Monday, 15 February 2010

'What I Have Learned In UCL's French Department'

A French student gives her take on the proposed changes. 
        In my first few weeks of being a fresher, I was in my halls grappling with Montaigne’s Essais when someone asked me why I was reading a French text. Being a single-subject French student at UCL, I thought the answer should have been rather obvious. Alas, it clearly was not. This particular person genuinely believed that studying French at university was fairly similar to how they remembered their GCSE French. That is to say, when they waved me off to my lectures in the morning, they presumed I was off to learn a vocabulary list about weather, or tourism perhaps, and maybe have a short, taped listening exercise to end the day with. The scary thing is, when I announced this to my flatmates later on, instead of being deafened with their laughter at the poor soul who had clearly misunderstood the purpose of a “language” degree, I was faced with baffled expressions, an awkward silence, and eventually—“well... what do you do then?”

         I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that this is a question that most of us language students have been asked at some point. To an extent, it’s just a harmless miscomprehension, or perhaps ignorance—but this failure to recognise language study as an intellectual entity of itself means that language departments are facing huge cuts and internal changes which could have severe consequences on the way the programmes are run. 

         Language departments within our own university may well be under threat. The proposal released by the Languages Review Committee in early February details the intended first stage of changes to the Dutch, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian Studies, and Spanish and Latin American Studies departments. It unashamedly states its intentions to merge all the departments - thereby taking away individual autonomy - and to cut courses. While the second stage of this plan has not yet been released, it seems likely that it will result in generic courses which will be overarching, bland, and which will not capitalise on the particular interests and research areas of the academic staff (or at least those who remain after the expected job cuts.)

         So why do we care that language departments are under pressure? Surely I could just ditch my studies at UCL, pick up a ‘Teach Yourself French in 3 days-or-something-just-as-unrealistic’ and have the same education, with no tuition fees? Clearly, this would not work. A lecturer of mine once suggested to me that, like in the USA, language degrees should be renamed. At Harvard University, for example, they call it “French and Francophone Studies”. This allows people who don’t know much about a “language” degree too see that there is a lot more to it than learning when to use être et avoir and battling with the subjunctive. The French department, for example, brings together specialists in French and Francophone Literature, History, Politics, Film Studies, Philosophy, Linguistics and Sociology —as well as “highly trained specialists in language acquisition relating to the languages that lie at the core of that discipline” and all within an academic context.

         I can only speak for the French department, but I would be severely disappointed to see the disappearance of some of our courses—especially those in the fourth year, which are almost all taught by academic staff who have special interest, and have done extensive research in the field. I have always been impressed by the depth and range of the courses offered to us as undergraduates. I didn’t apply to UCL for a bog-standard, tick-all-the-boxes degree which would do nothing more than introduce me to a subject then nod indiscreetly in the direction of a post-graduate degree if I required any further information. I came to UCL expecting to study things that other universities didn’t, to push myself, to become enthusiastic about things I had never even heard about, because of staff who were just as enthusiastic. I expected to finish my degree wanting to do a post-graduate degree because I wanted to go even further into my studies, and not because my undergraduate degree didn’t allow me to go far enough.

         Until now, I have never been disappointed, but we are yet to find out exactly what the Languages Review Committee has in store for us. All we know is that there will be changes. And they will affect us. Courses will be cut and changed—and by whom, we do not yet know. Academic freedom will most likely be restrained—the severity of which, again, we do not yet know. However, if there’s one thing that studying French has taught me, is that we don’t have to sit back and let this happen. We can have our say in this matter. We can prove that Modern Foreign Language degrees are not redundant. We can work towards another solution—one which doesn’t compromise the student experience.


  1. "It unashamedly states its intentions to merge all the departments, thereby taking away individual autonomy"

    Quite how that conclusion is made from comments such as these in the discussion document is beyond me:
    "Departments would keep their current titles"
    "[Heads of Department] will continue to be responsible for organising the teaching within their departments and for the academic content of undergraduate degrees"
    "departments will keep their examination boards and continue with all their usual tasks of setting and scrutinising papers, agreeing and confirming marks, and so on"

    I mean, not all of the review is that great. But seriously - outright misrepresenting it?

  2. The proposal also says that there will be a swift reduction of courses, and changes made to language teaching and curriculum. Not by the departments themselves, but by a 'small working group' (and given that none of the admin staff effected by the restructuring were consulted prior to the proposal document being published,it seems unlikely that departmental staff will have any say on what goes on in this phase).
    The creation of a division will mean that the structure itself, being centralised, will have the potential power to remove autonomy from individual departments as it will allow for rules to be created that apply to all the departments under it.

  3. We've already seen this term with the establishment of the Redundancy Committee that 'central management' can override departments' autonomy anyway, so I don't really see this as anything new.

    As for closure of courses, yes this would be bad for students who desperately want to take those courses. But it would also free up academics to do, er, research - this is their primary job at a research-led institution. So long as the working group doesn't cut all the popular courses, what's the problem?

    Still, you fail to address properly the points I raised. Did you or did you not misrepresent the document in relation to the quotes I mentioned?

  4. A Second Year Undergraduate Student18 February 2010 at 00:44

    As with most things in life, he holds the purse strings wields the power. If these reforms were enacted, budgetary control would move to the division-wide level. Whilst the departments may be allowed to continue in name under the proposals, they would essentially be stripped of most of their ability to act autonomously.

  5. I couldn't agree with you more on some of your points. Language courses are most definitely misunderstood and people assume that we simply learn the Language we choose at University.


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