Home / General / On Languages and Academic Gatekeeping

On Languages and Academic Gatekeeping


So I was in a bit of a Twitter argument last night with Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association (@rgfeal) over the issue of humanities Ph.D. students reaching fluency in non-English languages. The MLA is now advising that English Ph.D. programs require “advanced competence” in at least one non-English language. This would be a higher level than most English (and history) programs require, which is usually being able to pass a translation test.

There are many good reasons to learn languages. I hardly need to spell out the multiple reasons why. And maybe, theoretically, it makes sense for English Ph.D. students to learn another language. I am unconvinced by the arguments laid out by the MLA, but OK, it’s not my field. For the history student, I argue that the need to learn languages should depend entirely on what you are studying. If you are a historian of Latin America, you definitely need Spanish and/or Portuguese, but maybe instead an indigenous language. If you are a U.S. historian who works on immigration or transnational issues, than you need to learn the relevant languages for your research. There’s no question about this. But I also question whether there is a strong reason that a Ph.D. program should require languages of students who aren’t going to use them. Instead, maybe they should have alternative programs of equal rigor that train them in the skills they need to be a successful job candidate in the 21st century.

Let’s take me for an example. I am, by training, an environmental historian of the United States. I work on loggers in the Pacific Northwest. Theoretically, it would be useful for me to learn Norwegian or Swedish, although I have not run across a single newspaper or diary in those languages in my research that deals with logging in any major way (there are some newspapers in those languages for urban communities and maybe there are a few tidbits in there, although urban newspapers from the region/period in English have almost nothing on what I am looking for). But it doesn’t matter because my school didn’t offer those languages. I took a couple of years of Spanish courses instead. I could have tested out but instead I wanted to at least try to learn the language. I did, to a limited extent, although it was always my lowest priority as a graduate student so I didn’t spend as much time with it as I wanted. I’ve since done a good bit of traveling in Latin America so my Spanish has gotten better over time.

But while learning Spanish is objectively good, was it a valuable use of my time during my Ph.D. program? No.

To be clear, I am absolutely not taking the position that U.S. historians who don’t learn another language should have it easier. I am instead arguing that Ph.D. programs ought to train students in the skills they need to survive in their field and on the job market. As an environmental historian, I wish I had been trained in GIS, biology, and forestry, rather than Spanish. That would be more useful for me. For a legal historian, training in intro law courses might be very helpful. For a historian of technology in the second half of the twentieth century, computing languages could be of great value.

And as scholars change, they need to learn new tools. I am throwing around different ideas for my next project (including one on breweries, urban change, and city environments that everyone says I should do but we’ll see). One strong possibility is to expand my discussion of logging to look at how the timber industry invests in southeast Asia after 1898. If I do that project, I will probably have to gain a working knowledge of Tagalog. And that’s great. That is a tool I will need.

So what is the nature of my argument with Feal? Her argument is, effectively, that, and I quote, “Because anyone w a PhD in the humanities should know a lang other than own.” Not good enough. She goes on, after I told her it wasn’t a real reason, “How about: because every historian in the entire world outside UK and its former colonies knows a lang other than Eng?” Well, maybe. Again, doesn’t this depend on your field? For me, while there are active environmental historians in nations such as India and Finland, most of their publications that I know of are in English. That’s not to say that maybe I shouldn’t learn Tamil or Finnish, but I don’t think those aren’t the languages Feal wants me to know. It’s French and German and maybe Spanish or Italian.

Possibly the crux of the disagreement isn’t about languages at all, but about what humanities do. After one of my responses, Feal said, “Following that logic, history should be a tool for work. There goes 95% of yr UG stydents!!”

Well, yeah.

History should be a tool for work. It should be a tool for the work of many of us. And our students are in fact leaving the history major because they don’t see it as valuable for their future. Holding onto the belief that people should major in humanities because they will be smart has its own value, but it’s also not enough to compete in the reality of the 21st century university marketplace, particularly among students with working-class backgrounds. We need to show our students that history does have concrete value for their future, including BUT NOT ONLY, that it will make them more educated and interesting.

The MLA’s stance shows a surprising amount of blindness to the realities of the modern university in multiple ways. Large Ph.D. programs in English often serve as cheap labor forces to teach intro writing courses that no one really wants to teach. Universities are pushing programs to be more integrated in market forces, not less. The idea of the multilingual humanities Ph.D. goes back at least to the German model of the late 19th century (as a historian, this is where the modern field starts so maybe it is even earlier), an elitist time when academics came from the upper echelons of society. We are today in a time of a rapidly transforming university where learning other languages has zero value to university administrations.

This additional language requirement is a way to reduce Ph.D. numbers that will have the effect of limiting the ability of certain people who came out of very poor public schools (like myself) to achieve the higher degree without a severe detour in my studies. And for what point? Just because we should? That’s not much of a reason to me. Yes, learning languages opens the mind to a new way of thinking, but that’s a relatively unconvincing argument to the Ph.D. student who will never use the language professionally, who has limited years of university funding, and who is not independently wealthy and can therefore tack on the additional years to their program in order to become fluent in multiple languages. Maybe the MLA wants to reduce the number of Ph.D. students and maybe that is a good goal in a time when it is very hard to find a tenure-track job. But I have strong objections to going about it in a way that totally ignores the political and financial pressures on modern higher education and on top of that adds pointless barriers that will exacerbate the already significant class divide in academia.

