Friday, November 05, 2004

A note on English departments, applied and otherwise

Scott Sommers has a thoughtful post on his blog about the curiously named "Applied English" (or "Applied Language") departments that are popping up in universities around Taiwan. I want to add a few thoughts about this phenomenon and its disciplinary and administrative contexts. When I first heard of Applied English departments (Chaoyang University's was the first one I ever heard of), I had the impression that they were the "wave of the future" because they seemed to address some of the concerns I had about the relevance of the traditional English major to students' futures.

My perspective is that of a teacher in a more traditional English major program. One of the challenges facing traditional (literature-based) English programs in Taiwan (and abroad) is that of demonstrating their relevance to students' futures in the marketplace. As an advisor last year, I often heard students express concerns about whether their education would help them get a good job. They had the feeling that all the coursework they had to do in literary studies wasn't going to help them very much after they graduated. When I told them about Applied English programs, some of them seemed interested in the kind of curriculum I was describing to them--light on literary studies, heavier on language skills and business-related English training.

Traditional English majors, like (according to Scott) Applied English programs, are in large part a product of R.O.C. Ministry of Education policy. The curriculum of English or foreign language and literature departments in Taiwan was up until very recently mandated by the Ministry of Education. For years, the MOE had a pretty heavy load of required courses, including two years of British literature and one year of American literature. Individual schools could require more, but not less, than what the MOE mandated. The MOE-mandated English major was in large part a literature major.

When the MOE relaxed its hold on Taiwan's English departments, they were left with the task of figuring out for themselves what their educational mission was. Some programs are still trying to define their mission, in an age when prospective English majors are increasingly seeing little relation between the literature-heavy curriculum of the major's program and their future needs in the workplace.

Furthermore, as universities are pressured to professionalize by hiring more Ph.D.s and publishing more scholarly research, literature faculty in traditional English departments will probably find more and more of a gap between some of their teaching activities and their research activities. There are a number of ways in which this gap might be negotiated: some faculty will try to teach more courses that relate to their research (including offering more specialized courses in graduate programs); some might attempt to refocus their research to make it relevant to what they are teaching.

A third possibility is that the undergraduate English major will also have to professionalize along with the department as a whole. My department, for instance, recently passed a motion to require English majors to take more electives within the major than they previously had to take. One justification for this new rule is that undergraduates need to see their major as training for the profession of English studies rather than simply as training in language skills.

What effect this new rule will have on enrollments in the major is yet to be seen--even with the availability of major requirement information, many students still wander into the English major quite unaware of what they're getting themselves into and shocked at the amount of "impractical" content they need to study. This requirement is, however, an attempt to move the program in the direction of professional training, which seems to be "the trend" (as my students put it). There is also the potential for some redefinition of "English studies," as new courses might be added to the menu of electives students can take.

One colleague mentioned that this new approach (though it's not really that new, since it partially reinstates some of the courses that the MOE required years ago) indicates a change in the department from a "liberal education" ideal to a professional (or pre-professional) training mission. Interestingly, while the English major program at my school is developing a vision of professional training in terms of disciplinary training, the school's administration has recently raised the idea of creating an Applied English department in addition to the current major. Whether or not this will happen is anyone's guess at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

[Add your conclusion here.]


Jonathan Benda said...

I'm copying the Haloscan comments to here. This one is from Scott Sommers:

Students tell me that they think Applied English is a good thing because they leave with job-related skills. I don't have any feedback on their perceptions once they're out in the job market, but I suspect that the 1 in 5 graduates of the MA program who are now employed in 'secretarial' positions
might have a different opinion of the usefulness of Applied English than they did when they started out.

Increasingly, I'm hearing DAE students talk about graduate studies. I wonder how they'll feel.
Scott Sommers | Email | Homepage | 11.10.04 - 8:54 pm | #

Jonathan Benda said...

I'd also be curious to hear more details about the education-related work that 42% of your grads are doing. The percentage does roughly correlate with the percentage of students writing graduation theses on English teaching, though (34%).

Are these MA students or BA students being talked about in the link you cite? It sounds like they're college grads.