Bienvenidos al nuevo semestre de Escritura Avanzada

Bienvenidos a un nuevo semestre, y al curso de escritura avanzada, Español 413, en la Universidad de Mary Washington (Virginia, USA). Hace 3 años que no he dado este curso, debido a mis responsabilidades como Chair del Departamento de Lenguas y Literaturas Modernas. Estoy muy emocionada de volver al curso, y como siempre me pasa, he decidido cambiarlo un poco de lo que he hecho en el pasado. Mi objetivo general en este curso siempre ha sido ayudar a todos los alumnos mejorar su manejo del idioma del español, aumentar sus destrezas de escribir, desarrollar una voz auténtica, y trabajar en la sofisticación de su escritura. Vamos a trabajar en todo esto en parte con el estudio y la lectura–de algunos puntos de gramática difíciles, y de la escritura de otros. Pero la mejor manera de mejorar nuestra escritura es escribir. ¿Por qué escribir en un blog? En parte, porque hoy en día, los blogs (las bitácoras) son la mejor manera de comunicar nuestras ideas por escrito. Pero también he escogido el formato del blog porque así no solamente podemos explorar nuestras propias ideas, sino que también podemos interactuar con otros escritores. Así me ha pasado a mi, y es a través de varios blogs que he mantenido en el pasado que he conocido a otros escritores, investigadores, y profesores con los mismos intereses. Pero como pueden ver en mi blog, no es fácil mantener un blog. Nuestro desafío este semestre es escribir regularmente, desarrollar nuestras ideas, nuestro vocabulario, y establecer una presencia entre una comunidad de otros escritores–sean de nuestra clase, o de la web.

Como tal vez ya saben, mi investigación se centra en el siglo XVIII español, particularmente en la escritura de las mujeres del dieciocho. Estoy actualmente trabajando en una propuesta para un artículo, y mis lecturas últimamente han sido sobre el concepto de una República de Letras–un concept que desarrolló el movimiento de la Ilustración. En las palabras de Dena Goodman (escribiendo sobre Francia) “it (18th century philosophy, the Republic of Letters) was not confined within the individual, disembodied (Cartesian) mind (…) its tasks could be completed only in a social setting, as a social practice” (Goodman, 8) Creo que lo mismo es verdad sobre la nueva República de Letras que representa el internet y los medios sociales en general, y blogging en particular. ¡Que nuestro curso este semestre desarrolle una República de Letras en Mary Washington, y que se extienda más allá de Fredericksburg!

Image from front page, google books,

Image from front page, google books,

Aquí hay una copia del plan de la clase para el semestre: espanol-413-primavera-2017

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Cornell UP, 1994.

Using Voyeur text analysis tool with Feijoo

Today I played around with a tool in its beta stage–Voyeur, a tool for web-based text analysis (http://voyant-tools.org/). I copied the first part of Fray Benito Feijoo’s 1726 essay “Defensa de las mujeres” (published in his collection Teatro crítico universal). The tool generated the word cloud below. The most frequent words are common words in Spanish, and at first I couldn’t see how I could eliminate them, but the others that show prominently give a good visual of this early eighteenth-century Spanish proto-feminist work! It also offers some interesting graphs, breaking up the text into equal parts, showing word appearance frequencies throughout the entire selection.

Feijoo Defensa World Cloud

Now that I know better how to use Avant, I’ve been able to use it in other classes to look at texts. Here is one we did with a selection from la Celestina. Of course, word frequency doesn’t equate with importance, but it is one more way to get students to look at a text, and think about the words an author uses, and the meaning behind them.

Humanidades Digitales en español: What I learned at the Segundo Encuentro de Humanidades Digitales

I’ve just returned from my first digital humanities conference, the Segundo Encuentro de Humanidades Digitales (2EHD) hosted by the RedHD (a group based in the Universidad Autónoma de México-UNAM) at the Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City. Biblioteca VasconcelosWhile I had attended some sessions at MLA and ASECS on digital humanities before, and participated in an MLA DHCommons workshop and a THATCamp ASECS, I still feel pretty new at DH (or HD in Spanish) stuff, plus I’ve really wanted to meet digital humanists who work in Spanish. This was a great conference for me, and I feel like I’ve come away with a better understanding of some of the DH/HD work going on in Latin America and Spain, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to meet some great people doing very interesting work. In this post I want to share some of the sessions and information that I found interesting and pertinent to my own work. I have to confess I didn’t go to all the sessions. The conference went all day from 9-6 for three days, plus two days of pre-conference workshops. But I also had never visited Mexico City before, and experiencing all the historic sites, and museums that I’ve read about—even taught to my students—but never experienced, was also important to me not only personally, but also professionally. So, all the great information I’m about to share is only a fraction of what went on at this conference, and what I present is really from my point of view, as a professor of Spanish from a small public undergraduate liberal arts institution in the United States who is still discovering DH. Still, I think it might be of interest to others who, like myself, would like to know more about Humanidades Digitales.

