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Language department needs improvement

Story by Annelise Tarnowksi

Many Drake University students say that it is difficult to fulfill the school’s “responsible global citizenship” mission statement tenet with the current language program.

The university’s world languages and cultures program, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, offers a certificate of competence. This requires two semesters of language studies beyond the intermediate level, a course in intercultural communication and a study abroad experience, including a pre-abroad class, a class while abroad and a post-abroad capstone.

There are varied complaints from students about this program, which include a lack of speaking time, inability to complete the abroad experience and a lack of grammatical focus.

Brady Deprey is a first-year pursuing a certificate in Spanish language and culture.

“I think on paper, the WLC program is awesome, but the 50 minutes we meet, twice a week with our professors flies by, and we can’t always get all the time we need to talk,” Deprey said. “We need more speaking time, and the native speaker sessions and class sessions each need to achieve certain goals … lecture sessions are for grammar and culture and reading and assignments; speaking sessions are strictly for speaking and getting better at thinking on our feet.”

The certificate of competence is available in seven languages, including Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian and the two most popular Spanish and Arabic. Students can enroll in any language classes even if they do not wish to pursue a certificate of competence.

Twelve years ago, Drake had a modern language department that had majors and minors available, Marc Cadd said, director of the WLC program.

“For a variety of reasons that department was dissolved, disbanded and almost all of those professors left Drake,” Cadd said.

Cadd has been the director of the WLC program for four years. The modern language department had been long gone by the time he was hired. He recalled that the program in place earlier specified that students only met with language professors during office hours, and the class time was always with native speakers whom were trained by the professor. Slightly more than half of the professors were not at Drake.

The certificate of competence program started four years ago with 25 students pursuing it.

Now, professors meet with students during class time twice per week, and the native speakers come once per week. All seven languages have professors on campus as of this semester. Around 40 students are registered as pursuing the certificate, meaning approximately five more students per year register.

In interviews, a half-dozen students have expressed interest in pursuing a language if it were a degree program rather than a certificate.

Joseph Lenz, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said  he is not often contacted by students and has only heard from a small number who would prefer a degree.

“The student interest does not warrant it,” he said. “While enrollment in the first two years of the languages has been good, it falls off sharply after the second year.”

Advocates say the program has made improvements over the years and the professors and students are dedicated to continuing its development.

Brian Adams-Thies is a professor of anthropology and women’s studies. He studied abroad as an undergraduate and later completed his Ph.D. researching in Spain. He has lived abroad multiple times for a total of seven years.

“I’ve had numerous students apply to grad school in anthropology and all of them have been admitted with deficiencies because they’re supposed to have at least four semesters of a foreign language which they can’t get here,” he said.

Adams-Thies is working with Cadd, among others, to reinstate a Latin American studies concentration.

Erin Swierczek left Drake for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is studying psychology and linguistics.

“My Spanish professor (at Madison) has a pre-scheduled, relevant lesson plan each class period, and she is very well educated and experienced in teaching her language to non-native speakers,” Swierczek said.

“She is very skilled at taking an English speaker’s perspective when approaching a certain grammatical concept. I thought my Drake professor lacked that component of teaching, one that I find very crucial.”

There are 12 professors of language at Drake this semester, and every language has at least one professor. This is the first time since Cadd became the director of the WLC program that this has been a reality.

“Some of them have not taught college level (classes) before, though they all have at least the Master’s degree or a Ph.D., so there have been some glitches,” Cadd said. “I imagine the spring semester being much smoother than the fall semester has been.

Supporters say the benefit of the certificate program, besides that it is can be marked on a transcript, is the study abroad experience. Being abroad requires the student to use his or her knowledge of the language and culture through 12 delineated tasks, which include requiring the student to attend a public event and interviewing attendees about the event and its significance.

Some students find, however, that they cannot go abroad.

Senior Zac Pace is not pursuing the certificate because it is not relevant to his career goals. He took three years of Mandarin Chinese in high school, but has not taken a Chinese course since then.

Pace believes that learning a language is important for students. “It helps them understand their native language better, and opens them up to more cultural experiences,” Pace said.

He found that acquiring the certificate is difficult. “Studying abroad isn’t always possible, especially financially.”

Maggie Olson, a sophomore Spanish student who is studying abroad in Spain for the spring semester, is not pursuing the WLC certificate.

“No one notified me that I had to take WLC 80 before going abroad,” she said. “And it’s only a certificate, not a degree of any type.”

Olson took four years of Honors Spanish in high school, but has avoided the language courses at Drake because of what she has heard.

Cadd has seen the program in many stages. Currently, he believes it is “in a lot better place than we were eight years ago, when I started.”

He has just finished writing a five-year plan for the program. This includes the addition of American Sign Language in the fall of 2013, experiential learning, summer institutes in four of the seven offered languages, a first-year seminar for students who are interested in languages and a January-term course for 2014.

The plans for the next five years likely will not be required for the certificate, but would rather supplement the learning for students who wish to increase their language skills and knowledge of other cultures.

Cadd wants students to come to him if they do not feel like they are benefitting from the World Languages and Cultures program.

“I can’t change things if I’m not aware of what needs to be changed,” he said. “We are definitely aware of what we’re doing, we’re definitely aware of some of the problems that there definitely have been in the past, and we’re pretty proactively trying to address those, and we feel good … about where we’re at right now.”

Cadd can be reached via email at marc.cadd@drake.edu. He welcomes appointments surrounding this topic.


Corrections: In an earlier version of this article, Marc Cadd was said to have been the director of the WLC program for eight years. He has been at Drake University for eight years. He has been director for four years. It should also be noted that the program has a  strong focus on oral communication, as opposed to written communication.

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