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Faculty question proposed foreign language requirement

STANFORD -- Proposals to strengthen Stanford's foreign language requirement for undergraduates met substantial opposition during a Faculty Senate discussion on Thursday, Dec. 1, but faculty representatives supported suggested improvements in the university's writing requirement.

The senate discussion was preliminary to votes that are expected in January on proposed changes in the foreign language and writing requirements.

The proposals, which would require students to pass a foreign language proficiency test before graduation and would add a writing-intensive course in each student's major, were submitted to the senate by the Academic Council's Committee on Undergraduate Studies. They are based on recommendations made by the Commission on Undergraduate Education.

Very few people "are willing to stand up and speak in favor of bad writing," commission chair and history Professor James Sheehan told the senate while introducing the proposals.

However, some would argue "that English is enough and that some kind of monolingualism is a perfectly bearable condition which, indeed, many happy and successful people seem to live with," Sheehan said.

While no senators advocated monolingualism, several from technical fields did express doubts about the foreign language proposal, saying that students already have too many requirements, that other subjects may be more useful for students' future careers and that the proposed proficiency exam resembles a graduation "swim test." One senator urged delaying the vote beyond January so the senate could consider it in the context of other proposed changes in graduation requirements.

On the other side, Provost Condoleezza Rice joined language faculty members in supporting the proposal. "This is as important a requirement as any that we could possibly institute," she said.


The proposals under consideration were included in the commission's October report, which also called for development of new year-long science courses for non-science majors and redefinition of the Cultures, Ideas and Values courses.

In the area of writing, the commission recommended retaining the current Writing and Critical Thinking requirement - formerly called Freshman English - but suggested adding a requirement that students take at least one writing-intensive course in their major.

The Committee on Undergraduate Studies endorsed these proposals.

In the area of foreign languages, the commission recommended that students no longer be able to fulfill Stanford's requirement with three years of high school language, the method currently used by about two-thirds of entering freshmen. Instead, it recommended that students must complete one year of college language instruction or pass a proficiency examination designed by the foreign language departments. It suggested making the change in fall 1995.

The Committee on Undergraduate Studies modified that proposal so that only the proficiency test - not necessarily sitting in class for a year - would satisfy the requirement, and it changed the implementation date to fall 1996.

History Professor George Fredrickson, a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Studies, told the senate that the proficiency exam was a way of making the foreign language requirement both more rigorous and more flexible.

The proficiency test would be designed to assess the level of competency which should be achieved in one year of Stanford language instruction. Some students might arrive at Stanford having learned enough in three years of high school language to pass the test. Others could prepare for it by studying language at a community or other college, a Berlitz-type school or at Stanford.

Elaborating on the commission's recommendation, Guadalupe Valdés, chair of Spanish and Portuguese and chair of the commission subcommittee that considered the language issue, told the senate that standardized procedures have been developed in recent years to measure language proficiency.

She and her language-teaching colleagues no longer talk about "seat time" in language classes, Valdés said, but instead talk about levels of achievement in terms of speaking, reading, writing and comprehension.

Language faculty support

Leading off the speakers supporting the proposed language requirement, Sheehan emphasized that the university would not require mastery of a foreign language, but rather a foundation on which the student could later build.

The "scandalous weakness" of Stanford's current requirement is not only its inadequacy, but also the implicit message to students that they can leave behind language learning when they "drive up Palm Drive," he said.

Mary Pratt, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, who will chair the new Division of Literatures, Languages and Cultures during winter quarter, said the proposal is both positive and negative for the language departments, which strongly support the goal of foreign language education, but do not want to become "service" departments. She worries that resources needed for an enhanced language requirement "will be siphoned off from the literature, culture and area studies part of our program."

"The division does not see the new language requirement as a boondoggle for our departments," Pratt added. The division is made up of Asian Languages, Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, Slavic Languages and Literatures, German Studies and Comparative Literature.