Some of the sessions dealt with libraries, digital collections, and digital archives. I heard a presentation from Alberto Martínez of the Biblioteca Daniel Cosío Villegas at the Colegio de México in Mexico City, detailing plans for their Proyecto Biblioteca Siglo XXI, in which they are working towards something very similar to our own Convergence Center at Mary Washington, seeking similar connections between libraries, technology, research, and teaching. I also heard about digitalization initiatives by the Mexican Institución Nacional de Antropología e Historia, and the Fondo Antiguo of the BIblioteca Central of the UNAM. Beth Plale of Hathitrust gave one of the keynote talks on her work at the Hathitrust Research Center, explaining some of the tools and resources available to researchers (both from member institutions, and non-member institutions) and demonstrated a few examples of what could be done. Her main point is that the idea of massive scale being the future of DH research was already a reality with their collection of 11 million volumes. However, she also cautioned that because of the problems of copyright, two thirds of that 11 million are not available in full text to the users. So they have developed tools that will allow researchers to collect large quantities of data from all the volumes of the Hathitrust collection, returning only the data requested but not the full text, which they believe to fall under “fair use”. Some in the audience questioned the validity of such limited views, similar to the “snippet view” in Googlebooks. Others questioned errors in the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) of the texts. Clearly Hathitrust is making some progress in this idea of massive scale, but we’re not there yet either technically or legally. This connected to some of the more theoretical questions of the conference. For example, Glenn Worthey, a digital humanities librarian at Stanford University, argued that DH research focused on the text is rooted in Russian formalism, now possible on a much larger scale than, for example, Vladimir Propp could detail almost a hundred years ago in his Morphology of the Folk Tale.

There were some interesting projects and new applications presented. RedHD has developed a questionnaire that will help guide students and researchers as they evaluate their digital projects to make sure they are following best practices, following MLA guidelines, something I could really benefit from with my digital humanities work with my own students (and the topic of my poster presentation of my undergraduate research project “Women and Charity in Spain”). 20140523_104544

Rocío Romero and Alberto Rodríguez of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Azcapotzalco(UAM-A) presented their website on the essay “Del ensayo y su escritura”, which presents students with important characteristics of the essay, the works of major Mexican essayists, and a space for them to present their own essays (similar to an approach that I take in my Escritura Avanzada course).

I learned about some important digital humanities centers and digital initiatives in Spain, Latin America and the US. In Spain, Nuria Rodríguez Ortega, an art historian at the University of Málaga spoke about her university’s ArtHis_Lab and their multiple digital initiatives to promote art and digital culture in the Spanish speaking world. Esteban Romero-Frías, a sociologist at the University of Granada, spoke about numerous projects that his group GrinUGR has begun, promoting digital studies and digital pedagogy in Spain. Like ArtHis_Lab, this group is very interested in the idea of “public digital humanities” and Dr. Romero pointed to several initiatives directed beyond the academy.  Elena González-Blanco García of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) shared her group LiNHD (Laboratorio de Innovación en Humanidades Digitales) and a new certificate program (taught on line) they’re offering a summer course this June digital humanities in Spanish for students, researchers, professionals, and anyone else interested, with more planned for the future. In Mexico, there are several groups working along similar lines. RedHD, the hosts of the conference, sponsors a Seminario HD, which seems a bit similar to some of the ideas emerging from Mary Washington’s own Digital Scholars Institute. Iván Martínez, of the UNAM and also representative of Wikipedia Mexico and president of the board of directors of the Wikimedia Mexico Foundation, spoke of efforts to add more content about Mexico to Wikipedia, and of guidelines to help contribute to the project. Mexico will be hosting Wikimania 2015 at the Vasconcelos! The Department of Philosophy at the UNAM has begun to look into the relationship of philosophy and technology in their project Seminario Tecnologías Filosóficas. Alex Gil, of Columbia University, and Barbara Bordalejo of the University of Saskatchewan, spoke of their work with Go-DH (Global Outlook::Digital Humanities) and efforts to network and create working groups for digital humanists all over the world, with special emphasis in countries not often represented in current anglo-centric DH centers.

Which brings me to my final take-away, and really why I wanted to come to this particular conference—that is the presence of digital humanities in Spanish. One glaring problem with initiatives like Hathitrust, that Beth Plale didn’t really address in her talk, is the under-representation of Spanish. According to Plale’s statistics she shared, of the 11 million volumes that form their collection, only about 300,000 are in Spanish—that’s less than 3%! And Hathitrust is not the only place where Spanish is under-represented. DH is thus far an anglo-centric field. Elika Ortega (University of Western Ontario) and Esteban Romero-Frías highlighted in their presentations problems with surveys like Centernet whose map of digital humanities centers focuses heavily on English-speaking and European countries, and doesn’t represent as well DH/HD activity in Spanish speaking countries. MapaHD and Atlas de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Digitales are two projects that have tried to map digital humanities in Spanish. MapaHD, through a questionnaire distributed through social media and various email lists, collected information from 80 self-declared digital humanists in Spanish and Portuguese, and found that the largest group of them were located in Spain (24), followed by Mexico (14), Portugal in third place (13), United States fourth (7), and United Kingdom (5) and Argentina (5) tied for 5th place. The majority of respondents identified their research as related to literary studies, followed by history, information science, linguistics, visual arts, and philosophy, although there was much overlap between these fields. They are creating digital editions, doing digitalization of texts and images, and creating databases among other activities.