Rather, Ph.D. programs need to work with students to provide them the tools they need to survive in the 21st century marketplace, whether Hmong or GIS, French or advanced statistics. How learning German does that for a U.S. historian whose closest connection to Germany is distant ancestors/beer is completely unknown to me.

I am sure many of you disagree with me, but I do hope you can provide an argument that moves past gatekeeping.

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  • adolphus

    I agree with you. I am a PhD in the History of American Science, and the only “languages” I use are the science I cover and the administration of museums.

    The one point you don’t make, is that even were you to find sources in Norwegian or Swedish, or some other language, the technology is available to do translations for you. I wouldn’t recommend that for people who work predominantly in one or two different languages, but in a field where other languages occur, but infrequently, the tools are available to get the pertinent information and move on.

    I find that professors who advocate languages for PhD students have this fantasy of immersing yourself in another culture and way of thinking. In fact, my classmates who must learn languages spend hours drilling in front of a computer or other digital device to learn just enough to translate their documents. The lucky ones will get fellowships to study overseas and practice their language.

    Like so much of what goes on in graduate school, languages are a pro forma hurdle to place in front of students in place of actual education and learning.

    • adolphus

      That should say “PhD Candidate.” I am getting a little ahead of myself here : )

    • Lurker

      Actually, if you are doing real archival research with foreign-language sources, you cannot rely on translation technology. You must skim through a very large amount of papers or newspaper articles completely unrelated to your research, and you cannot do a scan, an OCR and electronic translation of all of them. You must read them swiftly, determine whether they are of interest and if not, discard them in less than 10 seconds per page.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Okay, historians, correct this notion: “historically, ‘languages’ were are much larger part of education, declining since the early 19th century.”

    My own highly-prejudiced opinion is that ‘way back then, there wasn’t much ELSE to educate budding-scholars in, and you just had to force them through 4-6 gruelling years of study somehow (so those who already made the grade would be validated in their self-worth), and languages were the means to that end.

    Nowdays, we have have far more material available, so languages lose out.

    For those who advocate language study to broaden intellecutal horizons, I prescribe a solid five years of advanced mathematics and either relativistic quantum mechanics or general relativity.

    • adolphus

      I am certainly biased, but I agree. I think it would be as helpful to make Humanities PhDs be scientific or mathematically literate as it is for them to be conversant in another language. Again, assuming they don’t need it to do their research.

      And yes, I think science students should take humanities classes as well. I already teach a history class for budding science and math teachers. Very relevant and useful.

    • Slocum

      My own highly-prejudiced opinion is that ‘way back then, there wasn’t much ELSE to educate budding-scholars in, and you just had to force them through 4-6 gruelling years of study somehow (so those who already made the grade would be validated in their self-worth), and languages were the means to that end.

      Yes, of course, intense study of ancient Near Eastern languages was nothing but a hazing ritual. Why else would humanities scholars have had any interest in such things back then?

    • Lurker

      I respectfully disagree. The German model of Ph.D education actually had very few, if any, obligatory courses after the Master’s degree that qualified you for service as a civil servant. The languages that are the traditional hallmark of the humanities education were learned at high school. The more exotic or extinct languages needed for the actual research were learned as a part of the research project, with very little formal coursework being involved.

  • justaguy

    I had to pass a translation test to get a MA in anthropology. I can speak Mandarin fairly well – good enough to conduct my research for my thesis. There was no Chinese language literature on my research topic – so I didn’t really need to read anything. When I complained that my Chinese was adequate for my research purposes but that I couldn’t pass a translation test with it, I was told that there are people conducting research in languages without a written form who still have to find a non-English language to test. And there were people who tested in languages that had nothing to do with their topic, so they interviewed Cambodians in English for their research but were tested on their Spanish for the language requirement. It seemed like an enormous waste of time. Now that I’m working on my PhD, my advisor just needs to agree that my language is adequate for my research purposes – which is a lot more reasonable.

    • “And there were people who tested in languages that had nothing to do with their topic, so they interviewed Cambodians in English for their research but were tested on their Spanish for the language requirement. It seemed like an enormous waste of time.”


      If you want to say that those students should have learned Khmer, then that’s fine. But of course most universities don’t offer Khmer and don’t have the funding to make that happen. So it seems to me that at the very least if the MLA is serious about this, they should start finding money for students to go to school in relevant languages like this. But of course, this isn’t what the MLA is about here–it’s about making people take French and German and Spanish and Italian, both because it has invested members in those languages and because it still believes those languages are necessary to be an “intellectual.”

      • Lame Pun Raccoon

        No, you c’mere.

