Curriculum

The New Mission and Location of United States Spanish Depart­ments: The Mount Holyoke College Experi­ence

Rogelio Miñana

The Spanish department at Mount Holyoke College has in the last six years profoundly transformed itself. It merged with the college’s Latina/o and Latin American studies programs to form a new academic unit, possibly unique in the United States, while it thoroughly reconfigured its major. This comprehensive revision of our mission and academic as well as social location emerges partly in response to the evolving role of Spanish speakers and United States Latinas/os in general.1 Although specific to a private liberal arts college in the Northeast, our departmental and curricular refashioning suggests broader lessons that might advance the ongoing conversation regarding the mission and location of United States Spanish programs.2 Spanish departments operate in a country where over 35 million people spoke Spanish at home in 2009 and where Latinas/os are projected to represent thirty percent of the population by 2050 (2010 Census). Building on these statistics, in this essay I focus on the equally compelling intellectual and ideological arguments underlying the necessary restructuring of United States Spanish departments.

While a one-size-fits-all model does not work across institutions, the rationale behind our transformation is based on key factors of the early-twenty-first-century United States social and academic context. Nonetheless, this discussion must take into account that the production and allocation of knowledge remain fundamentally ideological processes and therefore, for better or worse, deeply personal as well. As I summarize the collective work that led to our transformation, I attempt to differentiate my own beliefs and opinions from institutionally backed perspectives. I first discuss our new department’s location and structure as we embrace United States Latinidad as a critical component of our mission; then provide a detailed description of our new major, including areas of particular potential for growth such as community-based learning and multi- and interdisciplinary courses; then briefly explain our new department title and nomenclature for the major.

Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s liberal arts college in South Hadley, Massachusetts, today has a student population of approximately 2,300, with a relatively high percentage of international (23%) and domestic minority (25%) students, of whom 8.6% are Latinas (Common Data Set). Although two of the cities with the highest concentration of Latinas/os in Massachusetts, Holyoke and Springfield, are a short drive away, our faculty did not include a single Latina/o studies specialist when I joined the college as chair of Spanish in the fall of 2006. Spanish was thriving in terms of student enrollment (over three hundred students each semester), but it was dwindling in the number of majors (we graduated only seven majors at the end of my first year). A demanding interdisciplinary program in Latin American studies had only two tenured faculty members and a handful of declared majors; the overall number of students in introductory courses was stable.

After conversations with all faculty members involved as well as with the then dean of faculty Donal O’Shea, who proved supportive from the outset, I proposed the merger of our existing Spanish and Latin American studies programs. Our new department would also host a Latina/o studies track with at least two new tenure lines. An overdue external review of Spanish and Latin American studies was conducted jointly. We chose four reviewers who had a broad and interconnected vision of these fields and understood the role of Latina/o studies in academia in general and in our new department in particular.3 After two years of internal and external consultations, as well as numerous meetings and draft proposals, in the spring of 2008 we officially requested the creation of the new department of Spanish, Latina/o, and Latin American studies; a new Latina/o studies tenure line; and a new Spanish major.

According to the Modern Language Association’s 2009 report Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Spanish accounted for 51.4% of the total foreign language enrollment, with French a distant second at 12.9%.4 While high enrollments at the lower levels of language instruction put enormous pressure on staffing needs (Klee 22; González-Stephan 55), students are less likely to major in a foreign language today than they were in the 1960s (Report 1). The disproportion of student enrollments to declared majors results in institutional reluctance to fund additional tenure lines. At many smaller schools, the combination of these two factors structurally relegates Spanish to “a position of servitude” (González-Stephan 55) and labels Spanish pejoratively as a service department. As such, Spanish serves a campus-wide purpose, allowing students to fulfill a language requirement, but is perceived as lacking in intellectual substance. The stereotyping of Spanish departments as academically inferior mirrors mainstream perceptions of United States Spanish speakers as socially and culturally deficient individuals.