A commission recommendation to establish a language center is being implemented, and the search is under way for a director, who will be charged with implementing the new language requirement.

Pratt said she disagreed with those who would argue that language instruction is unnecessary because the rest of the world speaks English. "Monolingualism in many instances can be a real handicap," she said, emphasizing that the proposed change in requirement would enhance Stanford's profile "as a world university and a world-class university."

Fluency in a second language is not expected, but Pratt said she expected students would learn enough that in the future they would be able to tell in a multilingual situation "that you are being mistranslated by an interpreter." Other benefits would be the ability "to get the drift of the off-the-record talk" at a negotiating table or the ability to understand a colleague from another country who prefers to send e-mail in his or her own language.

In the proficiency test, Pratt said that students could be given the option of demonstrating high competency in reading a language or a lower level of competency in two of the four language skills.

Provost Rice and English Professor John Bender supported the proposal, both saying the study of language is part of a liberal education.

Rice said that "it is really a pity that Americans are so monolingual." With the new requirement, Stanford would be sending a positive signal "that at least some passing acquaintance with another language is important for a well-educated person," she said.

As with writing, the study of foreign language is a way of training the mind, she said. "I learned more about the English language by taking Latin and Russian than I did by taking English," she said.

Bender said the fundamental issue under consideration was whether the university was offering a liberal education or professional training. The basic reason for learning another language is to develop an understanding of "how another culture divides up the world," he said.

Also supporting the proposal was Nawwar Kasrawi, Associated Students Senate chair, who asked the senate to adopt the "strongest possible requirement on foreign languages." Kasrawi said he supports this despite the fact that he is majoring in electrical engineering, "one of the most requirement-laden majors."

Scientists question language proposal

Leading the opposition to the proposal, statistics Professor Brad Efron labeled it a "general tax on all of our students' time and money."

Efron, who earned master's and doctoral degrees from Stanford and who has been on the faculty since 1966, said the reason for the university's present requirement "is a well-founded belief that a compulsory year of college classroom instruction doesn't accomplish much and that foreign language instruction has to start earlier to have much effect. I heard a lot of that the last time we talked about this.”

He predicted that 50 percent of students might have to take a full year of language instruction at Stanford, at a cost of $5,000 tuition per student, to achieve the new proficiency standard.

But the bigger cost would come in terms of time, with a typical engineering student possibly losing one-third of discretionary class choices, he said.

Efron said he agreed with Sheehan's premise that every educated person should know a foreign language. "But I also agree that every educated person needs to know photosynthesis or every educated person needs to know calculus. And I'm one-third educated, according to these three things," he said.

It is not fair, he said, to force the new requirement on students who are already taking heavy majors such as computer science or biology. He suggested that "the rational place for foreign language requirements is in the majors or in the overseas campus programs."

Pat Jones, chair of biological sciences, said that she favors a liberal education, but added that she worried about voting on the proposal until the senate can consider it in relation to other proposed changes in curriculum requirements.

Some may agree with the language proposal, but others might like "more writing, more literature, more fine arts, more science, more math," she said.

Jones, a longtime member of the senate and senate chair last year, reminded colleagues that the present distribution requirements have been criticized because of the incremental way in which they were built. "Before we're asked to vote this up or down, no matter what its benefits are, we should consider where this stands in terms of priorities to the whole DR [distribution requirements] package," she said.

Jones said she agreed that language instruction is beneficial, but she sympathized with Efron's concern about piling on too many requirements. She also suggested that the university "let the students decide what kinds of skills would benefit them in terms of their future interests."

As for her own experience, Jones said that as an undergraduate she took many science courses and two years of undergraduate research in biology. This led to graduate school and an academic career. If she had had time to take more courses, computer science would have been more helpful than a foreign language, she said.

Economics Professor Roger Noll agreed with Efron and Jones, and added that the professional status of most people attending the senate meeting was not dependent on foreign language proficiency, nor were the future careers of the "vast majority of Stanford students."

