New major proposed to teach language alongside cultural and literary tradition

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The German, Russian and Classical Studies department submitted a proposal to the Academic Planning Committee (APC) this month for a new Literature, Language and Culture major at Occidental. The major would provide additional options for students who are interested in both the advanced study of a language as well as its accompanying cultural elements.

If approved, the German, Russian and Classical Studies department would be renamed Literature, Language and Culture, and the major of the same name would potentially be offered to students as early as Fall 2015.

Although this new major would be housed under what is currently the German, Russian and Classical Studies department, students would be able to fulfill the language requirement with any language offered at Occidental. The department’s faculty hopes that this all-inclusive aspect of the major will lead to greater collaboration with other language departments in the future and potentially the introduction of new languages not currently offered.

“It’s just a bit frustrating, because I think we have a great resource in all of our language professors, and we don’t tap that resource,” German, Russian and Classical Studies Professor Damian Stocking said. “This allows us to share resources among each other, with each other and with the school at large.”

While stand-alone majors in languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Spanish already exist, Stocking envisions the Literature, Language and Culture major as taking an interdisciplinary approach to language. Rather than just having students become fluent in a language, the major would require students to learn about the language’s cultural and historical background.

“We’re trying to get you to the phase where you could start to read text in the original [language], and then start to make connections,” Professor of German, Russian and Classical Studies Debra Freas said.

Stocking believes that knowledge of the original language is crucial when interpreting a text, and stresses that it is only through the original language that one can fully understand a text’s cultural meaning.

“To try to approach the culture without the guidance of someone who understands the language leaves you open to all kinds of errors in misinterpretation,” Stocking said.

Requirements for the major would include three advanced language reading courses, one professionalization seminar, one literature and culture course, one theory and methodology course and two interdisciplinary courses chosen by the student. The advanced language reading courses would involve foreign language material studied in English translation and a one-unit seminar in which the texts would be studied in the original language.

The proposal cites this “two-track” course structure as one that will maximize faculty resources and avoid isolation from the general student body. Offering courses that exclusively use foreign language material would be impractical, according to Freas, as only a very small number of students would be eligible to take these upper division courses.

“The effect is that those who have studied the language feel affirmed by the examples we provide, and those who have not leave the class feeling a little more enlightened, empowered and in many cases even inspired to learn more of the language and its relation to the culture,” the proposal states.

Now that the proposal has been submitted, the approval process is in the hands of the APC, which oversees the overall direction of Occidental’s academic programs. Once approved by the APC, it will then be presented to the department chairs for feedback. The final step would be to bring the proposal to all Occidental faculty members, who would then vote for or against the major.

“It is a stepped process, and somewhat time consuming, but I think [it] reflects a strong faculty governance system in which the full faculty of the college take on their important role of developing the curriculum for our students,” APC Chair Amy Lyford said via email.

Stocking initially proposed the idea for the major to colleagues when he transferred to German, Russian and Classical Studies from the English department last spring to focus on the work that he said he is truly passionate about.

“This [major] speaks to the sort of interdisciplinary and intercultural work that I enjoy doing most,” Stocking said.

Stocking wanted to make literature, language and culture available as a major pattern of study, as he believes that languages are generally threatened at institutions such as Occidental due to the lack of funding and able faculty.

“Language ought to be at the center of the curriculum of Oxy,” Stocking said. “We believe in cultural plurality. We believe in inculcating multicultural values.”

Whereas students interested in this area of study in the past could have created their own major, this proposed major would give such students a more definitive identity within a department that represents their interests.

“When you don’t have a major, students that are interested don’t have a home,” Freas said.

In an informal poll conducted by German, Russian and Classical Studies professors, 31 out of 90 students expressed an interest in the major, while others indicated that they would consider it as a minor.

“My main passion is in reading texts in their original language,” Cassandra Guidice (first-year) said. “When I heard about this [major], I felt like it called out to me. This is what I want to study, this is what I want to do, this is what I want to be good at.”

Guidice has a background in Latin and Greek, and has recently begun her study of German. Gabriel Dunatov (first-year), on the other hand, views this major as a chance to pursue an existing interest of his—Russian literature.

“When [German, Russian and Classical Studies Professor Walter Richmond] mentioned this opportunity to study Russian culture and literature in this more in-depth manner… I thought that sounded awesome,” Dunatov said.