    • DrDick

      I agree completely with what you are saying and the anthropology department where I teach does not demand all students take a foreign language (they can substitute 2 years of statistics), and when we do require a languages, it is one relevant to the student’s area of study. Languages are tools and, as Erik says, the tools you need as an academic depend on your topics of research.

      While learning other languages is a good thing in itself, I do not think it should be required for advanced degrees unless it is specifically relevant to the field of study. I think this requirement has its origins in the 18th and early 19th centuries when much of a university education consisted of reading the Greek and Roman classics and required fluency in Classical Greek and Latin.

  • Seems to me they’re looking for artificial ways to reduce the eligible applicant pool. Being able to eliminate 25% of applications right off the top saves a lot of time and money. My lack of fluency in a foreign language kept me out of grad school, and considering the job market and debt issues, I can’t say that I’m too upset by it.

    • Furious Jorge

      If you take on any significant debt to pay for a Ph.D. yourself, you’re a fool.

      But yeah, the job market … that’s why I regret going further than the MA.

      • BigHank53

        Take the PhD off the resume and and explain the gap by telling everyone you were in a Thai prison for trying to break up a sex-slave ring.

    • DrDick

      I think that is part of it. At the institutional level, this is also a make-work program for modern languages departments, since the universities, rather than departments, often mandate this (or an equivalent).

    • Slocum

      As I understood it, this is about qualifying exams to move to ABD, not entrance requirements for the program as such. It would be more of burden, but hardly seems insurmountable.

      As someone noted below, there is quite a lot of valuable secondary literature written in non-English languages that can bear on English texts.

      • DrDick

        I think that varies by the institution and the program.

        • Slocum

          And informally, regarding admissions. I don’t remember that anyone in my Ph.D. cohort who didn’t arrive on the first day without proficiency in one foreign language (if not two), though that was not a stated admissions requirement.

          • Delurking

            I started my PhD without any foreign languages. Like Erik, I attended lousy public schools (the girls’ half of Jefferson Parrish public — the boys schools were a little better, but we had very little science, almost no math, and only Spanish and a substandard German teacher: I wanted Latin, which was taught over at my brothers’ high school).

            This meant I had to spend much of the time I might have spent studying other subjects acquiring proficiency in Greek and Latin — my doctorate was Comp Lit, Classical Lit. I didn’t actually mind, since in this case the languages were useful, and since I’d been wanting to study them since I was 12. I’m just saying it can happen.

  • s/intellecutal/intellectual/

    …proofreading, of course, is a universal good.

  • rea

    (1) One can udnerstand that MLA has an ulterior motive here, and its not reducing the number of PhD candidates in other fields. It’s getting more students in their language courses.

    (2) One powerful reason that PhD candidates in countries that are not the UK or its former colonies all learn a foriegn language, I suspect, is that it is necessary, as a practical matter, for them to know English.

    • Njorl

      I think this hits on the reason for the genesis of the language requirement. At one point (at least in the west), you needed to know Greek and Latin to learn. At various periods, French, German and English have been very important – not because people wanted to study those who spoke the languages, but because they were the languages of important scholarship. A university which was training its own professors would have wanted to have all bases covered with respect to translating scholarly work.

  • Marc

    I think that your take is exactly right Eric. Graduate school is an apprenticeship, and good programs teach students what they need to succeed in their field. Distribution requirements are fine for undergraduate study – but they make little or no sense for graduate programs. In the sciences most programs did away with language requirements decades ago, and essentially all journals are in English.

    I suspect that you’re also looking at a turf protection exercise. Any university department has to justify its existence, and distribution requirements give them a guaranteed number of students. Removing them means fewer professors in French, Spanish, German…down the line.

    • AmericanAbroad

      I would just caution against saying that “essentially all journals are in English” and what that statement implies. While it is true that English, for many disciplines, has become the predominant language, if one leaves America to do a degree abroad (in my case in the German speaking world), one can be quite surprised as to the massive amount of resources that are not in English. While a foreign language isn’t useful for everyone, not having at least reading knowledge in any major academic foreign language can limit research. As a person who did research on the Klan and antisemitism, while 95% of my sources were in English, there was still fantastic material to be found in both German and French that was quite illuminating. Also, if one is doing research and wants to look at articles over 30 years old, they’re going back to a time when English wasn’t as dominant as it is now.

      • Marc

        I’m sure that that’s true in a lot of disciplines. In science, however, English is close to universal – and articles have a much shorter shelf life. It’s rare for people to read papers much older than a decade, and going back more than 20 years is even more so. This hits home for me because I read current papers redoing things that I did one or two decades ago, and the people involved are blissfully unaware of this.

        Since the switch to English for scientific journals is now ~ 50 years old, this means that foreign language technical articles have almost no audience.

  • Scott de B.

    For my PhD, I had to learn: German, French, Spanish, Latin and Ancient Greek. And I use all of them.

    • And if they are useful tools for you, then you should learn them.

      The question is not whether one should have to take languages. The question is thinking about what tools individual Ph.D. students need in order to succeed. And the reality is success=find a job. Whatever that might be, students need to do that. For me, learning all those languages would be useless, but there sure are other skills I wish I could have learned that would have made me more competitive on the market.