The location of Spanish can no longer be based solely on its status as a foreign language. Whether we consider Spanish a “foreign national language” (Alonso) or, as Raymond L. Williams has unequivocally stated, “not a foreign language in U.S. universities” (280), Spanish departments occupy a unique intellectual and political space in United States academia and society. Historically, Hispanism grew out of the domain of Romance languages and literatures with a focus on the Spanish language, Spain and Latin America (usually in this order), and the Eurocentric literary canon (González-Stephan 55; Resina 161). To a large extent, Spanish departments have historically proved unwilling or unable to regard interdisciplinarity, contemporary issues, and most strikingly Latinas/os as essential components of their mission (Sandoval and Aparicio 677).

The realization that Spanish is both a foreign and a domestic language radically alters the mission and location of United States Spanish departments. All aspects of our intellectual, personnel, and curricular structures must recognize this belated awakening to the new role of Spanish (Lipski 1251). In a country that reluctantly accepts its bilingual condition (Campa 24–25), if not openly fears it, Spanish must take an active role in the promotion of the kind of translingual and transcultural competency that most Latina/os in the United States employ and have been employing for generations in their daily lives (Sandoval and Aparicio 679).

It is in the domestic and transnational contexts both that Spanish departments are best suited to implement the recommendations issued by the MLA in its 2007 report “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.” The MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages recognized that preparing our students to attain the linguistic and cultural levels of an educated native speaker is a lofty but rarely achieved goal and one that may not even be essential. Instead, we ought to foster their ability “to operate between languages” while helping them “grasp themselves as Americans” (237) (and as global citizens, I would add). For foreign language departments, this new focus represents a radical departure from their traditional mission, which was centered on linguistic purity and literary history. As the MLA report reminds us, only 6.1% of foreign language majors go on to pursue graduate studies in their field (239). Their professional and intellectual potential, as well as the future of our nation, will thus be best served if we prepare them both to operate in a translingual context and to understand themselves and others against the transcultural and transnational backdrop of twenty-first-century societies.5

At Mount Holyoke College, the new mission of our department lays out a joint long-term vision for Spanish and for Latina/o and Latin American studies. We collectively commit to “the multidisciplinary study of the past, current state, and emerging realities of societies and cultures of Latin America, Spain, the Caribbean, and the Latina/o heritage populations within the United States and their relations with each other and with the wider world” (Mount Holyoke Bulletin 457).6 We retain a predominantly humanities-centered perspective, although the social sciences are also represented. While all our appointments are in practice fully housed in our department, we actively and successfully seek cross-disciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration, which translates into curricular, administrative, and intellectual campus-wide projects. Our new configuration allows us to continue to offer majors and minors in Spanish (mostly Spanish-language cultural production) and Latin American studies (a traditional area studies program) and to add a minor in Latina/o studies by the fall of 2014. We hope to offer a new Latina/o studies major when we secure sufficient faculty staffing.

Our new departmental configuration and joint mission have radically affected our curriculum, staffing, and location in the college and our local Latina/o communities. Here I discuss the changes that affect our Spanish major, because the other two distinct fields of inquiry in the department (Latin American and Latina/o studies) remain fully autonomous. The department is not an expanded Spanish program but an innovative configuration that pursues its common vision while recognizing the individuality of its constituents.

Because our collective razón de ser owes more to intellectual principles than cost-saving measures, our existing Spanish major could implement our new mission only if fundamentally updated. With significantly different objectives and underlying tenets, we reflected on the curricular and intellectual consequences of our transformation, which extended our mandate well beyond Spanish and Latin American literary history. In alignment with the overall departmental mission, our new major description now reads:

[O]ur courses adopt a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches, including literary studies, film and media studies, social history, and politics. . . . In addition to providing opportunities for learning on campus, the department also strongly recommends that students study off campus in a Spanish-speaking context in order to enhance their language skills and to forge their own connections to place through language. . . . The major and minor in Spanish (Hispanophone Studies) include a variety of courses intended to facilitate proficiency in the language and contextualize and analyze issues relevant to Spanish speakers abroad and in the U.S., such as terrorism, migration, and imperialism.

