How less-popular programs are wooing back students

Foreign language departments are changing the way classes are taught to bring in more students

Departments of less-popular fields of study, particularly foreign languages, are revamping their curriculum structures to attract and retain more students, Dan Berrett reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Rethinking educational goals

Some disciplines are trying to attract students by offering interdisciplinary courses that can satisfy language distribution requirements. By assimilating into the general education curriculum, department leaders aim to show that their courses have value to the institution as a whole.

Georgetown University's German department was among the first to rethink foreign language instruction, with a focus on developing students' literary and analytical skills. Professor emerita Heidi Byrnes, who led the change, says the department emphasized students' ability to evaluate texts and present arguments over developing fluency.

Georgetown's German department has only 20 majors but enrolls many more students in its higher level courses. Of the 375 students enrolled in German courses, more than half continue to take classes into the higher levels of instruction.

Ramping up instruction

Foreign language departments historically have followed a bifurcated model of instruction, in which lower level courses focus on the building blocks of language such as vocabulary and grammar, while higher language classes incorporate more complex themes and textual analysis, and are generally intended for students majoring in that language.

Georgetown is blurring that traditional line between introductory and advanced classes by introducing students in lower-level education classes to advanced concepts, such as analysis of literature, film, and culture.

By employing such methods, "You tap into who they are as critically thinking adults," says Heather Willis-Allen, an associate professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

New structures subject to criticism

Some educators, such as Elizabeth Bernhardt, a professor of German studies and director of the Language Center at Stanford University, argue that restructuring the principles of foreign language instruction defeats the purpose of the learning process. Dismissing the bifurcated structure of foreign language courses is a mistake, she says, arguing, "There's no other way around it. You've got to go through the basic stuff." In addition, she notes, teaching courses while touching only tangentially on other areas of study risks creating a "faux interdisciplinarity"(Berrett, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/10).


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