Community Forum – Decolonizing the World Language Syllabus

It’s no secret that higher education, especially the liberal arts, face an uncertain future. Already underfunded and undervalued, the humanities in particular are facing even greater uncertainty exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many universities have used the crisis to gut entire programs and departments, leaving the rest of us even more concerned for our future. Fortunately, the UCO College of Liberal Arts has formed a new Center for the Advancement of Liberal Arts to address the many challenges facing our disciplines in these uncertain times. The goals of CALA are to promote the liberal arts through curriculum development, interdisciplinary research, and public outreach. I was asked to represent my department (the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultural Studies) for a roundtable discussion in the Fall 2020 Community Forum. The purpose of the event was to bring together representatives from each of the college’s eight departments to share their experiences, resources, and plans for the future with the UCO community and the greater OKC metro community that our university primarily serves. Topics of particular interest during the forum included COVID-19 challenges in the classroom; Community Engagement; Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; and Student Advocacy. The eight panelists were split between two events, the first for the social sciences and the second for the humanities. After each presenting our opening remarks, we fielded questions from the audience and let the discussion take us where it may.

The following are my opening remarks from last evening’s Community Forum:

Preparing these remarks, I thought specifically of challenges facing the field of Modern Languages, both here at UCO and in the larger academic community. As departments are gutted at many institutions, we ask ourselves about the future of language programs and how do we better communicate our value. Most people (students, faculty, and community members alike) don’t actually know what we do as a discipline. Sure, we teach language intensive classes, but that really only accounts for our lower division courses. Once students reach the upper division, the content shifts to cultural history and literature, with readings and discussion in the target language. Unlike the discipline of linguistics, we study the language in order to engage with culture. Whether a student joins us for one semester or an entire major, cultural competency is at the true core of modern language programs. Broadly speaking, cultural competence is the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own. So it’s not about learning the target language’s culture, it’s about learning how to engage effectively with other cultures in general.

Since we explicitly teach culture, this leads to the issue at the crux of our discipline right now: which culture, whose culture? French in particular has a long, problematic history of Eurocentricity – despite French being spoken on five continents, the majority of French curriculum prioritizes and romanticizes the colonizer nation, often ignoring the huge variety of francophone regions and the colonial history that made them that way. Though the Spanish program at UCO doesn’t share the same shortcoming (we have diverse faculty and a significant Spanish-speaking community here at UCO and in the metro area), I have seen others that do – in the graduate program where I studied, the line could not have been clearer – all the white grad students studied Spain and the non-white ones focused on Latin America.

Fortunately, decolonizing world language study has become a priority across the field. Textbooks have steadily improved, diversifying the cultural content beyond just one chapter, like the Eurocentric books I learned from. Though COVID has obviously caused many drawbacks, it has also facilitated discussions in the field through easily accessible Zoom workshops, talks, and webinars. There’s actually a conference all day tomorrow and Saturday called Diversity, Decolonization, and the French Curriculum featuring more than 70 speakers.

So on a practical level, what does it actually look like to diversify language learning? In language classes, it means studying and celebrating a variety cultures within the francophone world, not just in Europe. It also means emphasizing multiculturalism in France as well – it’s not all fashionable, thin white people sipping espresso under the Eiffel Tower. We can challenge patriarchal language, teaching new pronouns and non-binary language – yes, even in heavily-gendered romance languages. This also means challenging heteronormativity in the textbooks – family vocabulary is always taught through exclusively cishet examples, but we can supplement this with our own material. I will never forget the first time a student approached me with tears in his eyes because I used an image of two grooms to present wedding vocabulary – he said it was the first time he had ever seen himself represented in the classroom.

In our literature and culture/civ classes, this means challenging the “canon” of white male authors. It means deconstructing the idea of France as a monolithic culture, though many French people (the white ones) romanticize their history as such – see the problematic usage of the phrase nos ancetres les Gaulois. As a medievalist, I find this intersects with my other field’s efforts to decolonize the Middle Ages, especially as we’re seeing white supremacist groups co-opt so much medieval imagery.

In ModLang, the importance of decolonizing the concept of culture is even higher because the majority of our majors plan to become language teachers themselves. What we present to them becomes a model for what they will present in their own classrooms. I learned French in a very Eurocentric context from middle school through college, so finding other resources and altering my own teaching is a continual learning process. But emphasizing diversity and inclusion in our classes not only models the importance of this to our students, but will resonate through our students’ future classrooms as well.

If we’re going to keep attracting students, we need to stress that our discipline teaches so much more than how to speak in a different language. But if we are going to emphasize our role in developing cultural competency, we also need to be conscious of what culture we’re presenting.

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