(Mount Holyoke Bulletin 457)

We thus study the cultural production (mostly in the Spanish language, although in others as well, such as English, Portuguese, and Catalan) of Latin America and Spain but also of the Latina/o population of the United States. The implications of including the United States in our mission are far-reaching, but I focus here on the most consequential two: our redefined relation to Latinas/os in the country and the inclusion of multi- and interdisciplinary approaches in our curriculum.

In recent years, institutions of higher learning have made significant efforts to recruit domestic minority students, including Latinas/os, and Mount Holyoke has proved particularly adept at this task. However, recruiting is only the first step; it is curricular reform and meaningful faculty, staff, and student retention efforts that truly test the depth and breadth of institutional commitment to diversity. At the departmental level, this reform means that our efforts to engage Latina students cannot be limited to offering the occasional if essential “Spanish for heritage speakers” or “Latina/o literature” class (Sandoval and Aparicio). Introductory courses to the major and minor must meaningfully incorporate elements of United States Latina/o cultural production, and upper-level seminars must be offered in the department or cross-listed (whether in Spanish or English) on issues relevant to Latinas/os. Our department also reaches out to Latina student organizations on campus to consult with them on curricular and personnel changes. These organizations designate faculty members (typically from our department) to serve as their mentors, and Latina student representatives are regularly invited to participate in department meetings, job searches, and other events.

In curricular terms, the syllabus of our introductory course to the major (Spanish 212) dedicates approximately forty percent each to United States–based and to Latin American cultural production and the remaining twenty percent to Spain. Ideally, we should have a Latina/o cultural production specialist in the Spanish section of the department, but instead we opted to hire a faculty member outside Spanish who could dedicate all her efforts to building a campus-wide Latina/o studies program. In my experience, it is more effective in the long term to start or expand a freestanding Latina/o studies major than to hire a lone Latina/o studies scholar into a Spanish department.

Mount Holyoke offers Spanish for Heritage Speakers, a class taught by a specialist in that area, although our enrollments tend to be low. The Latina students who register for it are neither bilingual students with solid written proficiency (those usually enroll in 212) nor English-dominant Latinas with little or no knowledge of Spanish (those usually take regular language classes). Through an online placement test and a written evaluation administered in all elementary and intermediate classes, we identify and encourage heritage speakers with robust oral skills but weak written skills to take this class.

Many bilingual heritage speakers tend to regard their translingual abilities (a great achievement in a country that so fiercely discourages bilingualism) as a deficiency. Their Spanish, some believe, lacks correctness, may negatively affect their English, and generally serves as a detrimental social, cultural, and ethnoracial marker. As Frances Aparicio explains, United States social and educational structures enforce differential bilingualism, which rewards monolingual English speakers for studying a foreign language while discouraging heritage speakers from preserving theirs (5–6). For this reason, it is crucial to validate any Spanish our heritage students might employ and to build on it by expanding their vocabulary and stylistic registers.7 For Spanish departments, heritage speakers embody a courageous model of linguistic and cultural perseverance in the face of societal resistance to translingual and transcultural Latinas/os.

The importance of Latinas/os to the United States economy and service industries has now become all but impossible to deny. The need to offer products and services in Spanish in areas such as health care, law, media, marketing, and entertainment charges our departments with a special responsibility. Many of our students, regardless of ancestry, ethnoracial identity, major, and socioeconomic background, want to learn Spanish for specific and practical purposes. But a purely utilitarian use of the Spanish language stripped of its cultural and historical contexts will result in an impoverished understanding of Spanish speakers and their cultures.8 Preparing our students to tend to the needs and demands of our Spanish-speaking communities does not diminish the relevance of our department; rather, it increases it. Rigorous course sequences in translation and interpretation, for example, have been implemented at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (Doyle). At Mount Holyoke, we pioneered a statewide program for bilingual student workers at the Holyoke District Court under the office of the Massachusetts Supreme Court chief justice Lynda M. Connolly. Spanish for specific purposes offers us the opportunity to attract students who may otherwise never take advanced classes in our departments. As initiatives such as the Partnership for Twenty-First-Century Skills and the Spanish and Entrepeneurship: Languages, Cultures, and Communities seminar at the University of Illinois, Urbana, suggest (Oxford; Abbot and Lear), Spanish departments can and should build coalitions with community partners, institutions, and companies to increase their ability to educate United States–based translingual and transcultural citizens. At Mount Holyoke, unfortunately, budget constraints keep us from hiring faculty members or training current faculty members to teach Spanish for specific purposes (Sánchez-López 88).

