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Faculty approves enhanced language, writing requirements

STANFORD -- After vigorous debate, the Faculty Senate on Thursday, Jan. 26, endorsed proposals that will strengthen Stanford's writing requirement and modify the way students can fulfill the foreign language requirement.

As suggested by the Commission on Undergraduate Education in October, three years of high school language no longer will be sufficient to meet Stanford's graduation requirement in foreign language. Also, students will be required to complete a writing-intensive course in their major.

The writing proposal generated little discussion when it was first discussed in December, while the language change had been controversial.

However, during final consideration of the proposals, some science faculty questioned what would constitute "writing- intensive" courses in majors such as chemistry and mathematics. They also suggested that science and engineering students should not be forced to take language courses because their graduation requirements are already too stiff.

In the end, both measures passed by margins of slightly more than 2 to 1. They became the first proposals by the Commission on Undergraduate Education to earn senate approval.

Implementation of the changes is set for the freshman class entering in 1996-97, but could be delayed or even abandoned. After much procedural wrangling, senators agreed that they reserved the right to review this spring any prior decisions relating to commission recommendations. This provides an opportunity to reverse earlier actions if the senate ends up adding too many graduation requirements.

The changes in procedures for fulfilling the language requirement were approved after the Committee on Undergraduate Studies revised an earlier recommendation that would have required all students to pass a language proficiency examination before graduation. At the suggestion of the language division, the committee reversed its stance the day before the senate meeting.

Introducing the proposal, Professor David Brady, chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Studies, pointed out that the language requirement itself would not change, only the ways in which it can be met.

Since 1982, Stanford students have been required to complete the equivalent of one year of college-level study in a foreign language. Currently, two-thirds of students satisfy the requirement by completing three years of language in high school, but many faculty say that is not equivalent to one year of college study.

The high school option now will be eliminated, a move that Brady and his committee said would put Stanford in line with its peer institutions.

Otherwise, options for fulfilling the requirement remain essentially unchanged. As approved by the senate, they are:

  • Complete three quarters of a first-year language course at Stanford or the equivalent at another post-secondary institution.
  • Score 4 or 5 on the Advanced Placement test in a language other than English.
  • Score 600 or better on the Scholastic Assessment Test achievement test in a language other than English.
  • Take a diagnostic test in a foreign language, using it to either place out of the requirement or to determine how many quarters of college-level language must be taken.

Language: pro and con

Although the language issue under debate supposedly was how to satisfy the existing requirement, senators ended up debating the requirement itself.

Defending it, George Fredrickson, history, said it contributes to Stanford being viewed as an international university rather than as a technical school.

Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, industrial engineering, said the study of language is training not in how to read scientific literature but in "how to think and reason in another frame of reference."

Rob Polhemus, English, said the requirement is about institutional values. A "yes" vote would show that Stanford "takes the language requirement seriously and this is important in our world and in the educational world. That tips it for me."

Tom Hare, chair of Asian languages, said the requirement as it now stands is a bare minimum. "There are many here who feel that we need a stronger language requirement at Stanford," he said.

Rob Robinson, German studies, asked the science faculty to consider whether they would accept three years of high school study in their disciplines as equivalent to one year at Stanford.

Provost Condoleezza Rice expressed strong support for language study, comparing it to the university's efforts to teach basic science to non-scientists. The object in both cases is to expose students so that they will be interested in further study in that area.

She said that students will learn a lot in one year of language, but will not become fluent.

Rice, who observed that she "murdered French in high school but loved Russian in graduate school," said that a student studying Russian would learn that President Reagan was wrong when he said there was no Russian word for "freedom." In fact, there is no word for "privacy" in Russian, she said. A student knowing this would understand why democracy is having "such a rough ride in modern-day Russia."

Her remarks drew rejoinders from two senators. Amos Tversky, psychology, told Rice that students were more likely to get deep insights about privacy and freedom in Russia from taking her Russian culture class rather than three quarters of Russian grammar.

Denis Phillips, education, pointed out that Rice took Russian in graduate school, "when she had a need for it and when her vocational goals, presumably, were fixed."

He suggested that the current system is working well and should be left alone.

Phillips calculated that about 1,200 of 1,600 freshmen take language courses, despite the fact that two-thirds of each entering class have been fulfilling the requirement with the high school option. He suggested that the language faculty "ought to be absolutely delighted" at the high voluntary enrollment figures.

