Saturday, August 28, 2010

Who Is to Blame for Low Enrollments in the Humanities?

Since I started working at my current university, there has been one aspect of my job that made me feel blessed: the Chair of my department. We are not very used to having great bosses in academia. A person can be a great scholar, a fantastic colleague, and a talented pedagogue but that doesn't mean they will make a good leader of people. There is a certain set of skills and a certain way of relating to others and to your workplace that make a great boss. Academics not only don't get any training in how to lead their colleagues effectively, but the very nature of what we do on a daily basis usually makes very lousy bosses out of us. Just think about it. A teacher is a person who is used to students shutting up and taking notes of everything s/he says. A teacher knows that a student will only speak when they get a permission. A teacher imposes her own class plan every single day of class and never even imagines that any dissent on that subject is possible.

When an academic becomes the Chair of their department, they are expected to forget miraculously about all these aspects of relating to others. If we often bring this way of interacting with people to our friends and families, we can hardly be expected not to do so when interacting with our colleagues. This is why good departmental Chairs are so few and far between.

Our Chair is an amazing exception to this rule. She is a true leader of people who makes our department a place you want to be even when you don't really need to. The force of her personality is enough to make people perform above and beyond the call of duty. Her enthusiasm for what we do is simply infectious. She defends the interests of her faculty and instructors with a true passion. One would think that with a Chair like this, the university administration would just count its blessings and let her do her job. If that's what you expect, then you really don't know how the academia works.

Yesterday, we were told that the administration wants to remove our Chair from her position and bring a new departmental leader from the outside. The reason why this is happening, is that under the leadership of the current Chair, we haven't been able to raise the number of Majors at our department from several dozen to several hundred. I don't expect much from the intellectual capacities of our administrators but this is way too stupid even for them. The economy has been completely in the toilet for the past few years. The unemployment (at least in this area) is stuck at 10%. The number of people who are underemployed is scary. Colleges keep cutting funding and staff in the Humanities across the country. In view of all these factors, the idea that the number of students who don't want to major in, say, French is the fault of our Chair is mind-boggling. Next thing we'll know, she will be blamed for single-handedly causing the Recession as well.

Our department often gets informed of job offers in the area that can be of interest to our graduates. In May, for example, we were asked to direct our students to a job opening at the US Bank. They required a person who had a double Major in Spanish and Business. We told several of our recent graduates about this job opening, and they applied. Then, they were informed of the salary they could expect there. It is $15,000. Per year. Seriously.

Should we really wonder after this why so few students want to pursue a Major in Spanish, French, and German?

Sadly, our administrators are incapable of seeing the very obvious reasons behind the stagnating enrollments in the Humanities. They are trying to feed their obsessive interest in enrollment numbers through some really useless policies like inviting outside Chairs. The only result of this plan is that we will lose our great boss and will be forced to deal with an unwanted newcomer. Who is extremely likely to be a lousy boss.

I can't begin to express how sad this makes me.


Richard said...

The ability to speak and read a foreign language has never been recognized as an indispensable skill even in this age of multinational companies and globalization. Americans in contrast to most Europeans have no understanding that knowledge of foreign language(s) is an indispensable tool for commerce and diplomacy. In this country learning foreign languages is just not seen as important. This again reflects the ill-informed opinion that Americans do not need to learn foreign languages because any foreigner worth talking to will know English. This is maddening arrogance, but there you have it.

Clarissa said...

Exactly! And take into account that it isn't just any language I teach. It's Spanish, for Pete's sake! If that is not a necessary language to learn, then I don't know what is.

It's Only Bruce said...

There was a time when potential employers viewed a college education as an indication that someone had learned critical thinking, and to set and achieve goals. Sadly, I think many employers and students have come to view our colleges and universities as trade schools.
In this age where workers at all levels are viewed as disposable parts, companies are not interested in hiring individuals who know how to think. Rather they are purchasing a specific skill, as one would purchase a commodity.

Richard said...

In point of fact Spanish (and Portuguese) are commercially the two most important languages after, perhaps, Chinese. Latin America contains major U.S. trading partners and is on the way to becoming a major economic force in the 21st Century. Sure many Latin Americans speak excellent to good enough English. Yet a knowledge of Spanish and/or Portuguese when dealing with Latin Americans is a tremendous competitive advantage.

Clarissa said...

The demand for Chinese is there, obviously, but try persuading our administrators to allow us to expand our Chinese program.

Clarissa said...

Bruce: I think nowadays it often scares potential employers to imagine that they might get people with critical skills. Obedient, hard-working robots is what they seem to prefer today.

Richard said...

Of course one has to be careful what you wish for. During the Cold War ‘Area Studies’ became the rage among the mainline academic community. Universities competed to set up “Centers” that specialized in Soviet Studies, East Asian Studies, and yes even Latin American Studies. These centers offered multi-disciplinary courses in the ethnography, history, culture and yes languages of the regions they were ‘centered’ on. It was possible to obtain an area studies degree and experts in given areas were in high demand. Unfortunately, as it later was revealed, the U.S. Defense Department and CIA were behind the push towards area studies and the easy grants and scholarships that helped fuel the boom. Today the Federal Government is unable or unwilling to repeat this phenomenon.