Last but not least, redefining our relation to Latinas/os in the United States means that Spanish-language instruction can and must leave the classroom in order to engage our local Latina/o communities. Community-based learning (CBL) owes nothing to charity.9 Our students are simply not equipped, nor should it be their responsibility, to better the lives of local community residents. The notion that college students engaging in a weekly field trip can know a community better than its own residents or do more for that community than its residents is absurd. Rather, community partners, residents, and faculty members should aim to prepare our students to combat a mainstream way of thinking that often still regards communities of color and migrants with indifference, contempt, or condescension. Through a sustained framework of collaboration, our communities and members of higher learning institutions can learn from each other and work toward coordinated goals. I consider the community-based purpose of my own CBL classes fulfilled if we further multidirectional and long-term conversations among local Latina/o residents, community partners, and students about inequality, privilege, difference, and structures of power. The completion of goal-based projects (for instance, in my collaboration with the Latino Youth Media Institute of Springfield, Massachusetts, the production of digital stories, several of which have been featured on local media) offers tangible proof of this type of long-term engagement.

Although CBL courses facilitate community engagement and the use of Spanish in a variety of formal and informal settings, they remain content-based academic courses for which faculty members hold full responsibility. CBL seminars must therefore revolve around topics about which faculty members have significant expertise. We need to train (or retrain) ourselves rigorously in CBL pedagogy as well as in the topic of choice before sending our students out into communities that deserve nothing short of respect and professionalism from their local higher learning institutions.

The study of contemporary cultural production, CBL practices, and the intellectual and ideological bonds among Spanish, Latin American, and Latina/o studies all underscore the need to refurbish our disciplinary and methodological toolboxes. I do not mean to say that we should abandon the study of literature or even monodisciplinary approaches or that all faculty members should return to graduate school to learn something other than their original field of study. But the reality of our field—its connections to the ever-growing and shifting Latina/o population, its commitment to CBL—raises the question of whether any monodisciplinary approach enables us to fulfill our mission. Based on my own personal experience, the answer is no. Without obligating anyone in the department to pursue such routes, college administrations should offer incentives (such as grants, course releases, and merit-based raises) to faculty members who are willing to make the effort to broaden their disciplinary focus, learn CBL pedagogy, and focus on emerging fields such as the digital humanities.

The teaching of literature remains an integral part of our curriculum, but it is not the sole (in many of our courses, not even the most relevant) element of instruction. Our new curricular structure at Mount Holyoke does not revolve around literary history; our courses are not organized by literary periods, such as medieval or contemporary, or geographic areas, such as the Caribbean or the Southern Cone. Instead, we articulate our curriculum around themes and ensure students’ exposure to a variety of historical periods, languages, and methodologies through a few additional requirements. All majors and minors must take Spanish 212, enroll in a class with a pre-1800 focus, and take no more than two courses in English if they are bilingual or study away. We allow students who neither are bilingual nor study away to take only one class in English, wanting to maximize their exposure to Spanish. A common course for the three areas of the department has been approved but is yet to be implemented as we consolidate our Latina/o studies section.

