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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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