Language departments offer cultural enrichment

by Steven Orbuch | 11/7/03 6:00am

Dartmouth language departments are no longer just about teaching students mastery of a foreign language and its literature. Many European language departments, including the department of German studies and the department of French and Italian, are refocusing their courses to reflect cultural studies, in an effort to accommodate the evolving interests of Dartmouth students.

Department of German studies chair Gerd Gemunden said that his department began gradually refocusing its core for around six years. Gemunden said that this change cannot be observed by looking at the course offerings, which are basically the same now as they were before the changes began, but can be deduced from examining actual course content.

In fact, Gemunden said that probably the most obvious impact of the increasing influence of cultural studies on the department has been the department's name change. A few years ago the department of German changed its name to the German studies department to reflect the fact that language and literature are not the only subjects being taught within the department anymore, Gemunden said.

The rise of cultural studies was a response to "the changes of our students who are increasingly interested in German culture because they are interested in Germany at large and not specifically in its literature," Gemunden said.

Gemunden said that despite the gradual progression of the German program towards cultural studies, the study of the German language is still at the heart of the department's agenda.

"We still emphasize language acquisition," Gemunden said. "We do believe than in order to understand a culture, you need to understand its language."

Another factor that contributed to the evolution of German studies was the "pre-professionalization" of the student body. Gemunden said that the department has embraced its new role in the pre-professional environment by going above and beyond an emphasis on German culture.

The department has been seeking out for its students internships in Germany in the sciences and government "to accommodate students who speak good German but want to do something else other than literature," Gemunden said.

According to Gemunden, the German Studies Language Study Abroad and Foreign Study Program to Berlin offers a wide range of study that is consistent with the nature of the department. Gemunden said that at present, the programs not only instruct on language and literature, but also have significant architecture, urban development and visual culture components.

Director of the Italian program Keala Jewell said that the French and Italian department also offers a wide scope of study on its LSA and FSP programs.

Jewell said that the French and Italian department has moved in the same direction as the German studies department because of the expanding interests of language professors over time. Jewell offered herself as an example of this trend.

"I started as a scholar of Italian literary poetry, but over time I also began teaching things such as Italian film."

Jewell said that the trend toward an increasing inclusion of cultural studies is not necessarily unique to Dartmouth.

"The field of literary scholarship in many universities has taken this direction," Jewell said.

According to Jewell, most students are not conscious of the fact that the department is increasing its focus on cultural studies, but said that those who have observed this trend are satisfied with the changes.

"I haven't heard of anyone who does not like it," Jewell said. "I suppose that there are some diehards that think we should only teach the traditional canon, but they must be few and far between."

Most students have expressed satisfaction with the language departments' cultural studies. Some students, however think they have not gone far enough.

Dan Knecht '05, a member of The Dartmouth staff, is a French minor and he expressed that he particularly enjoys a French film class that he is taking this term and was impressed by the diversity of study on the French FSP he went on.

Knecht said, however, that the department may not have struck the right balance between literature and culture just yet.

"I looked at the course guide and almost everything was literature based," Knecht said. "I think its a setback for the department because it turns away those who are interested in studying the language but are not interested in just studying literature."