Art, history, colonialism, and violence: my weekend in the O.C.


Not this "O.C."

At the end of my trip to “Disneyland for Scholars,” I met up with Notorious Ph.D, Girl Scholar for an excellent lunch in Little India, where I learned all of the fascinating details about her research interests that she’s dying to share with the rest of you.  (Trust me–it’s really smart stuff, very innovative, and the product of lots and lots of original archival research.  Aren’t you all jealous?)  You can’t know what her book is about specifically, but she’s asking for help in choosing an image for the cover, so go over and share your two cents. 

Then, I spent the weekend in Orange County with Rad Readr and his family:  Mrs. Readr, Mini-Rad, Marxist Deluxe, and their rescued greyhound Marcus.  (The Readrs are old friends from back when Rad and I were on our first jobs.  And yes, we ran on the beach twice, two mornings in a row–what fun it is to run at sea level since I train at 4,875 feet elevation!)  The Readr family took me to an exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, “Of Rage and Redemption:  the Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín” (1919-1999), an Ecuadorean artist whose works were filled with images of suffering human bodies in an effort to express the violence of colonialism:

Non-academic in style and subject matter, Guayasamín established his signature style of indigenismo which is especially recognized for its dramatic representation of the human figure. Defined in powerfully exaggerated proportions and forms, Guayasamín figures are charged with a range of emotions—from human dignity to grief, loss and anguish. Guayasamin said about his art, “My painting is to hurt, to scratch and hit inside people’s hearts. To show what Man does against Man.”


"Mother and Child 1," 1941

(Rad is originally from Ecuador and has a print signed by Guayasamín, whom he was introduced to once by a family member.)  This exhibition was really fascinating to view in light of the “Territorial Crossings” conference I attended last week, which was broadly conceived as a conversation about broad comparative frameworks for the history of the colonial Americas, in which we were asked to consider “[w]hat kinds of questions are made possible only by thinking across territories, and what subjects of analysis best suit comparative or more broadly contextualized scholarship?”  It seemed to me that the (obvious, perhaps) price of broad comparative histories is the loss of detail about the people who worked, suffered, and died–and the Guayasamín exhibition served as a reminder of this finer-grained side of the story of colonialism.

Rad and I both went to graduate school in the 1990s–he in English, I in history–and we had some long talks about the changes we’ve observed in our fields over the past fifteen years or so.  The interdisciplinarity between literature and history departments encouraged by the 1980s and 1990s cultural theory we were trained in has had profound effects in both of our disciplines.  Rad’s work is very historical–his first book was reviewed in the Journal of American History, for example, and he’s off to the American Antiquarian Society this summer to immerse himself in a wide swath the non-English language print culture of the early U.S. Republic for his second book–and he thinks that the empiricism of history has been good for the study of literature.  (In his words, “there’s less of an emphasis of people just trying to show how smart they are,” and more emphasis on evidence.)  While my work on gender has been very much based on analyses of language (in archival as well as published sources), I have sounded the alarm on the rush of historians who appear to be abandoning the archives to focus on “print culture,” because of all of the (non-white, non-male, non-English speaking) people who weren’t writers.  (And I hold the perhaps unfashionable notion that historians should try to uncover something of the reality of people’s lives as they lived them, rather than just “representations” of them.)

Rad and I also talked about how sadly ironic it was that in a decade in which disciplines and even whole universities are encouraging their students and faculty to be more “international”–to collaborate withscholars outside of the U.S., and to build transnational intellectual frames for their research–that fewer and fewer U.S. American graduate students have any foreign languages.  (We have both seen several graduate students switch their fields of study because they didn’t want to achieve competency in another language!)  I understand that this may be part of the rush to get people in and out of graduate school faster–but isn’t urging transnationalism while effectively insisting that all comparative or transnational research and collaboration be conducted in English a shockingly imperial maneuver? 