    • Murc

      Okay, I have to at least try and guess the nature of your degree; something to do with theology? The languages you name are the ones that a lot of the primary sources if you’re doing research on Catholicism are going to be written in.

      • Could also be continental philosophy. At one point I had reading competence in all those languages too, though I’m now pretty rusty in all but French and German (and the latter is not what it used to be either).

        • Murc

          I almost said linguistic history of some sort, but not having Italian would be a shocking omission if you were doing the romance tongues.

        • To be more precise: my “reading competence” in Latin and Greek meant I could work with, and compare, various translations with the original. I could never sight-read texts I hadn’t previously worked through. But I could work with the original after suitable preps with translations, commentaries, lexicons, etc.

          Neither here nor there, really, but I didn’t want to leave a false impression.

      • sue

        Could be something Medieval or early modern. In my previous life of failing to finish my dissertation on fifteenth-century Venetian art, I needed Italian, French, German, and Latin, and I used them all to some extent, though German was the least useful (but I had to pass the test — German was required, along with the Romance language of your choice). If Scott de B. does something with Medieval Spain, I could see all those languages coming into play.

        • Murc

          The kicker for me is the ancient greek. That’s a language that you usually encounter only in the context of the history of that specific time and place (which the other languages rule out, I think) or in the fields of philosophy and religion.

          • Aaron Baker

            I’m not an Americanist, but I’m guessing most American historians (or teachers of English) don’t need (in any strong sense of the word “need”) to learn a foreign language (although valuable research on American history and English is doubtless being done in Germany and other countries).

            I got a Ph.D. in Classics, where not only do you need to know Ancient Greek and Latin really well, but a huge portion of the secondary literature is in French, German, and Italian. Modern Greek doesn’t hurt either, particularly if your emphasis is on archeology. Once, I had to struggle through a couple of items in Dutchl; I guessed at it from what I knew of English and German–Dutch is in some ways intermediate between the two. It is fun to boast about it, but I don’t think I’d wish all that linguistic effort on someone who didn’t need it.

            • DrDick

              Again, it is a question of utility. In your case, this is a useful and necessary skill. That said, I think learning other languages is a good thing and wish it were promoted in the public schools, like it is in Europe.

              • Aaron Baker

                Not really on topic, but in honor of the sadly neglected Dutch language, here’s a charming little poem (posted by Ingrid Robeyns on the Crooked Timber site and translated by her):

                Ze schreef een klein gedichtje
                het had niet veel om handen
                maar het was als een klein lichtje
                dat in het donker brandde.

                She wrote a little poem
                it didn’t mean much at all
                yet it was like a tiny light
                glowing in the dark.

                As those who read German can see, knowing some German can be a big help here.

  • Nicely done

    As a relatively new PhD in English, I agree with this 100%. I needed two languages: one, Latin, is relevant to my field (Early Modern); the second, French, is somewhat relevant, but I only took it because the language exam was famously easy (and the French department seemed to offer an easy exam in hopes of collecting a lot of $25 fees from grad students.). For neither language did the department offer any support for studying for these exams…no remedial classes, no chances to audit courses, not even a sample exam. I passed, but it was a waste of time and energy, and I don’t know French.

    One thing that is changing for the good is that competency in XML or whatnot now counts for the language requirement. This may help make the language requirement more practically applicable, but again, if a department/school does not help grad student learn languages in the course of their study, it’s going to be a distraction.

    As I work on developing my next project, I wish I had time to take a few courses in statistics as part of my phd (hopefully I can do that at my new institution, but I don’t icing I’ll have the time). That would have been a much better use of my time than learning how to fake my way through a 3-hour French exam.

  • Another issue seems to be what exactly is a “language.” Is computer programming a language? It certainly has a high degree of importance in the age of digitalization, and it’s something few humanities PhDs (myself included) are familiar with. A good friend took the time to learn things like Python on his own, and was commended for learning a new “language,” and this seemed like a remarkably sane approach – if you have to take the incredible amount of time to self-instruct in computer languages to make yourself more digitally literate, then that should be rewarded. But far too few programs are offering this kind of “literacy” in areas like computer sciences (or, as Snarki says above, mathematics, physics, etc.).

    I guess what I’m getting at is this seems like a twofold problem. On the one hand, having access to languages like Tagalog or Hmong is certainly a problem for those who want to study places like SE Asia but have to take Spanish or French. But I wonder too if schools are really ready to broaden their understandings of what a “language” is and to acknowledge learning a new one (again, such as computer programming) that many schools do offer.

    • Aaron

      “Is computer programming a language?”

      At least, not in the sense clearly meant here. Computer languages are non-representational: they don’t have semantic content. They’re pure syntax and implementation. “Sentences” “in” a computer “language” (i.e. a high-level abstract language like Python, Java, or C++) don’t mean anything, they are just shorthand ways of writing machine code, which is just a shorthand way of writing binary instructions.