I definitely left this conference with a sense that there is a lot going on in DH/HD in Spain and Latin America, and I hope to see more Hispanists in the US and the UK learning from them and collaborating with them, as I hope to do. I also am more convinced than ever of the importance for those of us teaching students of Spanish language, literature, and culture to include digital humanities and digital studies in our curriculum, because cultura digital is part of the many culturas that speak Spanish, and is an undeniable and ever-increasing part of all of our present and future.

Digital Scholars Institute at Mary Washington

I’m blogging this time in English after a few months of Spanish-only, to share with my non-Spanish-speaking colleagues some of my work and ideas about digital scholarship as I practice it. This semester I’ve been participating in Mary Washington’s Digital Scholars Institute a group of faculty interested in digital issues related to pedagogy, research, and scholarship. We’ve met every other week since the end of February in two cohorts to share our work and discuss pertinent issues. This project has been a natural next step for a campus that has been active in these issues for years with help and leadership from the great staff at the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies and the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. They have given the faculty and students at Mary Washington the opportunities, training, and tools we have needed to jump in to digital work, especially through initiatives like Faculty Academy,  UMWBlogsUMWDomains, and OpenVA.  As a result of those years of cultivating, coddling, preaching, and even sometimes prodding, there is a sizeable group of faculty here that is doing VERY COOL stuff! What has most impressed me in my own cohort–Andréa Livi Smith (Historic Preservation), Shawn Humphrey (Economics), Jack Bales (Simpson Library), Steve Gallik (Biology), Mary Kayler (CTEI), Jim Groom (DTLT), and me, Betsy Lewis (Modern Languages and Literatures)–has been the creativity with which each person has approached his/her discipline and then how that work has directly benefited students, even when not expressly (or exclusively) “pedagogical”. Check out http://digitalscholars.org to see their work, and the work of the other 5 faculty participating in another cohort.

So on Thursday April 24th it’s my turn to present my work. Some of what I’m going to outline below, I’ve narrated elsewhere before, so I’ll link to those places and you can read or skip as you wish. I’d like to focus on a digital project I’m finishing right now, sharing some of the frustrations, questions, and doubts I’ve had throughout, and end with some future projects I hope to start soon.

First of all, I don’t consider myself an accomplished “digital scholar”. It’s something I’ve been pursuing (more like playing with!) for years, and if you’re interested I’ve already reflected a bit about my trajectory thus far (“Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative”). I say play, because that’s what the digital has added to both my teaching and my research: active engagement of new skills, creativity, along with a sense of joy and wonder.

I have numerous colleagues here at Mary Washington to thank for everything I’ve learned and accomplished professionally in digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. They have helped me see my work as part of an intellectual and global community.

First, UMWBlogs inspired me to use technology in my classes. Through digital applications and blogging, Spanish 413 (Advanced Writing) evolved from a grammar and writing course (a snooze-fest for me and the students!) to be about writing and creativity through the composition of a large digital project. In Spanish 375 I took a nineteenth-century novel course (again, hard to get the students enthused), and made it about film adaptation of novels in which students story-boarded and eventually produced their own video adaptation. In both I saw the digital medium as a way to engage students in exciting, creative and more real ways, turning boring and dry courses to something much more interactive and rewarding for all involved. I then decided to go a step further by involving students in my research. As part of that, in 2011 I decided to try for a Digital Humanities start-up grant from the NEH . I was denied the grant, but still took two groups of students to Madrid to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional, and created a digital exhibition with them (more about that in a minute).

When UMWDomains came along, I tried to be a little more intentional about my  web presence apart from my courses, through bringing my work together on my own domain http://elizabethfranklinlewis.net, I started keeping a personal blog more regularly, where I write about my research, my teaching, and some issues that I see in the academy, which has included among other topics diversity, disability studies, language study, and the future of the book . Sometimes blogging feels a little disconnected–is anybody actually reading this?? But it has been a useful tool for me to work out some of my ideas and to reflect, if nothing else.

The bulk of my digital scholarship recently has been through the creation of a digital exhibition on the evolution of women’s charity in Spain. I’ve reflected (in Spanish) in my blog on the experience of working with students on such a project (“Haciendo humanidades digitales con mis alumnos”).  I’ve also presented some preliminary results of our work at several conferences: at the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispánica XXIII Congreso Annual held at Pomona College in October 2013 (“Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad Through the Lens of a Database“), a poster presentation with my students at the OpenVA conference also in October of 2013, and next month I’ll be presenting the whole site as a poster/demo at the Segundo Encuentro de Humanidades Digitales in Mexico City.