He agreed with a suggestion from the Division of Literatures, Languages and Cultures that the university consider adding a notation to the diploma for students who achieve high proficiency in a language.

Psychology Professor Amos Tversky said that while it is true that some will benefit from learning a foreign language, "I have not heard a single argument why everybody should." Some students are not interested in studying languages or have great difficulty trying to learn them, he said. Forcing students to take certain courses is "very paternalistic in the sense that we determine for students what their priorities ought to be," he said.

Phyllis Gardner, molecular pharmacology, said that if the changes are adopted, the university should communicate to students why it is being required.

She said she could understand requiring foreign language to broaden the mind, but the argument that it would help students professionally was not compelling.

One year in a college language course is not sufficient to understand the accuracy of a translator, she said. Gardner said she took college-level German, which gave her insights into wartime German literature. But her German was not helpful at scientific conferences, where everyone speaks English.

Professor Jim Jucker, industrial engineering, questioned whether the new requirement would discourage students who take one language in high school from enrolling in a different one at Stanford.

Language proficiency testing

On the subject of the proficiency test, Steven Boxer, chemistry, said that if it could be passed by taking language at Berlitz, it "seems like the antithesis of a liberal arts requirement." That would put it on par with the "swimming test some of us had to take."

Mary Pratt responded that the intellectual goals of foreign language instruction "are met in the training that you get." The proficiency test is simply a way of assessing that the processes have been completed, she said. It would "confirm that a certain level of exposure and achievement of those goals is taking place."

Boxer asked the language instructors to estimate how many in a typical incoming class of 1,600 freshmen would have to take language courses to pass the proficiency test. "If we can't answer that question, shouldn't we at least find out the answer before we vote on anything?" he asked.

Valdés estimated that about one-third of the approximately 1,000 students who meet Stanford's current requirement with three years of high school language might have to take up to three quarters of college-level language.

Boxer suggested that the university try to get a more precise answer by performing an experimental proficiency exam on several groups of students. This might help "get an answer to the questions so that we avoid finding ourselves a year from now with a problem that we can't get out of," he said.

Extended writing requirement

Sheehan introduced discussion of proposed changes in the writing requirement by saying that the Commission on Undergraduate Education considered them sensible, moderate and uncontroversial.

Currently students may fulfill the freshman writing requirement in one of four ways: 1) A two-quarter composition course, English 1-2; 2) An intensive one-quarter course, English 3, for those with a score of 4 or 5 on the Advanced Placement Test; 3) Special writing instruction in conjunction with three CIV tracks (Europe from Antiquity to the Present; Structured Liberal Education; and Literature and the Arts); 4) Approved transfer credit.

Nancy Kollmann, professor of history and chair of the subcommittee that studied the writing requirement, said her group endorsed the current programs, but thought that students should have additional experience in developing writing and communication skills in their freshman year.

Her group recommended extending the Writing Across the Curriculum program, in which departments offer an upper division course with special emphasis on writing. Some 16 units in Humanities and Sciences already take part in the program. Under the proposal, each department and program would take an existing course and intensify it with more focus on writing or oral communication, she said.

“We really want students to have an opportunity to work with revision and feedback and intellectual engagement on a project over time,” she said.

Library report

The senate also heard reports on libraries from Carl Gotsch, Food Research Institute and chair of the Committee on Libraries, and Mike Keller, director of university libraries and academic information resources.

Gotsch urged faculty to get more involved in library issues, such as the tradeoffs between collecting books and manuscripts and the “explosion” of information available electronically. Faculty are good at telling the library what it should do, but they do not communicate what “we don't need to do.” In some cases, journals no longer may be needed or certain collections should not be purchased, he said.

As for the renovation of Green Library West - the old main library - Gotsch said that preliminary plans would be available during winter quarter. While the bricks and mortar are “rather firmly in place,” the ways in which spaces are to be utilized is still open for discussion. He invited faculty participation in helping make the space utilization as effective as possible.



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