      I’m not just splitting hairs, here. The large reason why people in the humanities love languages is because they allow you to immerse yourself in the concepts and idioms of another culture. Programming languages are not conceptual (note that this is importantly different from saying that programming languages are not understood via concepts, which is obviously false). You might as well say that mathematics is “the language of physics,” and so mathematics should also substitute. It’s so highly metaphorical it is basically meaningless.

      • I don’t disagree that many in the humanities love languages for exactly the reasons you’re saying. But regarding the “utility” argument, digital humanities are increasingly becoming an important part of the field, yet one that schools generally fail to train graduate students.

        To be clear, I’m not proposing an either/or of Spanish/computer programming here. But I think it is important to train scholars in digital areas if it interests them, and given the time it takes to learn programming if you haven’t had it in undergrad (and I am talking strictly in terms of graduate experience here), I think it’s a worthwhile but time-consuming thing that needs to be acknowledged. And if computer programming and/or math makes much more sense than Spanish or French (such as with history of science and technology), then I think schools should be prepared to deal with that, as well as ready to offer “traditional” languages that may rest outside the structure Erik was critical of originally. I guess that’s what I was trying to get at in the second paragraph, perhaps unsuccessfully.

        • Or (upon re-reading what I just wrote), to put it more simply, I’m not convinced that our understanding of the term “language” doesn’t need to be updated/modified/opened up.

          • Aaron

            Like all arguments about the “real” or “proper” meanings of words, I’m of the opinion that it’s a deeply and fundamentally pragmatic sort of enterprise. Nevertheless, the fact that natural languages and programming languages share many features does not inspire me to equate them in this particular context, since they’re relevantly dissimilar. Programming languages teach competence in logic, not cross-cultural literacy, because programming is “about” program flow and logic, not concepts.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        When I was in graduate school, the Princeton Philosophy department allowed its students to fulfill their language requirement with a programming language.

        Most of us in other disciplines found this faintly ridiculous and assumed that it reflected the Philosophy Department’s general contempt for “Continental philosophy” and much of the philosophy of the past (Prof. Gil Harman had a sign on his office door that read “History of Philosophy: Just Say ‘No'”)

        • Aaron

          Programming languages have many of the structural features of natural languages. They lack some other features, like representational content. I’m a hobbyist computer programmer and a student of analytic-ish (post-analytic, really) philosophy. And yet I tend agree with you that this is faintly ridiculous.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            I should add that none of the PhD students in Philosophy that I knew who fulfilled their language requirement with a programming language ever used that programming language in their research.

        • Aaron

          Of course, given how many analytics talk (and write), one would probably need a CS degree to understand what the fuck they’re going on about.

      • dsn

        The CS research community would like to disagree about whether programming languages have semantics :P

        e.g. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi= to pick one at random

        • Aaron

          They’re using semantics in a different sense. I mean “representational content.”

      • Anonymous

        My department says that coding does count as a language for these requirements, and at least one English PhD is pursuing studies in calculus alongside her other course-work.

        The problem of working class students who pursue humanities PhDs, imho is much broader than the amount of time (or number of hurdles to degree). And I’m not sure if picking on the language requirement, which schools like mine are updating, will really solve the issue.

  • el donaldo

    I actually picked my English PhD program because it was one of the few top schools that required competency in only one European or Classical language. I happen to have both Mandarin Chinese and German largely through accidents of my life, but there is no English program I’m aware of that would accept Chinese.

    And oddly enough, the Chinese is fairly relevant to what would be my research project if the contingencies of the market hadn’t wholly annihilated that, which would be the reception and “translation” of classical Chinese poetry as central to first Imagist and then later Beat poetry. Not that I ever need much to deal with Pound or Snyder, but it’s there.

    All which I guess goes to say that what the MLA seems to be attempting is to cling to the notion of the scholar as a gentlemanly elite, not so much as someone with the necessary tools for scholarship. Tools, I’ll add, are rather difficult to come by these days given the a) state of language instruction, and b) all the other demands placed upon humanities scholars to be anointed as one of the chosen.

    • el donaldo

      err, relevant to a small part of my research, I meant to write. 95% having to do with no language other than English and Whitman’s idiosyncratic French and Spanish borrowing.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Why limit the usefulness of foreign languages to primary sources? Scholarship is, of course, produced in languages other than English.

    My (slight) disagreement with you Erik is two-fold:

    1) I agree that language–and other–requirements should have a meaningful payoff. I do think that the meaningful payoff of language knowledge is greater than you suggest, including, among other things, reading scholarship, communicating with non-English speaking students and scholars, and potential future primary sources (had Dan Rodgers not had German, he couldn’t have written ATLANTIC CROSSINGS, e.g.). Do these add up to enough to require all graduate students to have “advanced competence” in a language? Perhaps not. But the “does it help me write my diss?” test that you adopt is far too narrow.

