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More Than 200 Academics to Gather at Smith for National Conversation About Teaching Spanish

With Demand Increasing, Presenters to Envision 'Departments for The New Millennium'

It would seem to be the best of times. Enrollments in Spanish courses are booming, Spanish is often a desired second major for everyone from pre-meds to budding economists, and internationalism is the curricular watchword of the day. Is there a problem here?

"It's all a matter of perspective," says Nancy Saporta Sternbach, Smith College associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese and organizer, with colleagues from Smith's Five College consortial partners, of a national forum titled "The Future of Spanish Departments on College and University Campuses." The forum, which is expected to draw some 60 presenters and 200 attendees from across the country, is co-sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. It will take place at Smith September 17-18.

Enrollments in college Spanish courses have doubled nationwide since the early 1990s, says Sternbach, but few institutions have risen to the challenge by creating new tenure-track positions in Spanish. Teaching languages is expensive, because it's best done intensively, in small groups. And while the recent demand for Spanish skills has come primarily from those envisioning professional, rather than academic, careers, most departments, she says, are still configured to provide language learning in order to read literature in Spanish, as preparation for pursuing a Ph.D.

"That's the model on which most of us were trained," Sternbach says, "and yet it is largely an outdated one. A pre-law student who wants to learn Spanish in order to pursue public advocacy isn't necessarily interested in reading the great works of Spanish and Latin American literature. She may be -- but chances are that isn't her first impulse."

In addition to sessions on "crowd control" and interdisciplinary uses of Spanish, panelists will discuss such highly debated topics as the role of Portuguese in Spanish departments and whether Latino studies belongs in a Spanish department, since it is taught in English. Sessions will also address new destinations -- and goals -- in study-abroad initiatives as well as the use of new technologies in language-learning. Keynote speakers will include Angela Labarca, professor of Spanish at Georgia Tech and co-author of noted Spanish language textbooks, and David Maxwell, president of Drake University and former director of the National Foreign Language Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The idea for the conference, Sternbach explains, is one that her own department had been discussing for several years. In the fall of 1997, when Sternbach and colleagues from the Five College Spanish departments (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts) held their annual planning meeting, she invited them to join her in organizing the forum as a joint venture.

"As we talked about the growing enrollment issues we were confronting, it struck us that we were certainly not alone. Other schools, particularly those in California and Texas, were struggling with booming enrollments and changing missions, too. If the issue had reached urgency in the Northeast, where higher education has typically been well supported and fairly well staffed, then certainly a national conversation was well overdue."

The conference and related planning activities are supported by a variety of sponsors, including The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Program for Cultural Cooperation between Spain's Ministry of Education and Culture and United States Universities, Instituto Camões of Lisbon, the Consulate General of Spain in Boston, Five Colleges, Inc., and the Spanish departments of the Five Colleges. More information is available at

August 18, 1999


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