I remember being lectured by a real blowhard in my graduate program when I expressed shock and dismay that one could substitute a B.S. computer course for one of the two required foreign languages in my Ph.D. program.  “Well, Historiann, that’s a very noble and idealistic view, but I’m a 20th century U.S. historian, and absolutely all of my sources are in English.”  I’m not saying that I had any insight into the “transnational” turn, but even in 1991 that sounded like an incredibly foolish and blinkered view of his field.  Call me an old fogey–again— but it seems to me that having a Ph.D. should indicate a certain level of erudition, one that must necessarily be enriched by the study of at least two other languages, no matter what your research is in.  (Hey, U.S. historians–have you ever wondered why the rest of  your colleagues roll their eyes at you when you talk about transnationalism?  Well, now you know.)

0 thoughts on “Art, history, colonialism, and violence: my weekend in the O.C.

  1. Welcome back, Historiann! Sounds like a productive trip all round.

    Regarding your question about languages, I am a European historian, so forgive my ignorance, but I find it strange to think that nothing of note in American/US history has been written by someone who is not a native English speaker. Even if all your primary sources are in English, don’t you need to read secondary sources in other languages?

    Then again, I write this through a fog of Latin and French, as I’ve been spending my days in an archive in France, looking at 700-year old Latin charters!

    I hope I’ve made the empiricist in you proud!


  2. ej–the ironic thing is that this guy was a student of the big immigration historian in that department, as I recall! I seriously doubt most U.S. historians think about secondary sources in other languages, even if they’re aware of primary sources in other languages. Monolingual nationalism and jingoism seems to take over once the odometer turns to 1776 or 1789…which is only one of the reasons I like to stay well clear of those dates!

    It was a productive trip–I found an excellent, very detailed description of the undressing, the blessing of the gown and veil, and finally the reclothing of an Ursuline postulant as she takes her final vows. Very cool! (It was in English, but of course I have supplementary sources en Francais…) Hope you’re not too fogged by your Latin and French…see you next week.


  3. Dang. Is it Tuesday yet? I missed this blog. Trapped at [o.k., much of the time just near…] my balky keyboard all weekend trying to get an equally balky writing thing back into gear, I really missed the posts and comments.

    Agreed on most of these points; the need for archival as well representations ingredients in humanities scholarship, and the languages question as well. I took an early version of the computer literacy as a language competency bypass course in grad. school, and that was the ONLY requirement. Now, my four years of high school French isn/t really cutting it when a project takes an unexpected archival turn into Dieppe, Havre Marat, Bordeaux, and a bunch of other places. And forget about Lisbon. I hope we can hear more about this conference.


  4. I think the languages problem goes all the way back to high school, and earlier; as far as I know, relatively few American students start second languages before high school, and then learn them poorly. Most would be better able to pick up a second language if they started younger, in elementary school.


  5. Indyanna and clio’s disciple–agreed that the language problem starts way before grad school. But, what’s with the principled stands against learning another language? I would have been ashamed to complain about the language requirements as a grad student, even if I felt that they were ridiculous. Because that might suggest to other people that my mind was closed to learning–a stance that would seem to undermine my being in graduate school!


  6. I was lucky to grow up in Glastonbury, Conn., which still continues its innovative language program – I had French beginning in the 3rd grade (Spanish was offered in alternate years) and Russian starting in junior high. Then I took Portuguese in college and Swahili in grad school – because I needed an African language and Portuguese (and French for that matter) did not count, even though Portuguese was the official language where I did my research. But beginning at age 8 – as all Glastonbury kids still do – was a wonderful way to be introduced to language study. Their page,, discusses the program and has alumni stories as well.


  7. Kathie–what a wonderful program! I’m envious of your early exposure to other languages. I think early exposure to languages makes people braver about learning other languages (such as Portuguese and Swahili, among others) later in life. Learning one new language makes you feel like another is doable. Even a year or so–nothing terribly intensive or too deep–can give children an appreciation of the new worlds that open when you study other languages.


  8. Language competency is a sadly unremarked skill. Honestly, it should begin in grade school. Our older daughter, who’s in French immersion, is fairly competent in French but we know that if she doesn’t push to continue and retain through high school and university, her facility will fade.