Our 200-level courses present an overview of topics with a chronological emphasis; our 300-level seminars address narrower themes and require advanced scholarly production or the completion of sophisticated creative or digital projects. The four major themes around which all our courses revolve are

  • “Identities and Intersections” (230 and 330): issues of identity (gender, sexual, ethnoracial, cultural, class, national, and religious) and their intersections with other dimensions of cultural agency and power differentials
  • “Visual Cultures” (240 and 340): visual representation of a variety of topics in media such as film, television, fine arts, the Internet, or video
  • “Concepts and Practices of Power” (250 and 350): political discourses and economic relations in or among Latin America, Spain, and Latina/o cultures in the United States
  • “Studies in Language and Society” (260 and 360): specific form and meaning relations in the linguistic system of Spanish and the function of language in society

These broad topics serve as umbrella categories for courses that can be offered in different versions each semester (Mount Holyoke Bulletin 460). To the general description above we add in the course catalog that “specific course contents and examples examined will vary each semester” (460). Therefore, we can offer many courses, whether new or revised, without requesting curricular approval for each.

Because our configuration is unusual in the academic landscape—I personally know of no other Spanish, Latina/o, and Latin American studies department in the country—we collectively debated what name would best reflect our disciplinary and geopolitical interests while still clearly identifying for both students and colleagues our respective academic subjects. Latina/o and Latin American studies are well-established fields of inquiry, but we chose Spanish as the first term of our rather long departmental title to make it clear that Spanish-language instruction remained a vital area in the new unit. We reject the identification between Spanish and the predominance of Spain as a subject of study, and we reject the reduction of our field to language teaching.

When the Spanish section of the department discussed the title of our new major, we faced an even greater problem. No title of a major has yet succeeded in reflecting the dramatic changes in our profession of the last thirty years. Spanish continues to be inadequate as a major title for the reasons outlined above. Hispanic studies, widely used across the nation, employs a politically charged term with ethnoracial connotations; it is also regarded by many, particularly those in the field of Latina/o studies, as Eurocentric. As francophone and lusophone studies spread across the country in lieu of French and Portuguese, respectively, we chose to rename our major “Hispanophone Studies,” although we left the term Spanish in parentheses for clarification (a quick survey of our students made it clear that the new title was not self-explanatory). “Hispanophone Studies” refers to the study of cultural production (mostly) in the Spanish language and is slowly emerging as a viable alternative in course and journal titles. To the best of my knowledge, we are the first department to rename our major in this fashion, and the term is still unfamiliar to both students and colleagues. Given the innovation of our new department configuration and mission, however, we agreed that some lexical boldness was appropriate to our overall proposal.10


United States Spanish departments find themselves in a position to become an academic engine of social change. Our revised mission includes two goals of vital importance: to teach students the kind of translingual and transcultural competencies that our diverse nation and interconnected world demand and to underscore the crucial role of Latinas/os in the United States and the global arena. To fulfill this mission, we need to fundamentally redefine not only our academic and social goals but also our methodologies. CBL, multi- and interdisciplinary approaches, interdepartmental collaboration, and a full acceptance of the role of Spanish as a domestic language constitute the building blocks of our new academic and sociopolitical location.

Each department must work within the parameters established by its faculty members as well as by the institution at large. The process of updating our programs will be best accomplished by adopting a healthy degree of pragmatism. A curricular and administrative renovation of the scope discussed here can succeed only if profound changes are carefully calibrated, allowing for each faculty member to feel adequately heard and represented in the process and resulting structure. As the MLA warns language departments in its 2007 report, however, “lack of change will most likely carry serious consequences” (“Foreign Languages” 241). Change in Spanish departments can be resisted but not halted, because our evolving sociopolitical and professional circumstances demand it.

Notes

I want to thank my Mount Holyoke colleagues, external review committee, and students for making possible this article and the transformations it details. More than anyone, María Elena Cepeda has taught me a great deal about our profession in general and Latina/o studies in particular.

  1. As of 1 July 2011, the census estimates the Latina/o population in the United States at 52 million, or 16.7% of the country’s total population (2010 Census). An increase of 45% over the 2000 census made the Latina/o population the largest minority in our country.