This work with my students has been amazingly rewarding, and lots of fun, and I think it has been a great experience for the three groups of freshman and sophomores who worked with me. But is it scholarship? It’s certainly not what I had envisioned when I proposed the project to the NEH three years ago. Lack of time, money, and resources have all limited what I could actually accomplish without the grant. Another issue I’ve had has to do with permissions from libraries and archives to display the material I’ve collected from them. Due to the permissions that I needed (still need), I haven’t made the site publicly available. Even though everything I display is OLD and in the public domain, the National Library in Madrid requires that I pay 25 euros per image to display them (that is up from 7 euros last fall, when I wasn’t quite ready to apply for permission!). Wasn’t the web supposed to be free and open? I suppose I can’t begrudge a library that has given me and my students open access to their collections the funds they need to keep their own work going, but it has made things difficult, if not downright expensive.

Despite these frustrations, I’ve learned TONS through this process over the last three years: about digital applications, issues of digital humanities, and about researching with students.Which leads me to my next steps. I’m offering a first-year seminar Digital Don Quijote, in which the students and I will use Cervantes’ great novel as way to approach some of the issues of digital humanities and digital studies that I’ve mentioned, and others that I haven’t (See my post “Quixotic” that I wrote last summer as I prepared to make the proposal for the FSEM).  It was originally planned for this spring (2014), but no one enrolled (another topic for discussion) so I’ll be trying it again for Fall 2014, with the senior seminar in Spanish planned for spring 2015, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second volume of the novel. I’m trying to get together a bike tour of the Ruta del Quijote for spring break, something like this video below. Andy Rush has already got me psyched about mounting cameras to our helmets to document our experience to share with the world! Oh, and I’ll be department chair too. ¡Qué loca soy!

Escritura avanzada a lo digital: New beginnings

Tomorrow is my first meeting for Spanish 413: Escritura Avanzada. I’ve taught this course probably 15 times here at Mary Washington and I’ve developed quite a love-hate relationship with it. It is so difficult to help students become really good writers, in any language. Add to this the fact that very few of them are actually writing in their native language–even the heritage speakers of Spanish are more comfortable writing in English than Spanish–and you can imagine how difficult a task this is. Several years back I started having students develop their projects on a blog, the theory being that if they were writing for an audience larger than just their professor and a couple of their peers, then they’d take better care with what and how they wrote. But my thinking has really evolved to see learning to write “a lo digital” as an important skill for my students to develop and that connecting them to the digital world in Spanish was far more useful to them than another 15 page term paper in which they use the subjunctive flawlessly.

Now in Spanish 413, we spend the first half of the semester learning about different kinds or writing, reviewing some of the finer points of grammar and Spanish lexicon, and putting these into practice through weekly blog posts. The second half of the semester we spend developing a digital project in which students explore any topic of interest in a blog of their own design. Here is my course description from the syllabus:

Español 413 es un curso de escritura avanzada para los que han completado Español 317 y 318 o su equivalente.   Mi meta para la clase este semestre es mejorar la manera de escribir de cada individuo de la clase, animándole a aumentar la sofisticación de su estilo, emplear una variedad de estructuras gramaticales correctamente, y buscar un léxico más profundo y especializado.  Sin embargo, también quiero apoyarles en sus metas individuales, sean personales o profesionales, y por lo tanto cada alumno/a tendrá la oportunidad de desarrollar su escritura en un proyecto escrito sobre un tema de interés.  Para poder realizar estas metas individuales, tenemos que repasar como clase los puntos más difíciles de la gramática, el léxico, la puntuación y las técnicas de la buena escritura.  Pondremos en acción nuestro estudio del idioma en la composición de un proyecto digital individual  donde se espera que el/la estudiante experimente con lo que estamos estudiando y que explore creativamente y profundamente un tema de elección personal.

Los objetivos del curso incluyen:

  • Desarrollo de destrezas de la comunicación escrita en español al nivel avanzado
  • Exploración de los métodos de planificación, composición  y revisión de un proyecto escrito grande como un proceso creativo
  • uso correcto y sofisticado de construcciones gramaticales y de un vocabulario variado y especializado
  • desarrollo de destrezas en el diseño y construcción de un proyecto digital que se aproveche de las capacidades del  medio electrónico.
  • conocimiento de herramientas y recursos digitales para investigar y analizar información, y para facilitar la expresión creativa y la evaluación crítica
  • conocimiento de los temas históricos, sociales, filosóficos, éticos y culturales asociados con la tecnología, especialmente en el contexto español y latinoamericano

It’s a pretty tall order, and not every student gets there. But I can say that every student who puts in the effort moves his/her writing towards these goals–notice I say “desarrollo” and “conocimiento” not “maestría.” My students are on a lifelong journey with their love of the Spanish language and the cultures that go along with it–their four years with us merely an early stage on this viaje de la vida. Long after the final project for 413 is turned in and graded, I hope they will all continue improving, learning new vocabulary, experimenting, and mostly finding joy in expressing themselves in Spanish, as I have and still do. During this coming semester, as they have blog essays due, I will blog alongside them, ¡en español, claro!

