By Dave Waddell
With isolationism on the rise nationally, Chico State’s commitment to internationalism and to having its students learn a foreign language is likewise “in retreat,” a veteran sociology professor argued last week.
“Is Chico State really not bucking national trends which trend toward isolation despite the rhetoric about inclusivity coming from Kendall Hall (the university’s administration building)?” asks a speech written by Professor Tony Waters, who read portions of it May 8 at the spring semester’s final International Forum program.
About 40 students and faculty attended the forum, with most expressing concerns about declining requirements for language learning at the university.
Waters’ speech, the text of which he made available to ChicoSol, lists various ways he thinks the university has pulled back from internationalism. Those include a close vote last month in the Academic Senate defeating a proposal to require one semester of international language instruction to graduate, as well as a recent dropping of a foreign language requirement for International Relations majors.
“In my view, you should not have ‘international’ in your name, unless you speak another language,” Waters said.
In some cases, efforts to bolster internationalism at Chico State have “perished on the shoals of bureaucratic inertia,” Waters said.
To back up his claim of a decline in internationalism, Waters pointed to two International Forums earlier this semester:
–At one, Professor Dean Fairbanks, chair of the Geography and Planning Department, discussed “drops in both incoming international students (attending Chico State) as well as out-going exchange students” studying abroad, according to Waters. (Fairbanks did not reply to ChicoSol’s request for more specifics.)
–At another forum, questions were raised “about the further isolation of our (Saudi Arabian) students on campus when smoking areas were eliminated, pushing the social space of our Saudi students off campus,” Waters said.
Waters is a 22-year Chico State professor who speaks several languages, including Thai, Swahili and German. He also studied Mandarin for two years.
Waters contends that learning a language is not only useful career-wise but “a critical part of an undergraduate education.” Language learning teaches “the virtues of humility and empathy” by forcing the learner to be childlike, unable to “express their adult-sized thoughts.”
The best way to become more humble and empathetic, says Waters’ speech, “is to immerse yourself in a place where it is ‘sink or swim’ to make yourself understood, and you sound like a child. You will become a better human for it, which is something even accounting majors need!”
Some faculty attending the forum said requiring language classes has been made more difficult by the California State University’s push to graduate students in four years.
Patricia Black, chair of Chico State’s Department of International Languages, Literatures and Cultures, attended the May 8 forum. Asked later for her thoughts via email, she described all issues raised as “legitimate.”
“CSU, Chico is the only campus other than CSU, Bakersfield not to continue to include language courses as an integral part of its GE (General Education) program, and some CSUs have made them separate requirements for graduation,” Black wrote in an email reply.
Noting that just one vote in Chico State’s Academic Senate prevented a one-semester language requirement from being advanced, Black said proponents of the proposal intend to revive it during the coming 2018-19 academic year.
“We hope that we can convince our colleagues that language gives access to culture and civilization in a very profound way that, like other GE requirements, opens doors for students,” Black wrote.
Black said she found students’ comments during the forum of particular interest. “They very much saw language study as integral to their futures,” she said.
Those comments included:
–A student who related how she is “constantly ridiculed by friends and family for wanting to learn French.”
–A student who did field work in Kenya contrasted his discovery that “most rural Kenyans are trilingual or more” with the fact that most U.S. citizens speak only English.
–A religious studies major who has taken three semesters of Arabic said that “you learn about culture when you learn a language.”
–Multiple students echoed Waters’ contention that a major should be not be described as “international” without a foreign language component.
At Chico State, International Relations now joins the International Business major in not having a language requirement. Previously, IR had required students to show competency in a foreign language to the level of four college courses.
Associate Professor Jennifer Wilking, who coordinates Chico State’s International Relations program and is the self-described “architect” of the new IR curriculum, said she suspects Waters is “confounding” the discipline of International Relations, which focuses on political relationships among nations, with International Studies, which is typically a more language-oriented major. She said “many” IR programs do not have a language requirement, and dropping it allows Chico State’s current faculty in the program to teach to their expertise.
“The statement that all programs with ‘international’ in the title should require languages seems like an oversimplification, and certainly demonstrates a misunderstanding of International Relations as a discipline,” Wilking said via email.
Wilking said “a very robust discussion” took place over three meetings at the Academic Senate last year regarding the IR curriculum change, and “a common compromise” was reached.
“Unfortunately, we did not hear from Professor Waters or the concerned students you mention during that open and accessible shared governance process,” Wilking told ChicoSol.
Waters said he knew he was “going to step on some toes” by offering suggestions to departments and majors outside his teaching area.
“This is usually not done here at Chico State, where we claim not to have silos but we really do,” Waters said at the forum.
Waters said Chico State has yet to begin “grappling” with the role of language in its relatively new designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.
“The more I talk to my students, the more I think that we have to really develop better our connections with Latin America (and) the Spanish language,” Waters told ChicoSol after the forum.
Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson did not respond to ChicoSol’s request for her thoughts on Waters’ speech.
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.