Ervin Malakaj (University of British Columbia)

Glacial Innovation


Have you recently asked your German studies colleagues with specializations in language pedagogy, second language acquisition, applied linguistics, or the scholarship of teaching and learning if they feel their work is valued in the context of German language and culture studies (at your institution or in the field broadly)? I have done this on a few occasions in recent months in personal conversations as well as on social media and the responses were almost always in the negative. At the core, scholars and scholar-practitioners in these fields feel marginalized as a result of reductionist views about the status of language learning in the minds and policies of those regulating undergraduate German studies instruction. In this perception, language learning takes on the status of no more but an ancillary activity in undergraduate German studies programs favoring culture studies. The scholars and scholar practitioners whose intellectual output is most closely affiliated with language learning subsequently feel the burdens of such unjust structures acutely. In addition, contributions in the form of workshops, talks, and publications by colleagues working on the scholarship of teaching and learning are more often than not devalued institutionally. These contributions are not seen as equivalent scholarly activity in comparison to, for example, a contribution in the field of literary studies. Of note is that scholars with expertise in language pedagogy, second language acquisition, applied linguistics, or the scholarship of teaching and learning are severely underrepresented in German programs, should they be represented at all. In fact, advocacy for their scholarship, expertise, and value within German studies broadly is lacking. Such devaluation of expertise is, I believe, a reason why innovative models in, for instance, language pedagogy too slowly come to be implemented in language and culture studies programs—to the detriment of our diffused field’s future. 


In this regard, whatever misconceptions about language study and attendant labor politics in German programs that we believe we left in the past still actively structure how we relate to and orchestrate German language and culture programs across North America. To elaborate on this claim, I would like to mention the matter of curricular bifurcation. The 2007 MLA Report of the Committee on Foreign Languages offered important insights about the negative effects of bifurcated curricula, noting that the divisions between “language” and “culture” in curricular planning burden students’ learning experiences. In particular, the sometimes smooth and sometimes crude division between lower-division language learning from upper-division culture studies courses offered few opportunities for students to adjust to a drastic turn from one type of learning experience to another. The MLA report (as well as other scholars and scholar-practitioners, see Maxim et al. 2010) offered the integrated language and culture studies curriculum as one solution to the issues posed by curricular bifurcation. It is not the function of this short article to outline the discussions, debates, and developments in the history of integrated language/culture studies instruction. I simply aim to illustrate that what is perceived as a major innovation in undergraduate German studies curricular programming over a decade ago (i.e., the integrated language/culture studies curriculum) has glacially come to be implemented in undergraduate German programs—if it was implemented at all.


In his analysis of German major enrollments at liberal arts colleges and research universities in the USA, Per Urlaub offers some data on innovative and also high-enrolling German studies undergraduate programs. Of particular interest are liberal arts institutions. Urlaub describes how “compared with large departments, small programs have a structural advantage toward developing, implementing, and sustaining integrated language and culture curricula” (129). His study determined that an efficiency structure of developing and implementing an integrated curriculum—labor most prominently characterized by regular curricular interventions and extensive commitment to student experiences on campus—most likely led to the fact that “Bowdoin [College] produces over 13 times as many German majors per 1,000 students as does Harvard University” (127). Of note is that small German programs operate in a context where “innovative curricula are not a luxury but a necessity” (130). That is, both the efficiency structures and imperatives for pedagogical innovation at small German programs formed the ideal context for curricular advancement. One is thus very likely to encounter scholars and scholar-practitioners well in tune with current developments in the fields mentioned in the opening of this article at small undergraduate German programs. In turn, some midsize and larger German programs struggle with current developments in curricular innovation. On the one hand, the flexibilities afforded by the efficiency structures of small undergraduate programs are not immediately available in larger institutional contexts; on the other, the devaluation of insights in the fields cited at the outset of this article prevent meaningful innovation. It is likely that for this reason curricular bifurcation persists in some contexts even years after multiple rounds of debate in the line of inquiry on integrated curricula: the bifurcated German program is not merely a relic of the past no matter how much we hoped this to be the case. 


Slow curricular innovation and implementation pose additive problems for curricular advancements in German studies. In the context of a bifurcated German program it is, for instance, challenging to discuss and implement emerging curricular models knowing that such innovative models presume that programs have kept up with trends in language pedagogy and culture studies over the course of the last twenty years. Current innovations in language pedagogy concerning social justice, ethnonationalist-critical methods, critical multilingualisms, translanguaging, and decolonization of language study are all predicated on flexibilities afforded by, for instance, the integrated curriculum. If such a prerequisite is not in place, the curricular context is characterized by a structural impossibility for innovation at a time when German programs are most pressed to adopt new models. 


The challenge upon us is manifold: How can we extend the flexibility and innovative curricular spirit of small programs to German programs broadly? What structural features in our programs prevent regular curricular innovation? It is no accident that the most advanced German curricula when it comes to attending to questions of diversity, social justice, and decolonization can be found in small German programs aligned with new developments in language pedagogy, second language acquisition, applied linguistics, or the scholarship of teaching and learning. Honest and productive answers to the questions above would emerge if we were to center the expertise and work of those working at the forefront of these fields.  


Works Cited

Maxim, Hiram, Peter Höyng, Marianne Lancaster, Caroline Schaumann, and Maximilian Aue. “Overcoming Curricular Bifurcation: A Departmental           Approach to Curriculum Reform.” Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German, vol. 46, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1–26.

MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.” Profession,             2007, pp. 234–45. 

Urlaub, Per. “Departmental Contexts and Foreign Language Majors.” ADFL Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 1, 2014, pp. 123–34.