    2) Encouraging fewer people to attend grad school would be a good thing (though again, that doesn’t mean that this way to do it is a good one). Much as I like Marc Bousquet’s work, I continue to believe that transforming the academic labor system in a way that increases the number of full-time, tenured and TT faculty will necessarily entail decreasing the number of NTT faculty….and that includes gradute students. As Bousquet himself points out, the current size of graduate programs is dictated by the university’s need for casual labor. Decrease that need and grad programs will — and should — shrink.

    • Allow me to address your second point.

      Reducing numbers of Ph.Ds may be a good thing. But if this is how we go about doing it, we are basically giving young people who walked out of quality high-schools and who had been abroad at the age of 18 an additional major advantage to the many advantages they already have. Again, I did not know a single person who knew another language or had been out of the country until I reached college. That placed me at a huge disadvantage in the ability to pick up multiple languages at a level of fluency. Not an impossible task to overcome, but a real challenge.

      If we are going to reduce the number of graduate students, it needs to be done in a way that does not by default return advanced degrees to the province of the wealthy. Raising the bar on somewhat arbitrary barriers like languages effectively has the effect of making graduate education more elite.

      Moreover, while scholarship is indeed produced in other languages, a historian could also gain great value by having informed scholarly conversations with scientists. So why not have a major science component as an arbitrary barrier instead? Why is learning German more important than learning forestry or epidemiology?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I basically agree with your first response to me, Erik. My point, however, was just that the mere fact that something erects barriers to entry is not in and of itself a bad thing. As you say, however, you don’t want to create barriers to entry that in effect make it arbitrarily more difficult for people from certain backgrounds to attend grad school.

        As to the second response: I firmly believe that it is more valuable to read scholarship within ones own field than to communicate with scholars in disparate other fields (though that’s of course valuable, too). English is certainly becoming the lingua fraca of the international bourgeoisie. And there’s no question that knowledge of it gets one further today than ever before. But the idea that the only reason that a humanist might need another language is to decode a dusty document from the archives reeks of provincialism and privilege.

      • justaguy

        “But if this is how we go about doing it, we are basically giving young people who walked out of quality high-schools and who had been abroad at the age of 18 an additional major advantage to the many advantages they already have.”

        The people with the best foreign language skills in my Phd program grew up speaking second languages as first or second generation immigrants. So, its not necessarily only the elites that can pull it off.

        • Well yeah, but that’s also a totally different beast and effectively not comparable, except to note that not all poor people are native-born, which is a very good point.

  • 65tons

    GIS. What I wouldn’t give to have learned GIS or statistics instead of French. You haven’t even mentioned the most ridiculous part of the language requirement, graduate students taking whichever test has the reputation for being the easiest to pass.

    • Bill Murray

      why couldn’t you have taken these?

      • Barry

        Bill, Ph.D. programs already run from 5-7 years; many universities had a time limit on support (mine limited support to 5 years). In addition, Ph.D. programs lead to major attrition through burnout, exhaustion and life events. Adding another year or two is piling more straw on an already overburdened camel.

        • Bill Murray

          as someone who has a PhD and teaches at a university I now these things. Do non-Engineering (since I’m an engineer) programs require a large class load for all 5-7 years.

          My engineering program had ~2 years worth of classes mostly loaded into the first part of your program, which left 2-5 years filled mostly with research, but in which a course or two could easily be fit. Of course my program had very few required courses and like 25-40% of our non-research coursework was supposed to be outside our major usually in related natural science areas, so there was little problem with fitting in useful or desired classes as long as your advisor agreed

          • Paulk

            In English, you are likely looking at 2 years of course work (for the Ph.D), another year of studying for exams (literally all-consuming—my wife almost divorced me) and then another year of writing the dissertation. My program was four years of funding. (Others I know only offer 3.)

            For the few who are lucky enough to get prime fellowships, it’s fairly easy to manage a load and even get an extra funded year. Most teach their way through while taking classes (or studying for exams or writing the dissertation). I essentially had a “working” fellowship, where I spent 2 years managing all aspects of a lit mag, which was even more work than my program.

            The added requirement that I obtain advanced language proficiency, beyond a translation test, would likely have added at least one or perhaps more years to my program—or forced me to abandon other aspects of my program designed to put me in a more marketable position. Or just to abandon projects that were good educational decisions.

            • Lurker

              How on earth can you write a Ph.D dissertation in a year? The scale of the dissertation project should be such that even a talented researcher requires at least three years of full-time research to complete it.

  • DrDick

    I agree with your point here about degree requirements needing reflect the demands of your research.

    I would point out that, if you branch out into SE Asian logging, Malay, Lao, Burmesese, Thai and Bahasa Indonesia (or one of the hundreds of other Indonesian languages) would probably be more useful than Tagalog, as your Spanish would likely be more useful in the Philipines and it is one of the smaller producers.

    • Bill Murray

      In 20 years when today’s US loggers are tomorrow’s history, that Spanish will likely be quite useful.

    • It would basically depend on where the U.S. companies most focused since that’s what I’m interested in. The Philippines certainly would be a focus, possibly Indonesia as well. This seems to be the primary areas of American investment from my preliminary research.

      • DrDick

        Weyerhaeuser is in Malaysia and South America. A number of other US companies are also in South America.