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Quixotic

Logo Google cervantes Don quijote

“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”
Those are probably THE most memorable words ever written in Spanish–the beginning, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. It captures all the irony and ambiguity that will characterize this long novel, written in two volumes and published 10 years apart–the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. It is a book that has fascinated readers for 4 centuries, and inspired numerous other books, plays, works of art, music, films, t-shirts, even a chain of Japanese thrift stores!

Don Quijote, Honolulu, Hawaii

I’ve recenty finished reading the novel in English, more than 20 years after I first read it in Spanish in a graduate class with the great Javier Herrero. Lately,  I’ve had the crazy, quixotic you might say, idea to teach two seminars on the Quijote this coming spring semester: a senior-level seminar in Spanish which I hope to title “Don Quijote 21” and a first-year seminar I plan to call “Digital Don Quijote”. I say quixotic because I’m not a Cervantes specialist, and I have my doubts about how I’ll be able to guide and inspire students not only to understand this extremely long and difficult novel, but to love it as so many generations have. Certainly there were times during my re-reading of the book this summer when  I distinctly did not love this book.

Over the past twenty years I’ve re-read parts of the novel, usually the best, most iconic moments: the wonderful first chapter where Don Alonso Quijano creates his persona Don Quijote and sets about inventing an entire world for the knight errant; Don Quijote’s first failed adventure; the burning of his collection of books of chivalry; his selection of Sancho Panza as his squire and companion; his infamous battle with the windmills, and the interrupted battle with the vizcaino followed by the introduction of the historian/author Sidi Hamid Benengeli; the freeing of the galley slaves; the visions Don Quijote claimed to have in the cave of Montesinos; the adventures on the wooden horse Clavileño at the Duke’s palace; Sancho’s time as “governor” of his own island; and finally Don Quijote’s tragic death. I’ve taught various of these chapters as part of our survey of Spanish literature, and usually students enjoy the selections, which give them a small taste of the genious of this text. But I’ve always felt I was cheating them by giving them so little of such a vast and hugely important book. So I wanted to face the challenge of my own adventure, and teach not one, but TWO classes on the Quijote. The first, in Spanish, would be a more traditional look at the novel as an important piece of literature and its enormous influence on Spanish culture even today. The second a related, yet somewhat different first-year seminar in English using the novel as a way to approach digital studies and digital humanities. We would read select chapters of the novel and relate them to various topics of digital study–the questions of authorship, fair use, and copyright laws; the future of the library; DQ and gaming, digital humanities projects on DQ, DQ as a MOOC, DQ in social media, etc.

However, as I waded through the first volume, with its numerous intercalated stories that often seem rather loosely connected to the main story, I started to doubt my plans. The first idea to go to the wayside was that I could inspire first-year students to read the entire book, and simultaneously include the digital topics I was interested in. But also I began to question my plans for the advanced students. Not only is the book long (some editions are well over a thousand pages), the Spanish (and the faithful English translation by Burton Raffel) can be insanely archaic in the case of Don Quijote, and ridiculously strewn with popular sayings and proverbs in the case of Sancho Panza. Fascinating philosophical questions aside about what (or who) is an author and what is his relation with his readers and his characters, or about what divides fantasy from reality, I began to question  my long-held acceptance of Don Quijote as the first modern novel, not only in Spanish but in any language…Really?? Modern?? I said as much to my husband one night as we were both reading before bed. I had just finished the episode in the cave of Montesinos and was entering into the long episode at the Duke’s palace. I remembered these episodes to be entertaining the first time I read them, but this time around they seemed to be too drawn out, too detailed, with too many digressions. Both the structure of the entire novel–especially the first volume–and Cervantes’ often purposefully difficult language, didn’t seem modern at all to me. In fact, the novel seemed distinctly Baroque. Now, before the Cervantista’s out there start trying to correct my ignorance on the art of Cervantes (which I do not deny), Miguel himself anticipated my misgivings just a few chapters later when his historian pseudo-author character Sidi Hamid Benengeli answered my complaints with a complaint of his own:

“It is said that, in the true original of this chapter, one can read how, when Sidi Hamid came to write this chapter (which his translator only partially rendered into Spanish), the Moor penned a kind of complaint against himself, for having undertaken such a dry and narrow history as Don Quijote’s…” (Volume 2, chapter 44, 586)

Benengeli knows exactly what I was thinking as I read volume one, and he anticipates–even condones–what I am sure my students will be doing next spring::

It also seemed to him, he said, that there would be a lot of people so totally absorbed in Don Quijote’s doings that, finding these other stories of little interest, they would simply skip over or just skim rapidly through them or, if they did read them, would do so only grudgingly…

Cervantes/Benengeli  then sum it all up for me–

he concludes his complaint by asking his readers not to look down on what he has here accomplished, and to praise him, not so much for what he has written, as for what he has refrained from writing. 