  2. Other institutions have recently undergone similar transformations in their undergraduate programs. Columbia University’s (Irwin and Szurmuk 51–52) and Vanderbilt University’s (Jaschik 2–3) are most akin to Mount Holyoke’s. In 2004, Rice University was engaged in a similar process, but progress has seemingly been mixed (González-Stephan 53, 55–56). Before 2004, liberal arts schools such as Middlebury College (Rogers) and Saint Olaf College (Barnes-Karol), as well as the University of Florida (Nichols), still regarded Spanish as an exclusively foreign language. Outside Spanish departments, other initiatives have prospered despite initial difficulties, such as the bilingual creative writing MFA at the University of Texas, El Paso (Sáenz). Foreign languages across the curriculum initiatives have experienced ups and downs since the 1980s but still hold considerable potential (Klee 26–33).

  3. Chaired by Frances Aparicio, an esteemed Latina/o studies scholar with a Latin American literary studies background, our review committee included a Latin Americanist (a historian), an early modern Spanish literary scholar with broad transatlantic and contemporary interests, and an expert in Latin American contemporary literature. We also consulted with Alberto Sandoval Sánchez, a nonteaching member of our faculty and a renowned Latina/o studies scholar originally trained in early modern Spanish literature.

  4. For a historical perspective on the rise of Spanish in United States academia, see Pope 382–87.

  5. Several insightful essays cover different aspects of this new position of Spanish in United States academia and society: Alonso discusses Spanish as a “national foreign language” vis-à-vis English (222–27); Williams examines the “deterritorialized and hybrid Hispanic culture” throughout the Americas (274); González-Stephan, the “politics of Hispanism” in United States academia (50–55); Avelar, the contrast between “a multilingual and geographically flexible Latin/o American Studies” and the anglophone “Pan-American Studies” (56); Lipski (1248–50) and Campa (24–25), the new role of Spanish in the face of fiercely monolingual mainstream sentiment; Kelm, the utilitarian role of Spanish in our society (528–30); and Klee, “foreign languages across the curriculum” initiatives (23–25). In Spanish, Sandoval and Aparicio discuss the location of Latina/o studies in academia in general and in relation to Latin Americanists in Spanish departments in particular (677–79, 686–93).

  6. The comparable study of Brazil and Portugal draws mainly on the resources available through the Five College Consortium: Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

  7. A recent study on heritage speakers’ programs in the Southwest reveals a lack of curricular consistency across schools as well as a primary emphasis on writing (Beaudrie 333, 330). Studies on heritage speakers’ attitudes toward language and curricular structures (e.g., Potowski’s) will help us better serve this crucial segment of our student body and vital portion of the general Latina/o population.

  8. I reject the commodification of our students as simply “clients” (Kelm 528–29) and object to courses in which other departments contribute “content” while Spanish faculty members practice language skills from a purely utilitarian perspective (Domcekova). Spanish, as Jennifer Leeman asserts, must be treated as an “object of inquiry” in itself (38).

  9. Other names are also commonly employed for such teaching: civic engagement, service learning, and experiential learning. Because of the perceived conflation of CBL and charity, I prefer to avoid the term service altogether. Gabriel Ignacio Barreneche, nonetheless, offers compelling thoughts on the implementation of “service-learning pedagogy” in an advanced Spanish course at Rollins College (103–06). In the spirit of service, however, faculty members often implement courses that have scarce or too diffuse intellectual content or that are in fields completely outside their expertise (Caldwell; Long and Macián; Domcekova).

  10. Because of space constraints, I leave out a detailed discussion of our language program’s renovation, which was led by our program director, Esther Castro Cuenca. In brief, we hired local applied linguists whose area of specialization is one form or another of language teaching but who for a variety of reasons were not pursuing a tenure-track career at the time. We created a new, college-approved, indefinitely renewable position for our “language lecturers,” who participate in all department decisions within the parameters defined by the faculty handbook (they do not serve on committees or vote on personnel matters, for example).

Works Cited

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Rogelio Miñana is professor of Spanish at Mount Holyoke College.

Published 9 December 2013

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