GUEST COLUMN: What does it mean when world languages and literature departments are on the verge of shut down? | Opinion

GUEST COLUMN: What does it mean when world languages and literature departments are on the verge of shut down? | Opinion

If you are a teacher, social activist or a literature or language enthusiast, your socials are probably discussing the possible reputations of West Virginia University upper management’s recommendation to dissolve the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, including the master’s program in teaching English as a second language. Many language organizations, such as the Modern Language Association of America and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, have expressed their concerns pertaining to WVU’s recommendation and possible negative impacts on the quality of international education and critical thinking among students. 

As a language professional and multilingual Asian American myself, I second these possible threats. I feel such a step could have the potential to dent intercultural awareness and global sensitivity among American youths. In the following paragraphs, I attempt to explain how shutting down language and literature departments could be worrisome and negatively impact society.

Though WVU’s possible decision instantly invited counteractions through petition letters and social media protests, the threats and decisions to eliminate languages and linguistics programs in higher education are not new. In 2021, New York University shut down its Comprehensive English Program for alleged budgetary reasons, keeping its international and faculty in the air. In 2019, San Francisco State University discontinued its Chinese language program catering to the local population. 

Such institutional decisions may suggest or reflect the institution’s linguistically unempathetic ideology and short-sightedness toward notions of diversity and ignorance toward diasporic and immigrant experiences and cultural traditions. Such educational decisions could also burn bridges for monolingual English speakers to learn about the cultural backgrounds and the rich linguistic history of the endangered communities, people of color, and multilingual speakers in the United States, who are also equal stakeholders of today’s America. Such institutional decisions, including WVU’s institutional insensitivity toward teaching world languages and literature, are egregious. 

I say so because such steps would deeply ignore, alienate and passively target minority groups by silencing and devaluing their histories. These policies create normative institutional policies, endangering their cultural legacies.

After WVU President E. Gordon Gee and other higher management personnel declared the possible step to shut down their languages, literature and introductory TESOL programs, their contribution to the public and WVU students’ reactions has been relatively basal. As university leaders, their silence is representative of the heuristic values and the institution they represent, even causing faculty members to push for a vote of no confidence against Gee. 

As a language educator, I find President Gee and his colleagues’ silence problematic since the shutdown could further backtrack the low educational standards and outcomes of West Virginia. As a language researcher, I am certain the WGU administration’s decision will negatively impact the intellectual development of their regional youth since, according to the American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, West Virginia is currently one of the least-educated US states. 

Eliminating language programs would further question the WVU’s commitment to critical teaching methodologies in the region. WVU, possibly the only flagship US university with no language and literature department, would set an extreme example of a regressive educational space that does not provide opportunities for students to access diverse ways of thinking and restricts their learning to the status quo rather than enriching local and global contemporaries.

Language and literature higher education programs have deep programmatic connections with the K-12 school system in the U.S. education system. It is true for WVU’s case. The WVU’s Department of World Languages, Literatures & Linguistics faculty members have been tirelessly contributing to improving and documentation of West Virginia’s languages, their standards and research. Despite their ongoing investment in its local languages heritage and preservation, WVU’s decision could have an uncalculated and potentially wide gap in maintaining the competitive English language policies and standards in place in accordance with the rest of the country. 

If WVU’s current recommendation expands to other universities, it will cause an inhospitable intellectual and normative culture in society. I say so as a TESOL professional because such institutional policies would risk all of my WVU colleagues’ current language equity endeavors, especially those working with minority student communities and their K-12 teachers. Disinvestment in language and literature programs could also mirror how the rights of racial minority groups cannot access quality education due to funding.

Leaders, such as university administrators and higher-level management, are representatives of us as society members. We elect them as our representatives of policies to elevate the everyday lives of our kids, students and all members of society. Therefore, language, literacy and ESL programs’ shutdowns, which institutional leaders support, hint at the actual discriminatory ideologies that endorse inequity and factionalism. 

Hence, WVU’s decision should remind us to confront such leadership and rescue the research-driven outcomes. In the past, when similar threats have come to attention, such as discontinuing the University of South Florida’s College of Education in 2021, the teachers, researchers and activists gathered community support to reverse and confront such educational threats, and it has worked. #WVUmistake.

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