prove to be useful.

  8. I’ll say that I am in constant low-grade conflict with colleagues who think that students need perfect grammar before they can do anything more applied/interesting.

    In addition they imbibed a bunch of nonsense during their training that keeps them from actually doing the kinds of things that can lead to improved grammar (like grammar drills – no fun most of the time, but they do work). They insist on working with aimless, directionless, textbooks that never actually give the students any useful information that will help them improve.

    I always say that when the students are learning to do something new the error rate will increase in the short term (and this freaks out my colleagues) but then their overall skill level will improve. It’s a hard sell….

    • I like your nursing class!!! This is the kind of thing I would do too but the reason I am so bitter is that I can just hear everyone else in the meeting: “no, they just need to know how to talk to the patients” and “no, do not make the instructors read journal articles” and I despair. ;-) I wish we could hire you Cliff!

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