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I was surprised by students' resistance to change

Mergers — Tina Lupton had to scrap her plans for a new Modern Language Degree, because of opposition from students. The question now, she writes, is how to attract enough students to traditional language degrees to make them viable and relevant.

It’s been strange to be in the position of an English newcomer to the Danish system as I watch the progress of the student blockade these last weeks.

I arrived nine months ago as Institutleder of The Department of English, Germanic and Romance (ENGEROM) fully intending to make what is now being billed as the most dangerous of moves.

My plan was to introduce one Modern Language Degree in place of the individual degrees in French, German, Spanish, English, Italian and Portuguese now offered at ENGEROM. I knew some teachers would be hostile to this change, and I knew it would be challenging to make it align with the requirements of the gymnasium teacher training that is crucial to our institute.

I also knew it, like all processes at the university, would have to get student approval at various levels.  But I believed that it would be popular with the students at ENGEROM.

This is because the change I imagined would have come with a more open syllabus, and have allowed students to study one or more languages, find earlier specializations in either culture or linguistics, and spend more time abroad.

The model I had in mind is not taken from RUC or from liberal arts education:  it is one that is used at some of the most traditional language departments in the world

I felt such a model would fit well here in Denmark as a recognition of the fact that students studying small languages are also extremely proficient students of English, linguistics, and discourse analysis more generally: to describe them just as students of Italian or Portuguese is to radically undersell their qualifications as language experts.

A five year education is a ride in a single direction

If I were fighting as a Danish student today, I would be fighting for this increased optionality – as many of our students are doing. Danish students taking small degrees have almost no input into their choice of courses beyond the initial choice of degree. A five-year education is a ticket to ride in a single direction – to one place determined at some point in the past by the study board. The smaller your degree, the fewer options you have along the way.

… It has been hard for me to believe that this kind of narrow, predetermined path could be desirable to any young person …

Having taught all my life in systems where students more clearly direct their own education, it has been hard for me to believe that this kind of narrow, predetermined path could be desirable to any young person trying to anticipate their role in the complex twenty-first century workplace.

Despite my instincts as a foreigner, however, I have learned how important ‘kernefaglighed’ is at the University of Copenhagen. For this reason, at ENGEROM we decided many months ago NOT to propose a single Modern Language Degree. Instead, we will try hard to preserve and improve our existing degrees.

The threat is a lack of student enrolment

We will continue to offer the excellent gymnasium teaching training that is at the core of what we do – and which we cannot and have never planned to compromise on.  And we will design (with student input and collaboration) a new English medium degree (tentatively entitled ‘Ideas, Politics, and Language), which will provide students with the chance to build on their multiple language competencies and overseas careers.

The threat to our small degrees does not come from reduced funding, or from any top-down plans at faculty level, but from lack of student enrolment.

In the meantime, we must all be aware that the threat to our small degrees does not come from reduced funding, or from any top-down plans at faculty level, but from lack of student enrolment. So my challenge as department head, one I’d invite all students at the faculty to help me with, is to make these degrees succeed.

If a broader degree system in which students make individual choices is not the answer, then how do we make sure that our traditional language degrees attract enough students to make them viable and relevant in today’s world?

The real work of the students and colleagues opposed to merging and opening up traditional degrees lies not in protecting their existence, but in answering that question.

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