When I read this paragraph I was in awe of the genius of Cervantes. Here he was, anticipating MY criticism, answering ME directly, explaining ever so patiently why this book is modern, why it is like no other, why it is still relevant, and why I ought to continue my own crazy quest to bring it to another generation of readers!

Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. Ed. Diana de Armas Wilson. New York: WW Norton, 1999.

In Defense of (Academic) Language Study

I recently finished teaching a Spanish 101 course during our university’s first summer school session. My course was full, mostly with students from my institution working on the language requirement for our general education curriculum, which requires that students complete coursework or otherwise prove competency (AP scores, for example) at the intermediate level as defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, http://actflproficiencyguidelines2012.org/). So students starting in 101 would likely have 3 more semesters of study to complete the general education language requirement. This term’s course was pretty typical for my lower-level language courses. Some students were only in the course to complete the general education requirement, while others were there because they also had either a personal or a professional interest in learning Spanish. Ofen students see Spanish as a “practical” language and cite this as a reason for taking it. Completing what is normally done over 14 weeks of classes in only 4 1/2 weeks is quite a challenge for any course, but in a language course, it was a colossal task for all of the students, and for me as their instructor, and I have to say that I left the experience with some mixed feelings. I have a student from the course to thank for the topic of this blog post, in defense of (academic) language study, as opposed to the many other ways people can learn another language, from purchasing commercial programs sold in an airport to moving to another country.  I would like to argue for the value of language study as part of a liberal university education.  Also, although academic language study might have the side benefit of proving itself “practical” some day to some students, that is not its only, and maybe not even its most important purpose.

The aforementioned student who inspired this post was one of those students who  seems to question everything at every turn. A non-traditional student returning to school after a few years of experience in the “real” world, this person was not the typical undergraduate content to just do as I said and trust that I knew what I was doing. While it can be quite frustrating and tiring to have to defend oneself in this way, I don’t believe that the student was out-of-line to question me. To the contrary, I, as a professor, should be able to explain the “why” of my pedagogical choices just as well as I explain the “what” of the content delivered in them. So when this student asked me “Why don’t you just use that commercial program XXX?”(*referring to the sort of program advertised in travel magazines, sold in big box electronics stores, and in kiosks at the airport) I was a little dumbfounded.  Why not? Now to be fair, I’ve never really used any of those programs, although I suppose they probably have helped introduce many more people to a new language than I have in my 20 years as a professor. I did a bit of researching and found several reviews of one of the most advertised programs, Rosetta Stone, including this oneon a blog post from January of this year in the Economist. Certainly the program’s special features are intriguing, but I’m still suspicious of anything or anyone who  claims language learning can be quick and easy, natural, painless and never ever boring! But, back to the student’s questions– why not? While one of the criticisms of these language learning software programs is that they are quite expensive, none of them are as expensive as the three-credit summer course I taught, even for in-state students. What is so special about the way we teach language in a university classroom setting that justifies our price?

I myself learned Spanish in a rather non-traditional way. Thirty years ago, in the summer following my high school graduation, I lived for 9 weeks in La Paz, Bolivia. I had never studied Spanish before that moment, but rather had taken 4 years of highschool French. My immediate reaction to the letter announcing that I would be living with a family in Bolivia was to tell them no way, I wouldn’t go! I couldn’t go. I didn’t even know Bolivian, I thought, and I especially didn’t even know that Bolivians spoke Spanish, along with Quechua and Aymara and a few other indigenous languages. But the people at AFS talked me into taking a big risk and go.  Those were the 9 most difficult and most rewarding weeks of my life, and the experience completely transformed me. I came back with a pretty good foundation for speaking and understanding Spanish, but more importantly I came back with a greater awareness of how other peoples around the world lived, and I returned with a hunger to learn more, to improve my skills, and to continue transforming my monolingual, monocultural worldview to something much, much richer. For me it was sort of like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the film changes from black and white to color. Going to Bolivia, and learning Spanish opened my mind, and my life to a whole new way of thinking, of understanding and of being. Until I saw my my pictures developed once I was home, I had no idea how different I looked from my Bolivian friends–what a true “gringa” I must have seemed to those around me (evidenced below!). Perhaps proof of my intellectual (not physical) transformation?

Betsy Bolivia 1983

I started my university career the next fall and began my formal study of Spanish. I learned grammar, more vocabulary, and writing, and I continued to improve my speaking and listening skills. I also continued pursuing opportunites to travel–again to Latin America (Cuba and Costa Rica) and then a summer in Spain. I sought every opportunity I could to speak with native speakers in my university.  For me it was that combination of real-world experience and academic study that helped me in my transformation. This transformation didn’t happen easily, it did not happen quickly in fact, it’s still happening 30 years later!  It was not always fun, although often it was GREAT FUN, and it’s what I hope for each and everyone of my students, and the reason I went into college teaching.