    Ironically, for all that I’m faculty at a bilingual university, we don’t make bilingual requirements of our students (if we did, the Anglophone enrollments would dry up fast as students switched to other universities that don’t make such demands). And, to be honest, my French isn’t where it should be, either (fourth language after German and Latin). But we have a lot of our M.A. students who are incredulous when we tell them that they need to have at least reading competency in one other language. It’s not being “mean”, it’s just advising them of the practicalities of the profession!

    You also have me missing the Huntington now, dangit!


  9. One of the many reasons I’ve resigned (huzzah!) from my tenured position is what I take to be an anti-intellectual position in my department towards foreign languages. Several former colleagues–several of whom are also touting a world history/ transnationalism makeover for the department’s graduate program–have attempted to abolish the language(s) requirements, making the argument that language is only a tool and that translation programs are so sophisticated and plentiful now that no one really has to do more than type in the words, et voila! Instant understanding. (Though without any acknowledgement of the problems in translation in and of itself.)

    I suspect that the stands against learning other languages are based on this model of language-as-tool rather than language as a communication system that encodes social relations, culture, and power.

    I am saddened that language competency examinations are seen now as barriers to one’s choice of field rather than as fundamental to intellectual inquiry. Even when I was in grad school, language exams were seen as pesky requirements to be met and ignored, rather than integral to historical study.


  10. Wow, historymaven–Rad’s and my theory of English-only transnationalism as imperialism is more right than even we thought! What a bummer. I like this: I suspect that the stands against learning other languages are based on this model of language-as-tool rather than language as a communication system that encodes social relations, culture, and power.


    Janice: I have pretty basic 8th-10th-grade French that was buffed by 2 years of intermediate study in college and then left dormant for 15 years, and it’s come back with a little practice (and a LOT of humility!) The background your daughter is building now will serve her well in the future, if she decides she wants to use her French.


  11. Ok, let me come at the language competency question from the other side of things (but note: I’m talking as a person who works on 20th century literature in English, which, by definition, is written in English). In my grad program we were required to have two languages (in addition to English) OR one language/one substitution course in another field at the grad level (and you had to do a letter of application for why you needed this course for your program of study, etc.) I ended up taking the substitution course instead of an exam in a second language because I needed to understand historical methodologies in order to do my research. I ALSO ended up taking it, though, because :

    1. The DGS wouldn’t approve the second language for which I was prepared to take a competency test.
    2. Had I picked up a second language that would have counted to pass a competency test, I would have been in no way able to speak or read easily in that language.

    It’s that second part that I think it’s important to emphasize. Me being able to translate part of Book IV of the Aeneid in a timed exam in no way makes me capable of reading archival manuscripts written in Latin. Similarly, translating a selection of Flaubert in a timed exam does not make a person capable of reading Foucault in the original French.

    I think that in many programs, the language exams ultimately work just as hoops for students to jump through and they never use those languages in their work – basically because “language exam” competency is not, at the end of the day, fluency or even *actual* competency. Now, this may be less true in history. In English, however, I think it’s frequently the case.

    I don’t think language requirements should be eliminated. I do think, however, that the requirement should reflect a skill that the student will later be able to draw on in his/her work. That’s definitely true for me with Latin, and, ultimately, it’s true for me with that historical methodologies seminar that I took. And yes, because I have strong Latin I can fake my way through basic translations in French (and other Romance languages), but no, I’m never going to read Of Grammatology in the original, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to glance at a critical source that was not written in English (German or French, in those cases).


  12. A grad. school friend in US history managed to get statistics accepted as a foreign language, and crowed incessantly about his triumph in avoiding learning an *actual* foreign language.

    What puzzles me even more are the medievalist scholars who somehow manage to pass their language exams, but never actually consult foreign-language scholarship or use those languages ever again. They limit themselves to Latin primary sources, but never use the living languages again. There are more of them out there than you would imagine.


  13. Squadrato–that reminds me of that DeLillo novel featuring a man who’s the Chair of Hitler Studies who doesn’t read or speak German! (Which is that–White Noise? I’m not the DeLillo reader in my household, but I remember hearing about that one.)

