Posts Tagged ‘Russell Berman’

MLA’s Rosemary Feal: “Humanities Required?”

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Here’s the story, and it comes from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta:

A National Book Award-level Shakespeare scholar was called to give lectures all over the country.  His chauffeur told him that he had heard one of the talks so many times, he himself could deliver it verbatim.

The scholar took him up on the bet.  One black turtleneck and tweed jacket later, the chauffeur was onstage, and the scholar was dressed as the chauffeur in the audience.  The driver delivered the speech perfectly, verbatim.  Then came the question-and-answer period.

Question:  “Could you explain the difference between the ‘self-fashioning’ you describe and the psychoanalytic concept of masquerade?”

The mike went to the tweed-and-turtlenecked chauffeur.  He paused thoughtfully, or perhaps he merely halted in panic.  “That’s a dumb question,” he finally said.  “In fact, that’s the dumbest question I have ever heard. It’s so dumb, I bet my chauffeur can answer it.”

And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen, as Ken Kesey once said.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, told the story during last Wednesday’s presentation “Humanities Required?”

Feal: Have the Boomers failed us?

It all goes to prove, she said, that the humanities do not just pass on a canon of knowledge or in a vague way teach us how to think – they “also allow us to formulate and debate questions and answers.”

Why the question in her title, then?  According to Feal, the very generation – the Boomers – that had championed the humanities in academia and demanded a greater role for the humanities in the curriculum has now turned the tables.

Boomers are steering their kids towards more utilitarian, career-oriented degrees in law, medicine, business.

What happened? Obviously, the economy has tilted students and parents towards the lucrative degrees that will “pay off.”

However, older students who return to school after careers and family – “Guess what they go study?” she asked. That’s right.  The humanities.

Russell Berman, past president of the MLA, attended the session as Feal’s sidekick (“the chauffeur,” Feal joked) – I interviewed them both for my earlier article here, joined her in noting that language enrollments are up in Arabic and Chinese, as well as the more usual suspects (Spanish, and, surprisingly, Latin) – yet many college language programs have been reduced, closed, or threatened with closure.

Berman: Taking on a hard sell (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Jennifer Summit, an English professor, noted that although the number of English majors is holding steady for the last decade, increasing college enrollments mean that English is dropping as a percentage of all majors. That means the same number of kids to educate with a smaller slice of the resource pie.

Rosemary noted that it’s harder and harder for humanities PhDs to earn a living wage and pay down enormous college loans.

One possible solution: She noted that the M.D. is a four-year-degree; humanities PhDs can take nine years to get the degree.  “It’s not clear why the humanities PhD can’t be a four-year degree.”

“Must the larval monograph be the only form of dissertation?” she asked. New media and collaboration can “revolutionize the whole thing.”

But mostly she and Russell emphasized the need for universal education towards second (or third or fourth) language acquisition.  “It’s a hard sell,” she said, especially in the face of the belief that English is already the universal language all over the world.

Not so, she said, when you travel:  “It’s the boss’ language – not the language of the person you want to talk to.”

The MLA’s outspoken Russell Berman on college kids: “a hard time with sentences, vocabulary, and following an argument”

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

"A big shift from a century ago." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Russell Berman is the current president of the Modern Language Association.  He also directs Stanford’s “Introduction to Humanities” program.  He’s a fierce advocate of foreign language study – I’ve written about his views here – but boy, he’s more determined and optimistic than I am about education.  He says he’s “not going to say if you’re going to be an educated man or woman, you have to have read Hamlet” (I would say exactly that), but he insists that even top-notch universities today must be “oriented towards skills acquisition” in reading. “That’s a big shift from a century ago,” he said without a hint of judgment, but with a serious desire to get down to business.

