At a school the size of Knox, it is impossible to offer courses in everything a student might wish to study, a problem that especially shows itself when it comes to learning foreign languages.
Through the efforts of Dean of the College Larry Breitborde and Associate Dean of the College Lori Haslem, the policy on self-taught languages at Knox is being revised to ensure better oversight and evaluation for students aiming at languages not offered in the classroom at Knox ranging from Portuguese to Russian.
In the past, if a student wanted to learn a language not offered by the college, he or she would have to find another student or faculty member who knew the target language and was willing to act as a tutor. Both student and tutor would then receive a half credit. American Sign Language, Arabic, Italian and Korean were all popular requests.
However, this system was fraught with problems. For one thing, it was contingent upon the availability of a student tutor. If a student wanted to learn Turkish, for example, and there were no Turkish speakers on campus, they were largely out of luck.
An additional concern was the lack of oversight for these courses. Credit was granted regardless of how much quality instruction was actually taking place in the course.
“There was no way to detect what level of instruction was going on,” Haslem said.
Students also reported frustration with the old system. These problems have led Haslem and Breitborde to put the current system on hold and proceed to look into alternative options.
One model would embrace new technology in language learning, most likely the Rosetta Stone brand of language learning software. Students would be able to use this software to self-instruct and then at some point be assessed by an outside examiner as a way of certifying what they have learned.
Junior Charlotte Young, after working with Haslem and Breitborde, is following such a program to help her learn Arabic. The College has provided her with several levels of Rosetta Stone software and will bring in an outside examiner to certify what she has learned.
“I think it’s going to be worthwhile,” Young said of the program. She is grateful for the opportunity, pointing out “there is no place other than Knox” which would have allowed her the freedom to pursue her studies in such a way.
An alternative model would be a modified version of the old student-taught language course, though one with more rigorous supervision. A half-credit Hebrew class currently being supervised by Professor of History Penny Gold provides a glimpse of how this might function.
Either of these could be combined with an institutional membership with a group dedicated to helping colleges such as Knox improve their less-commonly taught language offerings, such as the National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs (NASILP), which would provide resources and outside examiners.
No matter what is decided, the new rules will not affect instruction in languages already offered on campus, such as German or Chinese. Students will not be able to use self-taught languages to fulfill the Second Language Key Competency. Programs at other schools often require foreign language requirements to be filled first, before students can pursue another language.
As Breitborde said, “We’re not trying to replace the way we teach languages in the classroom.”
Sophomore Romina Pyakurel, currently enrolled in a student-directed Hebrew course, would like to see the student-led course maintain its current model. “People will take the classes seriously with a faculty member overseeing it,” she said.
Any changes would not be put into place any sooner than fall term of next year. When and if a proposal is put forward, it would have to be vetted by the faculty currently concerned with language teaching on campus, namely the Modern Languages, Classics and Asian Studies departments, before going before the faculty who would then have to approve it.