Clarion Masthead

Where Is the ‘Pathway’ to Language Study?

New York is a global city. Its inhabitants hail from every country in the world, while international commerce and tourism make much of its economy hum. But CUNY’s new rules on general education downgrade the study of foreign languages – a change that has sparked deep faculty concern.

Orlando Hernandez dissented from the final Pathways recommendations.
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CUNY’s overhaul of general education is known as the “Pathways initiative,” and on December 1, the Pathways Task Force Steering Committee issued its final guidelines. The new rules provide for a “Common Core” of 30 credits – a “Required Core” of 12 credits plus a “Flexible Core” of 18 credits. There will be no CUNY-wide requirement for world language study. While most CUNY colleges have a foreign language requirement today, the new Pathways rules put those requirements at risk.

REQUIRED CORE

The Required Core will consist of six credits in English composition and 3 credits each in math and science. The Flexible Core will consist of six 3-credit courses, with students required to take at least one course in each of five categories: World Cultures and Global Issues; US Experience in its Diversity; Creative Expression; Individual and Society; and Scientific World. Foreign language classes will be among the many courses potentially listed under World Cultures and Global Issues.

In addition to the 30-credit Common Core, a “College Option” allows senior colleges to add an additional 6 to 12 credits of general education requirements. Here also, many courses besides language study will be vying for inclusion.

“This will bring about the marginalization of foreign language study at CUNY,” said Orlando Hernández, a professor of humanities at Hostos who is a poet and translator. A member of the Pathways Steering Committee, Hernández dissented from its final recommendations on foreign languages and history.

“Foreign languages are now required at most CUNY schools and across the country, and they should definitely have been included in the Required Core,” said Luigi Bonaffini, chair of Brooklyn College’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. “The Pathways Task Force unfortunately ignored a host of requests from within and beyond CUNY” to include a foreign language requirement.

“One would suspect that omitting foreign languages from the Required Core would lead to diminished foreign language study throughout CUNY,” Alicia Ramos, the chair of CUNY’s Council on World Language Study, told Clarion. “It is possible for colleges to prescribe foreign language study in the College Option or in the Flexible Core. But because colleges will in all likelihood aim to preserve as much of their present structure as possible, the reduction of credits [for general education] will inevitably lead to some losses,” said Ramos, an associate professor of Spanish at Hunter.

NOT ELECTED

Pathways was announced as an effort to simplify transfer requirements in the CUNY system, which many students have found difficult to negotiate. Most faculty responded that the changes under Pathways will do little to resolve these problems, while inflicting significant damage on the curricula at CUNY colleges. The University Faculty Senate (UFS), college governance bodies and the PSC have sharply criticized the Pathways process as undemocratic and an assault on faculty authority over curriculum, and the union is preparing a lawsuit in response. Strategic legal questions inform the timing of the filing of the suit (see Clarion, December 2011).

Pathways’ effect on foreign language instruction is just one of many areas in dispute, but it is drawing criticism from faculty in a range of disciplines. They say the new general education rules mean that far fewer CUNY students will be exposed to this challenging but essential component of a higher education.

“There are too many people who think the whole world speaks English and studying other languages is therefore a waste of time,” UFS Chair Sandi Cooper told Clarion. “And now the CUNY central administration seems to feel the same way.” Cooper noted that the Pathways Task Force was selected by CUNY central administration. Had it been elected by CUNY faculty, she said, its decisions would have been very different.

Emily Tai, chair of the QCC Academic Senate Steering Committee.
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“Mastery of a foreign language is crucial. It lends a certain breadth of perspective,” said Emily Tai, associate professor of history at Queensborough Community College and chair of the QCC Academic Senate Steering Committee. Tai, who speaks French and Italian, observed that knowledge of a foreign language is an increasingly important skill for people going into business careers at a time when many firms operate globally. In a multicultural city like New York, she added, it also increases social and civic competency: “Learning a foreign language is a key tool for negotiating our globalized world.”

In Pathways’ defense, Associate University Provost Julia Wrigley noted that not all CUNY students are currently required to take a foreign language. City Tech, for example, does not have a language requirement, nor do many individual degree programs – for example, some BS degree programs at Hunter or AAS programs at BMCC. “So it’s a more complex picture,” said Wrigley, “and it will remain complex according to what colleges decide to offer.” The design of the Common Core, she said, is intended to maximize colleges’ flexibility.

OPEN LETTER

In an open letter last fall, Distinguished Professor John Brenkman, then chair of Baruch’s English department and now the school’s acting provost, pointed out that CUNY Board of Trustees Chair Benno Schmidt agrees that foreign language study is essential – at least, for students at Avenues, an expensive private school that Schmidt leads.

Brenkman, who also teaches in the English and comparative literature programs at the Graduate Center, cited this passage from the Avenues website: “Modern students must have more than a passing understanding of other cultures, speak other languages fluently and appreciate other histories.” The school, which opens later this year, promises that “Avenues students will become fluent in a second language, which is fundamental to being a truly global citizen.” Schmidt is the K-12 school’s founding chairman and the first person listed on its leadership team. Annual tuition at Avenues is $39,750.