    Crazy–I think you’re right that students should learn and be examined in the languages that will help them most. But my point is that 1) too many students these days are unwilling to learn, and 2) we can’t know where our research interests will take us, so it’s good to be equipped with some language skills in case one is seized with a violent urge to do research on 18th Century Quebec (for example), or to read comparatively in Mexican or Brazilian history. I used zero non-English language sources for my dissertation, but thank goodness I had some French when my first book took me over the border and into French language sources.

    I’m learning that a career is a long journey beyond promotion and a first book, so the more ideas and skills you can cram into your knapsack in grad school, the better. Even if those specific skills and tools aren’t what you need, the fact that you learned how to use them at one time will embolden you about learning how to use other skills and tools.


  14. I’m not the best person to be commenting (at the moment, I’m not using any foreign languages) but I was raised to believe language study was important. I’m decently competent in one European language, I took several years of high school Latin, and have taken a full year of college level classes in two other languages–yes, I’m a dabbler.

    I certainly have noticed a similar trend. I met someone once who was doing research in a country where the people no longer speak the languages relevant to this person’s research. This person is slaving away to learn the languages necessary for the archives (which is commendable) but sees no need to learn the current local language of the country in question because these people “will probably speak English.” I actually don’t think that’s true at all, given the country in question, and what English they might speak isn’t going to be enough for a detailed conversation in the archives about sources.

    My opinion of this person went south quickly, for the exact reason Historiann mentions above:

    “Because that might suggest to other people that my mind was closed to learning–a stance that would seem to undermine my being in graduate school!”

    This person’s reasons for not learning the local language seemed bogus anyway but more importantly, refusing to even bother to learn another language (even if it’s just passing familiarity or rudimentary conversation) goes against the point of the humanities altogether.

    That being said, though, I have quite a few graduate student colleagues who have put language learning at the center of their careers. Some have learned both Chinese and Japanese, and I have other colleagues who now have some competency in five or more languages. It’s not all a downward spiral.


  15. I fear that this language-requirement question may be a symptom of a larger problem. I’m just about to enter my fourth (i.e. dissertation research) year of a PhD in French history. Of my cohort, I’m the ONLY person researching in a language that isn’t my own. Most of the others are twentieth-century Americanists — and most of them focus on the areas in which they grew up. A few others study British history, and the rest are international students studying their ‘home’ countries. Lest it sound as though I’m implying superiority in terms of open-mindedness, I’m increasingly feeling that I’m the idiot. My French is fine — by no means fluent, but I can read Le Monde without too much difficulty; I can’t, however, skim and strip books in French with the ease that the Americanists can their reading lists. Where others have been hopping on trains to archives, I’ve been trying to imitate German well enough to jump through the ‘hoop’ of the second departmental language requirement. (Language classes tailored specifically to grad students’ translation needs tend not to be much help to people with no previous background in their language of study!) Now the graduate school is making threatening noises about cutting off grad students after five years of funding, leaving me with two years to research and write a dissertation AND go on the job market! Broad horizons appear to be a liability!

    I think that a lot of this comes down to the demands of “professionalisation.” My department, at least, seems to be moving towards admitting only students who meet the requisite language requirements AND have a pretty strong idea of their dissertation project on applying. As the funding situation tightens and the job market continues to contract, the implication is to do more — present, publish, network — sooner, with little opportunity to read broadly or follow one’s interests. Instead people are writing about what they know. Moreover, they seem less and less interested in any intellectual exchange that doesn’t relate extremely closely to their area of study, and even less interested in basic cultural literacy.

    I hope my experience isn’t representative!


  16. alas historiann, I know scholars whose work is entirely in the non-English speaking world who were credentialed by people who only spoke English. We had many discussions about the internationalism-languages split which was punctuated for me by a visit to a colleague’s uni on the day they had decided to close the foreign language department. Students and faculty from the department were picketing all over the quad but my friend confided that the uni had been floating the department for years and just “couldn’t afford it anymore.” Another colleague just wrote me last week saying that “it is down to WS and Foreign Languages for the first budget cut” and she was hoping FL got the boot. I asked how that would impact their considerable foreign exchange program and globalization certificate and she said “those kids already speak the languages they need.” So it is bad all over.

    I’m mad I didn’t hear about this conference you were at. Clearly I need to be on different listservs. It sounds fascinating.