As for the idea that studying language "gives you a terrific insight into other cultures," Phillips said to wide laughter: "I know people who have been speaking English as native speakers for 50 years who don't have much insight into American culture."

Tversky estimated that between 10 percent and 20 percent of students are "language phobic" - suffering the counterpart to math phobia - and should be allowed to take courses more relevant to them. He said he would like his students to take language, but that it should not be forced on them.

Learning a foreign language can be "very useful," but statements about what it will do for the human mind are exaggerated, he said.

Expanding on Tversky's points, Michael Fayer, chemistry, complained that students in technical majors have too few opportunities for elective courses.

Biology and chemistry students have to complete 106 units in their major, and engineering students take between 115 and 118 units in the 180-unit curriculum, he said. When distribution requirements are added, chemistry and biology majors are left with only 21 units unassigned and engineers have only 12 units left over for courses of their choice.

Those students should be able to take courses in philosophy or history or anthropology or whatever they want, Fayer said, explaining that he would support the language requirement only if the senate would knock 15 units off other graduation requirements.

James Sheehan, history and chair of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, reminded Fayer that 180 units is the minimum that students take to graduate. Most take many more than that, he said.

Fayer responded that the heavy requirements force students to take more units, and sometimes attend an extra quarter, which is costly. The institution should not build in an expectation that students will take extra units. "We should aim at 180 - that's what our requirement is," he said.

Brad Efron, statistics, said that the requirement would be a burden for students who had to take three quarters of language. "This is an enormous increase in people's requirements," he said, and an "unfair tax" on students in high-tech, high-requirement majors. It cannot be justified on the basis of what these students need to know, he said. "The proposal seems heavy-handed and unwise and most of all unneeded."

Tom Heller, law and former director of Overseas Studies, said he had no dispute about "where we would like our students to end up," but he expressed concern that it is "very difficult to teach someone language who doesn't want to be there."

Writing debate

After generating little debate when it was first discussed in December, the proposed addition of a writing-intensive course in each major provoked several faculty members.

John Bravman, materials science and associate dean of engineering, asked what would constitute a writing-intensive course in physics, electrical engineering or mathematics.

Fayer asked if the Chemistry Department should hire English teaching assistants to critique students' lab reports.

John Brauman, also of chemistry, complained that "I'm sitting here listening to another one of these nonproblems being solved." Departments that are not teaching communication skills should be told to change their ways, he said. "We're all in favor" of having students learn to write, he said. But the institution does not need "another piece of legislative baggage."

Roger Noll, who teaches a writing-intensive course in economics, said more work would be required of teaching assistants and faculty. Teaching assistants in writing-intensive courses earn more, so the change has budgetary implications that have not been discussed, he said.

The writing courses are a good idea and students get a lot out of them, he said. "But there is a question about whether the value-added in the Statistics Department or the Math Department from having a writing-intensive required course is worth the incremental cost."

Dean of Humanities and Sciences John Shoven responded that about two-thirds of his departments already require their majors to take a writing-intensive course. "So, we're not starting from zero."

History Professor Nancy Kollman, who chaired the commission subcommittee that developed the proposal, said that each department would have leeway in designing courses. The intention is to develop writing and critical thinking skills, she said. In the humanities, this would involve a long paper, while in the sciences an oral report would suffice. Feedback and revision would be expected.

Gail Mahood, geological and environmental sciences and a member of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, said that the object is to assure that students analyze the literature in their disciplines. In the sciences, this could involve reading and interpreting original journal articles, or writing an abstract that would be submitted for a meeting, or analyzing three journal articles on a particular topic. It is not about having chemistry teaching assistants correct grammar, she said.

“What we really want is for students to learn how to think like chemists or geologists or English professors or political scientists,” Mahood said.

Review of senate actions

Prior to the writing and language discussions, the senate debated a resolution to “hold open the possibility to revisit any senate action [relating to CUE] in the context of subsequent action.” This would allow for sequential consideration of commission recommendations, along with an opportunity to “view the final product as a whole.” This was proposed as a safeguard against too many additional requirements.

After much debate about when the product would be final and whether the resolution would delay implementation of changes, the faculty approved a version that allows the senate to review its CUE-related actions by the end of spring quarter.



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