Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Universities: An Instructor’s Perspective

A mid-November 2012 Princeton University announcement of a lecture by the widely published professor of German, Claire Kramsch has attracted my attention as another semester committed to the teaching of German is coming to an end for me next week.  The background information on this academic event sums up critical issues in the field that the Modern Language Association of America highlights and analyzes in its report from five years ago:

“The influential 2007 MLA Report ‘Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World’ calls for the development of ‘translingual and transcultural competence’ in foreign language education.  This competence, which would replace the goal to achieve the competence of an educated native speaker, aspires to provide students with ‘the ability to operate between languages’, ‘to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language’, and ‘to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture’.”

Let us consider at this point an answer to a critical question: What are the classroom realities for the teaching of a foreign language (in my case, German) for an instructor in a non-tenure-track position – of whom the MLA report in question speaks in the section titled “Transforming Academic Programs”?  With the current standard (at my university) of three-courses-a-semester teaching load, the teaching-learning exchange amounts to a significant dilemma (times three).  For the number of students even in specialized language courses – one with its sole focus on listening and speaking and another, on reading, writing and grammar, i.e. those that have the best potential to provide learners with the ability to achieve the goals cited above, often reaches twenty-four or twenty-five.  The impossibility for the achievement of the envisioned state of foreign language education under the circumstances for the duration of approximately forty-four 50-minute long class sessions thrice a week is, thus, evident.

In its one conclusive statement, the same MLA report section stresses a core issue that “[t]he standard configuration of university foreign language curricula” – one “narrow model” creates: “Foreign language instructors often work entirely outside departmental power structures and have little or no say in the educational mission of their department, even in areas where they have particular expertise.”  Hence, perhaps herein lies the reason as to why expectations for foreign language teaching and realities of the actual foreign language classroom continue to clash with one another to significant extent.

The actual foreign language classroom represents to me something beyond the grim reality that goes against the demands of the relevant “power structures”: My passion, dedication, devotion and determination to teach.  A commitment I had made without planning many, many years ago.  As a child, maybe until about the age of four or five, I was a true admirer of my dad, a researcher in veterinary medicine.  Whenever asked what I wanted to become when I grew up, I had a firm answer: “Veterinarian.”  Then, in elementary school, it was time for me to fall out of love with my dad’s profession and be taken aback by my lovely teacher, Emine Hanım (a Turkish form of respectful address).  Some relatives continued to ask me about my future career, and the answer they kept hearing all the way through high school was the same: “A teacher.”  I was one to our housemaster’s children and to some family friends’ children while in high school.  Right after my graduation from Hacettepe University in 1977, however, it turned official: I had become a college instructor of German.

Despite it all, even today, on the eve of another very trying semester’s last leg, with considerable confidence, I am able to echo Confucius: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” (goodreads.com).  Whether Confucius had teaching in mind, is unknown to me, as it may be to many others; or, if he had been reminiscing his disciples while he conceived this thought.  I most certainly do and am.  Because of what I believe to realize in the eyes and words of those few students of mine every semester yet: That special glow, a hint of excitement for learning.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Universities: An Instructor’s Perspective

  1. Pingback: Penny Ur - Books and Theories

  2. Kathy Salloum

    An excellent portrayal of dedication and reality. Once again, your eloquence shines and your thoughtful wording sheds light on the difficult situation many universities face. Your students are blessed to have such a shining spirit!

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    • I thank you once again for your remarkable insight that leaves me with such enthusiastic critique of my writings. I wasn’t sure how expressive I have managed to be with my words in my attempt to at least to touch upon the instructor’s perspective – one that too often gets away. Thank you for your visit and helpful comments!

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