  17. Your point about the dangers of broad comparative histories erasing individual human experience is a very important one – I think it was E.P. Thomson who talked about ‘the violence of abstraction’. As someone living in a country (New Zealand) that is still dealing with its own very recent colonial past, I’m acutely aware of how broad comparative histories can be used (not necessarily by historians themselves, but by those who have other ends) to mask the brutal detail of specific injustices against real individual people.

    The language issue also plays into this. For example, spoken Maori was banned in New Zealand schools well into the 20th century as part of the general colonial programme of ‘civilising’ the indigenous population. With the knowledge of this context, it seems to me that any historian working on New Zealand’s colonial/pre-colonial history who refuses to learn Maori is making their work an integral part of that colonising power dynamic.


  18. Historymaven: “…translation programs are so sophisticated and plentiful now that no one really has to do more than type in the words, et voila!” Ahahahahahahahahha [wipes tears] I have used translation programs to try to communicate in other languages in non-academic settings (Portuguese and Polish, usually). And I’ve tried to communicate with folks using translation programs from other languages to English. If you are very VERY lucky, you can get the gist of what the hell is being said. One very short sentence at a time. Maybe. But any finer points? Forget it. Idioms? Don’t bother. Non-contemporary idioms? Ahahahahahahahahaha!

    Not long ago, I used Pehr Kalm’s Travels in North America for a project. Two different translations to English were =distinctly= different. It was more than a word here or there; there were examples where entire meanings and the significance of the descriptions differed. If I ever needed to use this source more actively, I’d have to either learn 18th Century Swedish (!) or pay someone fluent in 18th century Swedish and English to help me out.


  19. I find the push to comparative and broadly conceptualized histories fascinating, and intriguing. Ditto spatial histories. But I’m also aware that every historiographical benefit comes at a cost. And it’s not only the individuals that are lost; there are some questions that don’t get asked in the comparative contexts. We’ve been having this discussion in my faculty, and I keep saying, we should take different approaches. We will lose something if we teach only one way. I am really grateful for my collaboration with lit colleagues, who have taught me to be a better reader, though I don’t want to lose sight of people in the representations.

    As for languages, I think they are the Achilles heel of US and British scholars. Part of me feels very competent: at one point I studied Latin, French and Russian, and have a basic knowledge of all three. I was lucky enough to be sent to a french school in NYC for first grade (my mother had fantasies of bilingual children — she succeeded with my sister, who works in France now). I then stopped and started French every time I changed schools. But still, managed to pass into a lit class in college, and then pass the language exam in grad school. My first semester in grad school, my French history prof would pass out books each week for us to report on the next week. Usually you’d get one of those 600 page French these books. Fortunately, the French use a logic that is fairly clear, and provide good introductions, conclusions, and VERY DETAILED tables of contents. (BERTIEWOOSTER, it is possible to skim books in French — I’ve done it.) I even published a few articles in French journals early in my career, including in Annales. What has shocked me is the number of people who say, “I can’t read that article” so it is as if I never wrote it.

    My reading knowledge of French is pretty good, and if I started using it, I know it would come back. My speaking is OK, but not great. (My speaking suffers in part because when I’m with my sister she does all the talking.) Writing is terrible. Sigh. I also have enough Latin to read 17th c documents, but again, I don’t use it often, and usually they are formulaic, so I know what the Latin says without paying much attention. My Russian is the rustiest — but again, if I were going to Russia, I could get marginally competent with relative ease, I suspect. I wish I wish I had Spanish, just for living in the US in 2009.

    In my grad program, 25 years ago, I don’t think US historians had to have a language. It was assumed unnecessary! The problem with language requirements is that unless they are tied into the curriculum, they are just a hurdle. And I don’t think most grad programs have figured out how to show students that competence matters. Mostly because too many of us are monolingual in our reading of secondary sources.

    Envy you the HEH…


  20. Oops. My school will look pretty bad: for our PhD program in history, we’re only required *one* additional language. I had enough French to pass the translation exam and could pick it back up pretty easily if my research ever goes that direction.

