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Is Common Good?

Written By: Jonathan Haddad on February 18, 2011 2 Comments


The language education community here at Berkeley rejoiced to learn this past Tuesday, February 15th, “that more than half a million dollars will be allotted to numerous foreign language courses beginning in 2011-12[.]”

Having thrown my lot in with French, I especially found reason to take heart at the announcement that the language of Stendhal was one of the “happy few” slated to benefit from this new pot of money.  Of particular note is the plan to increase section offerings for “high-demand languages”, namely Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish.  We are informed that this move is part of a “common good” curriculum that is of “critical importance to students beyond their own degree programs and that broadly serve[s] the intellectual development of students across the campus.”  I must admit, though, to feeling pangs of envy as the new fliers in Dwinelle Hall advertising a number of Graduate Student Instructor position openings for the East Asian languages catch my eye and remind me that, somehow, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are somehow, maybe just slightly, “common better” than French.

So, while I’m celebrating the brightening of my job prospects, I thought I would throw out some questions for the FIT readership to see what your reactions are to this announcement.

1) What does this “common good” mean?  How do Arabic and Hindi serve the common good, but Bengali and Turkish don’t? Surely the College of Letters and Science would be interested in promoting the study of languages that have provided significant contributions to world literature including a Nobel Prize for Literature each.  Moreover, Bengali counts, by some measures, the sixth largest community of primary speakers of all world languages.  Still, in order to study this language at Berkeley, one must hop on the sole first-semester course during an odd year in order to catch the intermediate level course on an even year.

2) But this is just an anecdotal way of raising another question: How?  What enters into the decision-making process of administrators to determine which languages are given funding and official blessing?  Are the words “high-demand” an appropriate rationale for a public university? Or do they point toward a market-driven model for language education that gives ground to the prevailing “instrumental focus” and “[n]ational defense and security agendas” whose influences are highlighted in the 2007 MLA Report?  Is our role to respond to what the consumer wants, to measure up class enrollments, and encourage students to serve and protect our country’s greater commercial and geopolitical interests? Or should we seek to develop a greater awareness of the languages that are common but, supposedly, less useful.

3) Finally:  Are we ready for this?  Expanding the number of sections for some languages means adding new teachers and adapting curricula to a wider audience of students with different motivations.  Will new funding go to support the development of new materials and training in methods to support these new sections, or will we be satisfied with merely an extra helping of the same pedagogical stew?  The potential for innovation to match this new and timely support for language learning is significant, and we should welcome this opportunity to take advantage of it.

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2 Responses to “Is Common Good?”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 20 February 2011 at 10:53 am

    Your post is uncommonly good. 🙂

    On a more serious note, thank you for bringing up questions that are of critical importance, particularly in light of this windfall.

  2. Mark Kaiser on: 22 February 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I’d like to attempt to answer some of the excellent questions that Jonathan raises in his post.

    First, common good refers to a large group of courses that are viewed as benefitting the UCB population as a whole, rather than those in a particular major. The additional funding for foreign languages is the third iteration of the cycle, following supplementary funding for gateway courses in math and the sciences and Reading and Composition courses. In both cases many students could not enroll in courses they needed before taking more advanced courses in their major, thus delaying graduation for a semester or year. Similarly, students were having trouble enrolling in R&C courses, sometimes waiting until their junior or senior years before being able to enroll. This is unfortunate, as the R&C courses are designed to be part of the lower division sequence that students take in their first semesters at Berkeley.

    The inability to register for a language would impact some students seeking to major in the language, but I don’t think that a concern for majors was the motivating force for this action. Rather, because this was framed in terms of ‘common good’, the study of foreign languages and access to foreign languages is viewed as part of the core of a university education and students should be able to register for courses in a wide array of languages. It should be emphasized that these additional funds for CJK, Spanish, et al, were not committed at the expense of Telugu or Bulgarian or any other LCTL. I am grateful to be working at an institution that shows such concern for its undergraduate students and for the place of languages in the curriculum. As we all know, such has not been the case at a host of other institutions over the past year.

    Finally, I would note that the administration went to great lengths to get as much pertinent data as it could. Department chairs and department staff in charge of enrollments were surveyed to try to get an idea as to how many students were being turned away in each language. Surveys were followed by one-on-one interviews. These data served as the basis for determining which languages would see augmented funding. The Berkeley Language Center was asked for data on what 10, 20, or 30 additional sections would mean to its services, and our response served as the basis for the augmentation of funding to the BLC. It should be noted that the bulk of that additional funding is earmarked for a BLC Fellowship, to enable an additional lecturer or graduate student to engage in pedagogical research or materials development, and for travel funds to allow lecturers to travel to conferences and present papers. A relatively small amount will cover the additional wear and tear on computers in labs and our high-tech classrooms.

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