Here is an exerpt of my response to my student:

I’m not sure if you were in class the day that I spoke about language learning being like learning a musical instrument or learning a sport. It takes a lot of practice, and it can be quite frustrating at times. Some students are naturals (just as some are naturals in sports or music) and seem to improve almost effortlessly, while others work and work and feel they are not improving as quickly as they’d like. But most students, all but those with the most severe of learning disabilities, are able to improve and they are able to achieve intermediate competency at the end of two years. The problem is, I can’t do it for students. I can provide students a road map (that is, through my syllabus, through the assignments that I give, and the topics that we cover in class, along with my power point slides and explanations that I provide).  I also can provide opportunities to practice in class: in every class I try to make sure that all students have the opportunity to practice all 4 skills necessary for language learning, with lots of speaking activities, reading, writing, and listening. I can also give students feedback, through my comments on their quizzes, on their homework, and on their classwork.But in the end it is ultimately up to the student to use all of these opportunities to his or her best advantage.

Learning a language is an art and a science. It requires skill and knowledge and creativity. The 2011 proposal for a “21st Century Skills Map”, spearheaded  by ACTFL–the same professional organization that has created the proficiency guidelines mentioned earlier–calls for 21st century language teaching at the K-12 and college level to focus on five “Cs”: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The proposal goes on to state that it is “only through knowing the language of others that we can truly understand how they view the world.” (http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/21stCenturySkillsMap/p21_worldlanguagesmap.pdf).  While I question the practicality of the proposal’s call for all students to emerge from K-12 at the advanced level, and from university study at the superior level–something only the very best of our Spanish majors are able to achieve in their 4 years with us–I do think it rightly emphasizes active and engaged student learning in a variety of “modes” from the more informal “interpersonal” to a higher level functioning “interpretive” and a more formal “presentational” mode.  These last two are areas a student is unlikely to develop outside of the classroom.

I will continue to seek new ways to encourage my students to become more active learners, able to create and interpret meaning accurately and correctly through both written and spoken Spanish. But my ultimate goal for them, more than achieving a particular language proficiency level, would be that they too might go from black and white to color, to enjoy the wonder of seeing, understanding, and being differently.

Wizard of Oz cover 1900

Diversity In My Classroom

Yesterday the University of Mary Washington held its first #diversityacademy organized by Leah Cox, Special Assistant to President for Diversity and Inclusion. It was wondeful to spend a day with my colleagues reflecting on where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we might be going (or want to go) in terms of promoting diversity in our curriculum and our culture at the University of Mary Washington. I learned quite a bit about the history of diversity issues that dated even before I came here in a tenure track position more than 15 years ago. The program included a discussion about the old Race and Gender across-the-curriculum general education requirements and about the multi-section First Year Seminar Race and Revolution, presentations from the UMW Center for International Education, CAPS, Disability Resources among others, and from the University of Maryland’s Executive Director of the Office of Diversity Education and Compliance, Gloria Bouis.  I’m sorry to have missed the final presentation about the Campus Climate survey at the end of the day, which actually leads into my own reflections on diversity in my classroom.

In my time here, I’ve noticed an important and positive change in the diversity of my classroom. While 15 years ago there might have been one or two Latino native or heritage speakers of Spanish in my upper level courses (5-10%), now that number is more like 25-30%, or more. While the overall Latino population at UMW is not nearly this high, I have found the Latino students in my classes–some majors and some not–have brought an enthusiasm and unique perspective to the courses I teach that has enhanced the learning environment for all of us–native and non-native speakers alike!. These students also have their special challenges. Many are working their way through college, they often have family responsibilities that force them to miss class at times. Their comfort with informal speaking activities is often countered by their trepidation at more formal writing assignments and oral presentations. Overall, the addition of these students has been a net positive for all of us, and I am so happy to be teaching all of my students at this time. But I also hear rumblings from some of my colleagues about the quality of student that UMW has  been accepting of late–pointing to our high acceptance rate, our large proportion of in-state and transfer students, and contrasting this to the “good old days” when more of our students were from out-of-state, of a higher academic caliber (on paper at least), and, while no one states this overtly, ,mostly upper middle class and white! While it is hard for me to tease out all the reasons for our change in student demographic (perhaps this is what I missed in yesterday’s presentation), and certainly we have a long way to go as an institution before our faculty and student body more closely mirror the population of the state of Virginia, I firmly believe that as a professor at a small public institution, it’s my job to provide the best academic experience I can for the students in my class, whoever they are. What a privilege to be able to work with these students, at this institution, at this moment, and have a small part in their education!

