Edem Dzodzomenyo / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Prof. Marilyn Migiel, romance studies, led the "committee of the whole" on Tuesday that discussed a proposal about the arts college's language requirement.

May 2, 2018

Arts and Sciences Faculty Declines to Vote on Language Requirement

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Arts college faculty decided to not vote on a proposal to keep the college’s language requirement the same, putting off a decision on the requirement to an undetermined date.

At the meeting, some faculty argued that students commonly fulfill the requirement with a language they learned in high school or at home, so it does not encourage them to try other, less commonly taught languages. Others argued that commonly taught languages, like French and Spanish, are beneficial to learn, as they are spoken by much of the world’s population.

Currently, the college’s language requirement can be fulfilled either by taking one non-introductory class or 11 credits of instruction in one language. In a final report released in March, the Arts and Sciences Curriculum Committee recommended a shortening of this requirement to either one non-introductory class or two language courses of at least three credits each in the same language.

Prof. Marilyn Migiel ’75, romance studies, senior associate dean for the arts and humanities, told The Sun that she put forth a motion, which was passed, for Tuesday’s assembly to become a “committee of the whole.” This meant the committee could not make a binding vote, Migiel said, but it allowed for the faculty to “have the broadest possible input into the Curriculum Review Committee proposal … in a flexible way.”

Migiel said that a working group had come up with a new recommendation that would keep the current requirement “unchanged.” The group made a proposal responding to the Curriculum Committee’s recommendations, as previously reported  by The Sun.

“We propose that the college’s existing foreign language requirement be retained unchanged as a key component of foundational learning for the undergraduate education we provide in both the liberal arts and global citizenship,” the working group said.

The proposal would also let one of the student’s courses fulfill two distribution requirements, when such a course satisfies those requirements.

Migiel said the result of the committee of the whole’s vote would have been solely a “recommendation” to the arts college faculty assembly and to the curriculum committee, but faculty ultimately elected not to vote on the new proposal. The information gathered at the meeting now returns to the curriculum committee, Migiel said.

Before the decision to not vote was made, faculty members discussed problems with voting. Prof. Brian Crane, chemistry, a member of the curriculum committee, said it is “difficult” to look at one element of the curriculum without “the context” of the rest of the curriculum.

“So while I may well support the language requirement remaining as it is, I may not support it if there isn’t balancing flexibility elsewhere in the curriculum,” he said. “So I just find it very difficult to pull out the pieces and vote on them one at a time.”

Faculty also debated whether to vote for the two elements of the proposal — one keeping the language requirement the same and the other allowing a course to count for two requirements — at the same time or separately.

Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, said he “fully understands” why faculty members want to vote for the two elements of the proposal together.

“Most of the time, the humanities are talking,” he said. “Most of the time, the scientists aren’t talking. But the scientists have very strong opinions. So if you exclude them, the thing isn’t going to take off.”

Professors also critiqued the current language requirement. Prof. Rob Thorne, physics, said that often science students make “boring” choices for their language requirements, choosing to study either languages learned in high school or languages that students grew up with at home.

He said that a third of students learn a new language at Cornell, while two-thirds take an “advanced option” of the language they learned in high school.

“I want to increase the diversity of language experience that our students have,” Thorne said. “Let’s say science students … want to go to Africa for a gap year or a few years to teach science there … The current system, talking with our students, does not encourage that. It discourages language exploration.”

Prof. Mitchell Greenberg, romance studies, responded to Thorne’s comment, addressing how French is spoken in Africa.

“Just a point of information for all those physics students who want to go teach in physics in Africa, the major language in which you’ll be taught is French … Not to mention all the other physics students who are going to South America and teaching classes in Spanish,” he said.

Prof. Simone Pinet, romance studies, expressed her support for the committee’s recommendation and said that Spanish was “being unfairly targeted” by faculty members at the meeting as “uninteresting” and “unhelpful.” She defended the language, saying that she wants her children to be able study it in university and use it in the job they end up doing.

“It’s also a question of the nation,” she said. “As somebody mentioned before, it is the second most spoken language in the world, after Mandarin. It is the second language in this country, so it is about not only global citizenship, but about learning about your own country, [and] what we do in this language that is part of this country.”

In addition, faculty discussed a few other elements of the curriculum committee’s recommendations, including the proposal that would require students to complete five of their 10 distribution courses in the first two years at Cornell.

“The reason this was added to the proposal was because of feedback from you, that you wanted students to get out of their majors early on and to explore early,” said Prof. Thomas Pepinsky, history, chair of the curriculum committee, addressing the body. “It’s not so much to prevent people from not taking classes their sophomore versus their junior year, but to do as much exploration as possible as early as possible.”

Gretchen Ritter ’83, dean of the arts college, called this “one of the most important recommendations” that was created.

“I think exposing students early to the breadth of our curriculum, it opens doors to them in ways that have big ramifications down the line,” she said.