  • Kate

    I don’t think the acquisition of a foreign language is merely a tool to read primary sources for a historian. Studying a foreign language also opens you up to different cultures, peoples, and ways of thinking. I would think this would only help you in a competitive marketplace. When you apply for jobs, you are always asked what is your experience dealing with diverse populations or what efforts you’ve made to support diversity in the classroom. Being able to say that you’ve studied Spanish and learned a little bit about Latin American cultures (even if you teach US, Canadian, or British history) should be a huge advantage for you. Does it help you with your research? Maybe not. Does it make you more sensitive to the language and cultural barriers some of your students face? Yes.

    Furthermore, since the market is inundated with History PhDs, many History PhDs have had to switch careers such as teaching high school (albeit also very competitive). Being able to say you teach US history and have a basic knowledge of Spanish might help you when you teach in a school district that is primarily Latino.

    In sum, learning a foreign language might not help with your research production but it does make you a stronger teacher and citizen.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      I agree with much of this, Kate, but I’m very wary of arguments like this:

      Furthermore, since the market is inundated with History PhDs, many History PhDs have had to switch careers such as teaching high school (albeit also very competitive).

      At the risk of raising Marc Bousquet twice in the same thread, this is the wrong way to understand the academic labor system. Graduate students are a key element in the new, casualized academic work force. PhDs are, in general, best understood as a waste product of the system.

      This academic labor system is fundamentally bad, most immediately for the casualized component of the academic labor force (grad students and NTT faculty), but eventually for all of us.

      Adopting strategies to ease its functioning (e.g. to make degree requirements that make PhDs more marketable in areas other than academic work once the system spits them out) will just make things worse.

      • Kate

        I appreciate your point. But unfortunately, many History PhDs will bounce from visiting positions or adjunct positions for years. Many will never get the allusive TT job at an RI institution. It’s “Pollyannish” to think otherwise. So, I argue that History PhDs should be prepared for the reality that they will have to switch career paths.

        I’m not saying I like this. But PhD programs need to be absolutely upfront with PhD applicants on the job market. There should also be more funding for public universities so that more TT positions can open up. However, having had at least some exposure to a foreign language or culture during a grad. program could (potentially) help strengthen a PhD’s chance at finding a non-academic job.

        • Kate

          elusive, not allusive

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          The way for PhD programs to be “upfront” is to stop talking about a “job market” entirely and instead discuss the entire academic labor system which includes graduate students and NTT faculty. Programs, and the faculty who teach in them, should also support graduate student unionization efforts. Most graduate students are not, in fact, preparing to join the academic labor force. They have already done so.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            And my point above is that matters are not improved by creating program requirements that are designed to ease graduate students’ transition out of the academic labor force once they get their PhDs and their labor is no longer so easily casualized…though of course graduate students under the present system need to be prepared to do something else.

            There is a difference between actually building-in planned obsolescence (i.e. programs creating requirements that make students more marketable as non-academics) and being aware of planned obsolescence (i.e. students preparing for possible non-academic careers).

    • Barry

      “I don’t think the acquisition of a foreign language is merely a tool to read primary sources for a historian. Studying a foreign language also opens you up to different cultures, peoples, and ways of thinking. I would think this would only help you in a competitive marketplace. When you apply for jobs, you are always asked what is your experience dealing with diverse populations or what efforts you’ve made to support diversity in the classroom. ”

      All of which apply to many fields of study, not just languages.

  • UserGoogol

    Whether or not a PhD should be viewed as an apprenticeship for future professors seems irrelevant. If it’s an apprenticeship, it’s not particularly useful. If a PhD is just about knowledge for its own sake, forcing people to take tangentially related material they aren’t interested in doesn’t really promote that.

    • Kate

      Most students applying to History PhD programs today should realize that it’s necessary to have additional skills. Many History PhD graduates do not end up getting tenure track jobs or research positions. Given the high competition for History jobs right now (300 applicants for most 20th US history positions), I think you should make yourself more marketable in case your goal of finding a job in academia doesn’t work. Or, make sure you are in a top tier program and are fully funded for five years.


      • Yes, but by learning GIS or computing you are also making yourself more marketable, and in skills that university administrations actually have interests in.

        • Kate

          Having experience with diverse populations through language or cultural studies is important as well. US historians get asked this question all the time. I don’t think it’s much to ask that a History PhD should make an attempt to pass a simple language translation.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    I’m a passionate language geek and advocate of multilingualism — but that said, I have to agree with the post. In my ideal world a student entering a PhD program would already have a very strong competence in at least one foreign language, preferably more, having begun studies at the primary level and continuing through the undergrad years.

    The PhD language requirements are vestiges of a time when you could reasonably expect to need to read works in your field written in French or German in order to have a well-rounded overview of the discipline. But I don’t think that’s been true of any academic subject for years.

    • DrDick

      I think that depends on the subject, but to a large extent you are right.

