Saving Foreign Languages from Extinction through Rebranding
Community colleges have certainly not been immune to the declining enrollment rates in world languages. This decline seems to have become the norm across colleges and universities in the United States. Factors such as lower language requirements and the rising costs of higher education are partially to blame. There is also the underlying issue that foreign languages are systematically devalued in an English-speaking world that values economic growth. The community college is unique insofar as it has started to address this ever-growing trend at its roots.
Having taught at Seattle Central College for almost four years now, I have also experienced fewer students in my introductory German classes. Among other demographical differences, my students at Seattle Central are often employed and are generally older than my UW students. Both student populations have some things in common: the majority are business majors, and most are enrolled in my courses simply because they are fulfilling a language requirement. They need at least two quarters of another language for most degrees at the college, and at least three quarters if they choose to transfer to a university directly. However, these requirements are slowly changing, as various programs are continuously lowering their language standards. Languages other than English have become less important in the business world, whether we like it or not.
This has left instructors at the college no other choice, but to find ways to rebrand foreign language classes from something one has to take to something students want to take. First and foremost, we are advertising the fact that the knowledge of another language and culture will increase your success in the business world. Instead of focusing on how well students are able to communicate after two quarters of a foreign language, we are encouraging students to discover the utilitarian value of knowing a language and its culture. This means spending more time on cultural discussions in the classroom, such as examining German or Chinese business cultures for example. More importantly, it means exposing students to the many career opportunities that emphasize foreign language skills, and inviting local businesses leaders to speak to students.
Also outside of world languages, literature and film courses at Seattle Central have also seen fewer students in the past few years. Like foreign language classes, they are having similar discussions on how to increase enrollment. I am currently serving on a collaborative research committee that focuses on the future of the humanities and the ways in which they can adapt to current trends. The goal is not to draw in more students with popular course offerings, but to emphasize to students the value of analyzing texts. We want to stress that critical thinking skills that are learned in a literature class are imperative to any career. Again, this means rethinking the curriculum and the skillsets we teach our students.
Seattle Central College is able to accomplish this by focusing on the quality of effective teaching and learning. It has the unique opportunity to reestablish the value of the humanities before students transfer to another institution. Its mission of building external partnerships and to serve the community needs to be more closely integrated in language and literature courses. The college has the ability to rebrand the humanities as something useful.
After receiving his Ph.D. in Germanics in 2013, Jan Hengge is currently teaching general humanities and German courses at Seattle Central College and the University of Washington. His interests include terrorism in literature, world cinema, and 20th century European intellectual history.