How not to promote the humanities

 I found some academic dos and don’ts on another WordPress blog.  The specific target is language instruction, but the dicta are broad enough to cover the humanities as a whole. 

The don’ts:

Vague, hollow promises that can’t be proven. Students see right through vague promises that language learning will get them better jobs. Today’s job market requires more than knowledge of another language. Vague promises are down. Unless you can prove it, don’t claim it.

Indeed, to say that majoring in Classics will “equip students with knowledge and analytical skills that can be applied in many areas (e.g., law, politics, business, biosciences, computer science and media)” is rather broad.  I am sure that the department that put this on their website has sufficient evidence corroborating that claim, but adding at least the premises to that conclusion would be very helpful.

Authoritative “I know best because I’m your teacher” attitudes. In today’s world where technology is moving at the speed of light, young people are very aware that they know more than the “over-30s”, as we are affectionately known. Old, traditional, hierarchical attitudes are definitely out.

That’s self-evident.  Or is it?  I’ve known many academics who profess democracy but alieve autocratism.  In students’ eyes, autocratic behavior is a sign of desperation and weakness.

Saying that learning languages is easy. Because it’s really hard work. Students can see right through claims that language learning is easy, or that if they play an audio program in their car or on their iPod they’ll achieve fluency. They know that achieving competence takes dedication, time and effort. Lying to students when deep down they know better, is out.

Oh the Rosetta Stone and Dr. Lozanov!  Americans are after fast food; it took Julia Child decades to persuade them about the benefits of French cooking.  Ditto about languages, and about every other academic pursuit.  Slow cooking pays off and is better for your health.

Complaining and grumbling about cutbacks and lack of funding. Students don’t care that their teachers have a big pile of corrections on their desk. Or that they’re overworked and underpaid. Or that language programs are the underdog of the institution. Really, they just don’t care. Complaining about it makes us, their mentors, look stuffy and jaded. Face it, folks, grumbling is down.

Yes, stuffy and jaded.  If you are so unhappy, leave and don’t look back.  Moaning and groaning doesn’t lead to dialogue – witness the myriad of blogs that do it (the responses range from “me too” to “me too,” but no effective solution is offered).  Plus, if you moan and groan about your academic predicaments, what are you going to do when you face far more serious problems?  Epictetus was right – reframing is the way.

 Now, the dos:

Clear, provable demonstrations of how learning a language can have a significant impact on our students. If vague promises from “authorities” are out, then irrefutable evidence from learners themselves is most definitely in. We’re not talking about general-knowledge building here. We’re talking about clear demonstrations of the impact language learning has on our students. Projects that challenge students to ask themselves how they themselves have grown and changed in positive ways are definitely in. Sharing the results of those projects in ways that demonstrate student learning through showcases, school days, and presentations to parents and community members are also up.

Ask students to keep a journal about your class.  Write stories about successful students – or better yet, interview them.  And by the way, reflecting on your evaluations is not a bad idea either – the best success stories are those that follow failure.  Constantly revise your strategies and ask students for input.  The whole educational situation is like a delightful chess game – if you learn how to play it well, your students will respond in kind.

Using technology to demonstrate language learning and its impact. Take the projects mentioned above and show the results through technology and you’re very, very in. Demonstrations of work through portfolios, student-made videos, student blogs, Wikis, podcasts. All of it is in. We’re not talking about using technology for the sake of using technology. We’re talking about using technology to demonstrate students’ learning and show how they themselves reflect upon the impact language learning has had on them. And then sharing it with others through technology. Very, very in.

I am an enthusiastic neophyte here.  Hey, I built my website from a blank Wix template.  True, Wix is very user-friendly, but this is what I say now…

Proving the value of language learning through stories and speech. Public speaking and presentation skills are enjoying new levels of prestige in the Obama era. For the first time in years, there is a U.S. President who is wooing young people with his power to communicate verbally. Today, it’s cool to be articulate. Debate club is no longer for the nerds. Second language speech contests, debates, poetry readings, and story telling are hot, hot, hot.

You have to believe what you’re saying though.  And be ready for challenges.  Again, it’s a chess game.

Linking language learning to leadership and changing the world in amazingly positive ways. All around the world people are quietly learning other languages as a means not only to become self-empowered, but also to empower others.  They are choosing to learn another language in order to go to a country where they can make a difference, for however short a time. Housing projects. Clean water projects. Health-related projects. Projects that help children and families in the developing world. These are more common place today than they have ever been. Learning a language in order to reach out to others and make a difference in the world is “in”.

My dream is to empower the children in inner cities.  I know how scared you can feel if you can’t make sense of what others are saying – all your defenses go up, and you are likely to overreact.  But if you know how to deconstruct a statement, and how to supply the missing premises in what sounds like sorites, you become very, very calm and focused.  The study of those dead languages entails heavy reflection on grammar, and grammar is nothing else than vehicle for logic.  And we all have the gift for logic – hey, I know a 2 1/2-year old who catches me when I equivocate! 

Showing funders the impact their investment has on our students, our communities and our world. If students are tired of hearing teachers grumble, funders – and that includes government or other funders – are definitely tired of it. Today savvy educators and program directors are saying, “We’re going to show you how your funding makes a difference.” Then you show them through all those provable demonstrations that were mentioned earlier. Then you say, “See the impact your contribution has made? Thank you.  Thank you for investing in our students and our future. Their future. Now let’s see what can accomplish with your continued support…” Seeing government and funders as partners and “investors in the future” is totally in.

I am all for it.  It’s all negotiation, baby, and multicultural life has taught me that negotiating sine ira et studio is a must.

There are those who, to avoid falling, spend their lives supine.  I am not among them.  Long live the Raiders!


4 thoughts on “How not to promote the humanities

  1. Thanks for linking to the article — it’s comforting to see pragmatic approaches to teaching are out there somewhere! And as someone who used to be a technophobe, I can say it’s been worth getting to know technology. I did a Facebook page for a couple of my classes, and it really did get the kids to interact with the material on a much more daily basis. You should have seen all the modern day references they found to mythology!

    1. And if you design your own website, the impact is even greater. Try Wix, or, since you’re studying web design, go from absolute scratch.

      Then again, technology is just a tool – the main thing is how much you care for your students’ actual learning.

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