    I’d *love* to learn more languages – Spanish, Italian, German, in particular – but I have only French and some Latin under my belt. Still, I’ve heard enough stories around campus to get the idea that if I wanted an additional language now, it would be out of my own pocket (cost-wise). (So, there’s no real benefit to pursuing the language study now rather than later.)

    I’m definitely supportive of the language training – you’re absolutely right that we can’t know where our research interests will take us and all that. At the same time, I’d love to see the technological literacy become more required along the same lines. I don’t think most of us grad students will ever need a semester-long computer science course, but I think some training in some specific tools would be useful – in addition to language training (NOT in place of – while my first-year grad student self would have been thrilled for an easy out in the short term by being allowed to take statistics as a “language” – it’s still no substitute for foreign language. At all.).


  21. To chime back in, I’m in no way in disagreement with requiring some kind of foreign language competency for grad students in any humanities discipline. Like Tanya noted, if I’d wanted to do a second foreign language (that would count), and if I’d have wanted a class to prepare me for an exam in it, I’d have had to pay for such a class or classes out of pocket. If I’d tried to learn French enough to pass the exam on my own, that would have added to my time to degree (which connects to Bertiewooster’s comment), and since I was only guaranteed 4 years of funding, that also would have led to out-of-pocket expense, which I had no way of affording at the time. In contrast, doing the grad-level seminar in an outside discipline related to my research was (a) free and (b) directly contributed (as well as contributes still) to my research. So it wasn’t about a lack of intellectual curiosity or about wanting to “get out of” a foreign language. It was about practicality. (I’ll note that I’m one of the few people I knew in my program who took this route, and in many ways, it was a difficult one. It was much easier for people to dust off their high school Spanish and use that – even if it bore no relationship to their scholarship and never would – than to do the alternative.)

    It’s also worth noting, as I see from the comments here, that my sense of this does come directly from my own discipline, English. The primary language of criticism of literature in English is English, and the primary literary texts are, by definition, in English. Particularly for an English Ph.D. who works on literature after 1800, it would be highly unusual to explore a literary text in a language other than English. (That’s what comp. lit. people do, or people with Ph.D.s in languages other than English.) Additional languages (primarily Latin, Anglo Saxon – which, incidentally, is my second language competency- and either French or Spanish) are important for Medievalists, and for others who specialize in Renaissance through 18th century literatures – and additional languages can be crucial for people who specialize in postcolonial literatures in English. But for a person with my specialization, the idea that my research will suddenly take me out of English into, say, French, would be highly unlikely.

    I think for English Ph.D. programs, the two languages in addition to English requirement (or in the case of some places, 3!) is a holdover from a time when our fields weren’t as highly specialized. I don’t think that it bears much relation to the way that literary studies is organized now. That said, do I thank my lucky stars that I have 6 years of Latin? YES. Am I glad that I took a graduate level course in which all readings were in Anglo Saxon? YES. Am I glad that I understand how languages are organized and that I feel confident that I can orient myself toward other languages if necessary? TOTALLY. All of those experiences have certainly assisted my scholarship and will surely translate into my future scholarly endeavors. BUT – and I think this is the crucial thing – I’m not sure that I needed to pass a language exam in French in graduate school to allow me to pursue my research now, or my research 20 years from now. Yes, we can’t know where our research interests will take us. But I’m not sure how picking a language out of a list and working to pass an exam in that language that seems pointless at the time prepares us for that.


  22. Dr. Crazy, Tanya, and Bertiewooster raise a crucial point about the costs of learning languages, both in time and money. Now that graduate school is so streamlined, there often isn’t the time or money to pursue what may seem like “extraneous interests,” in whatever form they take. (I got a lot of skeptical looks when I took courses that were way outside my field. Not that I had a choice in the matter; courses in my field weren’t being offered and I had to take something.)

    But what I’ve noticed is that the colleagues of mine who came into graduate school with a few languages under their belt weren’t quite as daunted by the prospects of picking up another. They also have a much higher tolerance for muddling through with rudimentary skills until they pick up a bit more. I even know people who were fluent in one language and ended up doing research in a related language (I am not talking about Romance languages, either). So again, we’re back to the issue of how late most American students begin to have the option of taking languages. Eighth grade was the earliest you could start taking language classes in my school district. That’s much too late, and language education is often much too mediocre once it’s started, to produce a class of intellectuals and academics who feel comfortable speaking other languages.