      • Slocum

        More like it depends on the sub-discipline. With philosophy, the further back you go if you are historically inclined, the more languages you need. If you’re writing on Plato’s Timaeus, then the optimal set is Greek, Latin, French, German, and English. If you’re writing a dissertation on Badiou, then you might be able to get way with French and English. And set theory.

  • For my PhD (in English), I had to take a language proficiency exam. This would’ve been a huge pain in the ass if it had meant I had to start studying a language from scratch, but fortunately, I already had fair-to-middling French, and the exam, as it turned out, was extremely easy: it just involved reading a simple journal article and answering some questions about it (in English).

    It’s quite hard to defend this process, I think: the exam was so easy that it was pretty much useless if the goal was to determine whether I’d be able to do research in French (which I’ve never had the occasion to do–I’ve read some French theorists, sure, but always in translation, and no one seems to have a problem with this). It looks very much to me as if the university felt, for inchoate philosophical reasons, that it was an important requirement to have, while at the same time not wanting to trip people up by making it hard enough to be meaningful in any way.

    Point being, I agree with Erik.

  • Slocum

    It’s also worth considering that the language requirement is an investment in future scholarship. So you’re writing your philosophy Ph.D. on externalist theories of reference, so, pffft, English is enough. Ten years later, your research programme has developed and evolved along with your interests and now you are confronting Brandom’s inferentialism more and more–you’re going to write a book. Problem is, you can’t begin to read some of Brandom’s important sources like Hegel and Heidegger in the original. You’re teach a 2-3 load, which is not bad at all, but you have administrative commitments, students to supervise and, well, the rest of your life. How ya gonna learn German now?
    It’s not necessarily a really serious problem–you just avoid writing about that Hegel/Heidegger background in your book. But that means that you are not as in control of your research as you would like–if only you had at least gotten a moderate proficiency in German, you would be more confident to bring those sources into your scholarship, perhaps improving it.

  • Lara

    This is a bit of a tangent, but eh, that’s what the end of a long comment thread is for. The project on breweries and urban change sounds fascinating, and, given your interest in Mexico, you might find Aurea Toxqui’s work on Mexico City pulquerias during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to be a useful point of comparison. (She completed her dissertation at the University of Arizona in 2008, and recently published a chapter in The Growth of Non-Western Cities: Primary and Secondary Urban Networking, c. 900-1900.) If you’re focusing more on the industrial production of beer, there are also interesting works about Monterrey and the Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc, including material in Juan Mora-Torres’ The Making of the Mexican Border. All of this may already be known to you, or irrelevant to your conceptions of the project, but it seemed worth throwing out just in case. :)

  • mch

    “Rather, Ph.D. programs need to work with students to provide them the tools they need to survive in the 21st century marketplace, whether Hmong or GIS, French or advanced statistics.”

    I guess I don’t think of the Ph.D. as, primarily, a job ticket. (Important as jobs are, obviously, and as necessary as it is to structure a society where scholarship and jobs are intertwined.)

    Also, sort of a trickle-down problem here. If you don’t attach value to studying foreign languages (for whatever reasons) at the highest level, that attitude makes its way down the food-chain (to borrow something akin to the marketplace metaphor) to middle school and high school, when language-learning should be pursued vigorously (for lots of reasons).

    • Lurker

      Yep. I, for one, think that a Ph.D. program language requirement is idiotic. Ph.D programs are accepting peoples with an academic education. If, for some reason, they lack foreign language skills, it’s too late to learn them in the program (unless it’s about research into some very exotic language area, say, ancient Egyptian).

      On the other hand, the foreign language requirement should be a part of high school diploma. No one should be able to enter college without at least one foreign language.

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  • dave

    One of the other things that might be said is that US PhD programs are absurdly over-engineered, and seem designed to create both extreme anxiety and what we might call academic Stockholm Syndrome, or abusive co-dependency, in their victims.

    The UK has managed for many years with a system in which 3 years is the normal completion-time for a PhD, there are NO examinations beyond the final dissertation viva, NO ‘requirements’ except to have what is agreed to be a viable project. It is now also the norm for ‘training programs’ to run alongside this, workshops on statistics, techniques, whatever you might need – but this is training, not an examination.

    UK universities are, by all reasonable measures, the second-best in the world after the USA. Given the much smaller population, they are self-evidently superior on a per capita basis.

  • mch

    Dave, I think it’s hard to compare the US and UK since in the US many students entering Ph.D. programs (virtually all students in the humanities, including disciplines like History) earned liberal arts degrees, with only about a quarter or third of their undergraduate courses in their “major” (instead of “reading” a specific subject in university, after one more year of secondary education than Americans have — and Americans have none of those A-levels to prepare for). So American Ph.D. students, generally, still have a lot of basic learning to do in their discipline.

    This is one reason I’ve been disturbed to see US Ph.D. programs demand that applicants identify their area of specialization when they apply. Many students can’t possibly ready to make that choice.

    In general, American graduate programs, in part because of the laudable aim of making their Ph.D. students more employable and then more tenurable, create a climate of learning that is geared to churning out publications — which too often leads to creating cogs in a machine.

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