Blog Post

On Language Study

This piece, "The Real Reasons to Support Language Study," published July 27, 2009 in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is particularly relevant given the recent announcement by UCLA to issue lay-off letters to its state-funded, "post-six" lecturers. (These are lecturers who have taught for more than six years and thus require one year's notice for termination).  Most of the affected lecturers are, not surprisingly, in the humanities and social sciences.  

In language departments, such as the one that houses me, languages are predominantly taught by lecturers.  Language department ladder-faculty are not usually trained in language pedagogy, but rather in literary, historical, and cultural analysis.  If the order to lay off lecturers stands, then we will be looking at language classes staffed mainly by less experienced lecturers (who would be cheaper for the university) and by graduate students (probably native speakers from outside of the department).  This could well entail a lowering of quality for the undergraduates who would be paying higher tuitions—and getting less in return.

Language study is important not only because it gives American students access to foreign cultures, in the actual languages of the foreign culture, but also because it provides students with an expansive perspective on their local American identity.  Most academics would reject the parochial view that knowing English is sufficient in this emerging global culture and economy, yet what UCLA is threatening to do is to gut the best means by which students can attain both an understanding of the international community and an international understanding of American culture.

cross-posted at

Jack Chen's picture
Jack Chen is Associate Professor of Chinese Poetry and Thought at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has studied at Yale, University of Michigan, and Harvard.  His research interests focus primarily on medieval Chinese literature, with an emphasis in poetry (though he is finding himself reading a lot of anecdotal literature lately).  His first book, The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2010, and he has published essays on imperial poetry, gossip and historiography, and the representation of reading in medieval China.  is at work on a second book on the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (Recent Anecdotes and the Talk of the Age) and an edited volume on gossip in traditional China.