In its pitch to prospective school parents, Avenues emphasizes that “learning a second language provides thinking advantages” and that students who study two languages “have an advantage in cognitive processing.” It notes that in Germany, “fluency in two additional languages is expected of public school students.”

“Mastery of languages other than one’s own,” the school argues, “opens doors to other countries and other cultures. It sparks curiosity and invites travel. It erodes stereotypes and fosters peace. It builds both self-confidence and self-knowledge. All are essential outcomes of an Avenues education.”

“There seems to be a double standard here,” commented Antonella Ansani, chair of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department at QCC. “If you think it’s important for kids who are privileged, you should think it’s important for everybody.”

Many CUNY students from immigrant households already speak a language other than English, and QCC provides special courses for these heritage speakers. Ansani maintains that such classes are essential: “They need to learn that language just like American kids learn English in school.”

This Spring, academic departments across CUNY are to submit courses they would like to see made a part of the new General Education Framework. Each college must then evaluate these proposed courses and decide which will go in its own general education plan, to be submitted by April 1. Those college plans will be scrutinized by a Course Review Committee selected by administration, which will have the authority to decide whether a given course complies with the new Pathways rules. The UFS and the PSC have criticized the fact that, like the Pathways Task Force itself, this Course Review Committee is not elected. Its decisions must be finalized by December 2012, and the General Education Framework will go into effect in the Fall 2013 semester.

DE FACTO

Under the new Pathways rules, a college could create a de facto language requirement by offering only language classes under the category of World Cultures. Some language faculty have discussed pushing for this at their own schools – but competition from other subject areas may make this a long shot.

Alternatively, CUNY administrators have said, a college could establish a separate language proficiency requirement, under which students who could not demonstrate this proficiency would be required to use their World Cultures class for language study. (The sixth class in the Flexible Core could also be restricted in this way.) While this may be more achievable, language faculty say, it still puts foreign language study into competition with other disciplines over a scarce number of credits.

For example, CUNY administrators have told both language faculty and science faculty that they can ask their colleges to require that students use the sixth course in the Flexible Core in a particular way. But if both groups of faculty follow this advice, only one will prevail.

Under Pathways, specific disciplines get less attention than the achievement of “learning outcomes” that prioritize critical-thinking skills. For courses to be included in the World Cultures and Global Issues category within the Flexible Core, they must produce learning outcomes such as the ability to “evaluate evidence and arguments critically or analytically” or “produce well-reasoned written or oral arguments using evidence to support conclusions.” Members of the CUNY Council on World Language Study expressed concern that introductory language courses may not be seen as a priority under these guidelines, as first-year language students can hope at best to learn to speak and write their new language in simple sentences.

LEARNING

Eckhard Kuhn-Osius, associate professor of German at Hunter, noted that a first-year language student who can speak in basic sentences has learned hundreds of vocabulary words and dozens of grammatical structures that require applying principles and distinctions not paralleled in English. “The learning of a language is definitely a higher-order thinking activity,” Kuhn-Osius said. Other CUNY language faculty point to studies on the broad cognitive benefits of second-language acquisition (an argument also made by Avenues).

Language faculty are also concerned that the Common Core’s structure, built around 3-credit classes, will curtail the 4-credit language courses that many departments have adopted for specific pedagogical reasons.

At Bronx Community College, students are required to take eight foreign language credits. “If we are forced to give up the fourth hour, we will simply have to choose what gets cut from instruction,” said Rex Butt, interim chair of BCC’s Modern Languages Department. BCC faculty determined that the fourth hour was needed for students’ success, to provide a solid base of more contact time as they learn a new tongue. “Three hours means that students will leave with far less command of the language,” said Butt. “If they take only one course they may retain little or nothing.”

At campuses like Hunter and Brooklyn College that have strong foreign language requirements – 12 credits at Hunter, 9 at BC – faculty hope to convince their school to use its College Option credits to maintain foreign language study as an integral part of general education. But that may be a tough sell: for example, for Hunter to continue its current language requirement would require 100% of the maximum 12 additional credits that can be required under the College Option. “We feel that the Pathways rules are a challenge to four-year schools like Brooklyn College that proclaim themselves standard-bearers of the liberal arts tradition,” said Bonaffini.

GENERAL EDUCATION

The foreign language requirements now in place at CUNY colleges have fulfilled one key function of general education: many students who major or minor in a language decide to do so only after taking a required course and discovering that they enjoy it. Kuhn-Osius told Clarion that at Hunter, one-third to half of the students who major in German decided to do so after they were exposed to it in a required language class. The same is true of many Spanish majors at Baruch said Elena Martínez, chair of the college’s Modern Languages Department.

“Language is one of the most complicated cultural goods we have,” Kuhn-Osius said, “and we need to give it its proper place in the educational process.”

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RELATED COVERAGE: Pathways Provokes Debate