A few quotes from the video:

  • “What I hear from current [teaching] fellows is that students … have a hard time with sentences, they have a hard time with vocabulary, they have a hard time following an argument over several pages.” We need to “take them by the hand metaphorically and lead them through the clauses, lead them through the thickets of paragraphs.”
  • “Students can’t get to Sentence 2 because their reading habits are, with all respect, Harry Potter.  The toughest thing they read in high school is To Kill a Mockingbird, and they can’t get through those complex sentences. Not sentences from high literature, but from a scholarly article.”
  • “We haven’t done a census of this at Stanford, but I believe that students who don’t major in humanities don’t read after freshman year. They do something else, or read very minimally.” It’s not that we’re sending the wrong kids to college: “It’s about government policy, ‘No Child Left Behind,’ amplified by ‘Race to the Top,’ common core state standards.  They diminish the capacity for critical reading taught in high school.”
  • “I have big doubts about whether students entering college can read – and this is at Stanford as much as anywhere else.”
  • “Too many of our peer institutions, too many of the selective schools,  blind themselves by generating narratives about the excellence of their students. This is the marketing narrative that serves multiple purposes that have deleterious consequences.”  Among them, it causes us to neglect giving students the “scaffolding” to reading texts.
  • “I could make argument that this is essential to humanities and humanism. It’s all about reading.”
  • “No one was ever hired from one institution to another because he or she was a great teacher … This is not argument against research – but it’s a call to a recalibration between research and teaching” because of “the neediness of students.”

You can watch the bad news here (and more of his remarks in the comment section below):

“World within reach”? We think not. Stanford replies to Albany

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Safran knocks "disturbing" decision

Yesterday, we excerpted Gregory Petsko‘s  rather scalding letter to George Philip,  the president of the SUNY Albany, who recently announced that the university was cutting its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments.  Then we discovered Stanford’s own letter. Not as much fun, alas; nothing beats sarcasm — but still worth a look.

At a school whose motto is “The world within reach,” the elimination of modern languages other than Spanish indicates a confusion of purpose.  The study of modern languages at a high level offers a gateway to international business, diplomacy, and research in all fields.  The study of literature in foreign languages challenges students to cross cultural boundaries and teaches them how to do so effectively.  By rejecting these programs, SUNY Albany is reducing its students’ intellectual breadth and their competitiveness for a range of professions.  It is moving the world out of reach.

This decision is especially disturbing at a school that trains so many of New York State’s teachers.  Three of the programs cut – French, Italian, and Russian – are significant New York heritage languages, and a large French-speaking population lives right over the border in Quebec.  These are languages that New York K-12 students have motivation to study, and even to master.  By making it impossible for future Albany graduates to teach them, SUNY is reducing not only the education and competitiveness of its own students, but those of the state’s high school students as well.  In the case of Russian, where Albany houses the only major program in the SUNY system, this danger is especially real.

Edelstein signed, too

The elimination of modern language programs at Albany appears to be part of a larger reallocation of state funding.  Even while the university saves some $12 million by cutting these departments, $435 million in state funding is going toward a new Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery and Exploration, which has the stated goal of transforming the Albany region into a high-tech hub like California’s Silicon Valley.  Here at Stanford, located in the real Silicon Valley, it appears especially short-sighted to imagine that the way to foster innovation, investment, and job growth in our increasingly global economy is by rejecting the study of modern languages and cultures.  Rather than firing faculty who are experts in foreign languages, the university should turn to them for help in training students who are able to understand international consumers and investors.  Stanford has engaged its foreign language and literature faculty in creating new administrative structures that can respond effectively to the needs of students at all levels.  We challenge you at SUNY Albany to follow the example of Silicon Valley in deed, not just in words.

Signed by:  Gabriella Safran, Director, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; David Palumbo-Liu, Director, Department of Comparative Literature; Carolyn Springer, Director, Department of French and Italian Literatures; Russell Berman, Director, German Studies Department; Jorge Ruffinelli, Director, Iberian and Latin American Cultures Department; Elizabeth Bernhardt, Director, Language Center; Amir Eshel, Graduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; Dan Edelstein, Undergraduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

By the by, if you missed Stanley Fish’s column on this subject in the New York Times, it’s here.