It’s personal (and professional)

The idea that has inspired me for this week’s #umwdomains topic actually came up in our cohort discussion last time, but it is a theme Weller continues in Chapter 9–the idea of openness, and of mixing the personal with the professional. I’ve struggled with this personal/professional mix. When I first started Facebook, I joined for purely professional reasons–that’s where my students were, and I wanted to connect to them. But then later former students, highschool friends, my parents, my in-laws, my Aunt Bert, my husband’s cousins, my colleagues, my neighbors…everyone joined… and although at first it was fun reconnecting those relationships, I now feel that Facebook is no longer the place for the professional. Its a place where I post cute pictures of my kids and pets, and of my vacations, and maybe links to articles or videos about some issues of importance to me (although I try not to be too contraversial or overbearing, because that friends list is so diverse I’m sure to offend someone, probably a family member). So I thought Twitter and Linkedin might be where I should be professional. But Linked-in is sort of boring, and Twitter is still overwhelming, but I’m trying.

This week I posted on both Facebook and Twitter links to some things that are of great importance to me personally, but also related to my professional interests. Many of you may know that I have an 8 year old daughter with Down Syndrome. My FB friends see many posts of her accomplishments and the cute things she says and does (along with her twin brother, who does not have DS). Disabilities, and the rights of persons with disabilities has taken on new meaning for our family–it’s personal! So two stories really touched on those interests that I’ll share here too. The first is about the Ideal School, in NYC where inclusion is not just a nice term that doesn’t mean much, but a way of learning for both the students with disabilities and the students without:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This story really spoke to me, because it really seems to be the “ideal” I have of a school, for my children, but also for my students here at UMW. In this place, individual learning and accomplishment is valued. Diversity and difference is valued. Life skills and social skills are taught along with academic subjects.

The second story was the opposite. Not my dream, but my nightmare:“Man with Down Syndrome who died in police custody loved law enforcement”

This is the fear of every parent of a child with a disability–how will they interact with the world when you’re not there to protect them, and how will the world treat them back? I can’t help but think that if there were more “ideal” schools, more “ideal” education at every level and in the workforce, there would be less tragedies like this one.

And so I’m on to the professional–my ideal education. I want student learning to be deeply engaged, to have personal meaning, to be experiential, to happen in a community of fellow learners, and to be fun. So I did an experiment in class last Wednesday.

The students in my Spanish 320G (a topics course on the culture of service and social action in Spain and Latin America) had read a wonderful short story by Emilia Pardo Bazán, a nineteenth-century realist writer. The story depicts the riders of a Madrid street car traveling from the city center through one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods on a happy Sunday afternoon. The idyllic scene is interrupted by a poor woman and her baby, who are short of cash for their ticket. The wealthy travelers take up a collection to cover her fare, and then shower the extra funds on the woman, who seems not to appreciate their generosity, but instead interrupts their lighthearted scene with too much information about her cad of a husband who had abandoned her for another woman. When the narrator tries to console the woman with encouraging words about how she should look on the bright side, that at least she has her son to care for her in the future, the poor woman reveals her baby’s face and the blank stare of the blind child.

Instead of a typical class discussion on various aspects of the story–themes, characters, imagery–I divided the class into 7 groups and assigned each part of the story to depict in images, each choosing a quote from the story as the image’s caption. I gave them only about 20 minutes to do it, and set up a site on google docs where each group was to create its slide. We immediately had problems–web browsers that weren’t supported by Google, difficulty transferring images saved on Macs–, enough that we had to end class without presenting the show. But when I went back to it in preparation for Friday’s class, I was so pleased by their work, and of how each group really was able to select both text and image that got at the essence of the greatness of Pardo Bazán’s story. I loved it so much that I posted it on Slideshare, even though I’m not quite sure where the images were taken from, and perhaps I’ll need to pull it down if someone questions me on it. But still, as an in-class activity, I loved how this got students to approach literature in some different ways, and then to work together to create something that communicated their understanding. Take a look!

Open or Closed?

Below are some questions and thoughts I think I’ll raise with my cohorts that were sparked by the Weller reading this week, all related to the idea of open education/open access:

How do we deal with the ever-present tensions between open and closed access? Between exclusivity and inclusivity? I see this tension in so many ways in my life as an academic. On the one hand, there is so much more information available to me as a researcher than before. When I was writing my dissertation in the 90’s, only those who had the money to travel and spend months in the libraries and archives of Madrid had access to many of the texts that today are freely  available on Google Books. However, an exclusive private enterprise like Gale-Cengage can also sell digital access to the collections of the British  Library at a price only wealthy institutions can pay, thus excluding small public institutions like our own. MOOCS offer free and open access to the masses (for now) to professors and courses that previously only the most elite could come in contact with, but is it really open education and is it access at all? The digitally native teenagers referenced as part of the net generation represent only one demographic–those wealthy enough to actually be consumers (and sometimes producers) of technology. What about the rest of them–for most of whom their only real engagement with technology is through their phone? I’m guessing some of our students fall in that category when they come to us.