Monday, April 14, 2008

Southern trying to fit Chinese into permanent course offerings

By Ben Johnson
Special to the Register
— The 16 students studying Chinese at Southern Connecticut State University this semester are in an unusual situation: courses in Chinese are not officially offered.
Add to this that SCSU’s only current instructor in that language will soon return to China and the result is that the future of the university’s language course offerings is uncertain.
While the Foreign Language Department has offered Chinese I and Chinese II since 2006, the classes are listed provisionally as Special Topics, taught by guest teachers on one-year rotations. Despite strong faculty and administration support, and increasing demand, permission to launch a formal program with permanent courses and full-time faculty has been slow in coming, according to Foreign Languages Department Chairman Carlos Arboleda.
When instructor Ning Liu arrived to begin teaching last September, the two Chinese courses offered were not listed in the course catalog. Only four students enrolled. This semester, the courses are listed and persistent students were able to find them in small print of the Foreign Languages section. This time, registration for Chinese I jumped to 13 students.
Along with greater enrollment came a diverse range of students.
“Last year most of my students were seniors, majoring in Asian Studies,” Liu said. “This year the students come from very different majors: sociology and management and psychology and even math and international business, a lot of majors, and some of them are freshmen.”
Also, as a reflection of growing interest in Chinese language and culture, Liu said those enrolled in this semester’s Chinese I class range from undeclared undergraduates to graduate and adult students, with an equally wide range of interests.
Ryan Newton, a graduate student in psychology, is taking the course in preparation for a year abroad in China’s Henan Province where, he said, he will serve as an English instructor.
“My interest is in educational psychology, and so much of the focus now is on cross-cultural, so that’s what drove me to look at these other programs,” Newton said. “Spanish is useful, too, but I thought in this global environment, so much of the population speaks Mandarin, why not try to learn it?”
Robert McFarlane, a senior and physics major, said he was drawn to study Chinese by a longtime interest in martial arts. He said he hopes learning the language could give him an edge if he were to decide to move to China to train.
“I wanted to take it for my language course when I got to the school,” he said, “but they didn’t offer it at that point, so I took Arabic, and after I finished Arabic I saw an advertisement in the hallway for this class, so I decided to take it anyway.”
Others said they see the Chinese courses as an opportunity for personal enrichment. Jonathan Beauchamp, a retired high school teacher of Spanish and French, said he is auditing the course in preparation for a two week visit to China in June.
“We’ll be in Beijing and Shanghai, just touring, and I thought I would try to pick up some of the language,” he said. “Provided I don’t get completely swamped by the end of the semester, I might decide to continue with it.”
Many students expressed hope that the university would soon grant Chinese language courses the same official status as its other language programs.
“If we have so many other languages like Spanish and German,” said freshman Rong Pan, “wouldn’t it make sense to offer Chinese as a major? In a university this big, you have to offer more choices to people.”
Yet despite growing interest, Chinese has not found a permanent place in SCSU’s curriculum; nor does it have a permanent teacher. Liu, a professor of English from Suzhou, in China’s Jiangsu Province, will return home in June. Like her predecessor at SCSU, Yuying Gao, Liu is a visiting international scholar whose one-year appointment was negotiated with China’s Hanban Chinese Guest Teacher Program. The program is designed to establish new Chinese language programs abroad, but not to staff them indefinitely.
Mary Ann Hansen, world language consultant to the state Department of Education, who traveled to China along with SCSU Vice President Ellen Beatty and helped bring Chinese teachers Gao and Liu to the university, said she felt that the two guest teachers should set the stage for an official Chinese language program.
“What we did,” she said in a telephone interview, “is we tried to jumpstart the process by bringing in a volunteer teacher from China.”
The decision whether to make the program permanent now rests with SCSU’s Undergraduate Curriculum Forum, and many faculty members and administrators hope to see an official program as early as next Fall. Arboleda and International Programs coordinator Linda Olson, both members of SCSU’s International Programs Steering Committee, are spearheading the effort.
“I brought up the idea of whether we should, as a committee, support Chinese,” Olson said, “and it was unanimous. Everyone said we have to support Chinese, there’s no way not to support Chinese at this university, and that’s a very diverse committee.”
The Steering Committee’s recommendation, however, must contend with the constraints of a limited budget, Arboleda said. A full-time professor would likely cost the department at least $45,000 per year, he said, at a time when the university’s existing language programs remain understaffed. If approval for a full program were not to come in time for the fall term, Arboleda said he hopes at least to hire an adjunct t professor, which would cost the university only about $8,000 per semester. That is less than the amount spent on international guest teachers who, according to the Hanban program’s requirements, not only receive pay but also must be provided with housing and transportation at university expense.
Above all, students and faculty alike said they hoped that official courses with permanent faculty would give the Chinese program much-needed stability.
“To me, I think the most important thing is continuity for the students,” Liu said.
Some students expressed concern that lack of constant faculty could make an already difficult language even harder to learn.
“With a language such as Chinese, I think it’s important to have the same professor going through,” said Beauchamp. “With Spanish or French it’s a little easier, since you don’t have to go through the alphabet and the whole business, but when you’re leaning something completely new, I think it’s important to have continuity.”
Regardless of this year’s coming budget decisions, Liu said demand to study Chinese would be sure to keep rising among incoming students. “More and more students are taking a Chinese course in high school, in middle school,” she said, “so there will be more and more students who know Chinese and want to learn more Chinese.”
Hansen, who has now seen two visiting teachers come and go, agreed.
“This is an area where the university system needs to step up to the plate,” Hansen said.

Ben Johnson is a student at Southern

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