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Faculty Senate to consider foreign language, writing requirements

STANFORD -- The Faculty Senate on Thursday, Jan. 26, will consider strengthening Stanford's foreign language requirement, a proposal that met stiff opposition during a preliminary discussion in December.

It also will take up a popular proposal to enhance the writing requirement.

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

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

In bringing the issue to the senate, the Committee on Undergraduate Studies modified that proposal so that only the proficiency test would satisfy the requirement. However, some faculty members oppose a universal language test, noting it would be the only instance in which passing a proficiency test is required for graduation.

Now, sensing that a mandatory proficiency test might sink the whole proposal to strengthen the foreign language requirement, three senate members from language departments have asked the committee to drop it, and the Executive Committee of the Division of Languages, Cultures and Literatures has endorsed their request.

In a Jan. 14 letter to the Committee on Undergraduate Studies, Mary Pratt, Spanish and Portuguese; Tom Hare, Asian languages; and Rob Robinson, German studies, were critical of a graduation requirement “based on an output test not tied to particular Stanford courses.” They noted that some faculty fear students would become “trapped in a requirement they are unable to fulfill, no matter how many classes they take.”

“Others are rightly daunted (as we are) by the idea of managing a proficiency exam that would be taken by every single student,” the three senators wrote.

They said it was “unlikely that the CUS proposal will pass in its current form,” but that widespread support otherwise exists for a strengthened language requirement.

Their proposal includes several options students could use to pass the foreign language requirement:

  • One year of college-level study or
  • A score of 4 or 5 on the Advanced Placement test or
  • Passing the SAT achievement test or
  • Using a diagnostic test in a language to either pass out of the requirement or determine how many quarters of language must be taken.

The Committee on Undergraduate Studies was scheduled to consider the request at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25.

At the Dec. 1 Faculty Senate meeting, some faculty, including Provost Condoleezza Rice, supported suggestions to beef up the language requirement, saying that the study of language is an integral part of a liberal education.

Others, particularly those in the social and natural sciences, said that students already have too many requirements to fulfill.

Also on the senate agenda is a recommendation that each student must pass a writing-intensive course in his or her major. No one spoke against the proposal in December, and history Professor James Sheehan, head of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, noted to smiles that very few people “are willing to stand up and speak in favor of bad writing.”



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