    One final thought: I would say a fair number of people who decide to go to graduate school (in history, at least) make the decision somewhere in the middle of undergrad, frequently after fulfilling whatever language distribution requirement they had with the easiest courses possible. That’s far too late to begin learning anything other than French or Spanish. The learning curve for Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Slavic/Eastern European languages, Scandanavian languages, etc. is probably too steep for people deciding to go to graduate school in the middle of their junior year, leaving American history after 1776 the most attractive option. (I took two semesters of an East Asian language in college for fun and I can attest that a year of Chinese or Japanese is not the same as a year of French or Spanish.)


  23. Yes, as thefrogprincess says, I think that once you’ve gotten the hang of picking up languages, you are more likely to venture into new language areas. I work predominantly with Latin documents, and in grad school learned French and Italian. I had German from High School, and with some brushing-up was able to pass the grad. exam on that basis; I also had a little Spanish from high school. But, once you’ve got some languages, it becomes easier to pick up another: with every one I’ve studied, the next one becomes so much easier! I recently had occasion to look at some stuff in Portuguese, and even though I’d never worked with it before, it wasn’t too bad with a dictionary.

    I find it really odd that more US academics don’t look at foreign-language scholarship. I learn so much from it — the different national traditions have such interesting different approaches!


  24. Sq., that’s been my experience too (although I am not nearly as erudite as you are!)

    I certainly appreciate the points raised about how language training extends the time and cost of grad school. But–let’s consider the costs in a longer-term framework. I’ve never seen a job candidate rewarded for getting a degree in 5 years or less–what impresses the people in my department is depth of experience and training, not speed, and there are several non-U.S. historians who look for languages on CVs with hawkeyes and judge accordingly. (I’m convinced that I got a look here because I have 3 foreign languages on my CV in an application to be the colonial American historian.) No one has ever said, “well, we can’t hire hir because ze took 7 or 8 or 10 years to finish hir degree.” We have indeed rejected or ranked lower candidates who offer us less.


  25. Historiann, thanks for giving us graduate students that insight into hiring. I certainly was under the impression that hiring committees looked unkindly at people who had taken “too long” but that could just been the partial view from my own institution. It does strike me, though, that the longer someone takes to finish, for whatever reason, the more financially precarious their situation is likely to be. That has all kinds of consequences but, from my very limited experience, I’ve noticed that graduate students from poor/working class backgrounds, certain ethnicities, and some international students are less willing to be on a graduate stipend or less for much longer than five or six years.


  26. thefrogprincess–I should add that when I say “depth of experience and training,” I don’t mean to imply that it all has to be in grad school. Teaching somewhere else, doing a semester at a foreign university, etc.–all of these things add to a job candidate’s ability to jump into our pool and swim fast.

    I don’t know where this mythology got started about hiring committees being worried about time-to-degree. Maybe this was a concern several years ago, but it’s never been an issue in my department. (Others may disagree.) So long as it looks like someone was being productive rather than being a dissertation dilletantte, we don’t care.


  27. My sense — from my university, which I realise isn’t coming off very well here (nor should it) — is that the ‘time to degree’ criteria has morphed from something that was intended to be helpful (‘why do so many ABD candidates go AWOL and never finish?’) to something more mercenary. An advanced (fifth- to eighth-year, say) graduate student presumably costs a university more to have around as a TA, for example, than an adjunct, who don’t require tuition remission and probably don’t get benefits. So the backhanded policy becomes, ‘tell the grad students that they need to finish as quickly as possible if they want to look good to hiring committees’, and replace them where possible with adjuncts, or even undergraduate TAs. And this seems to be a serious impediment to getting a job (as if it weren’t hard enough already), for the reasons Historiann explains.

    By the way, in reply to Susan above, I wasn’t suggesting that it isn’t possible to skim books in French — I imagine that French people do it all the time! As do I, in fact, but not with the same level of comfort and efficiency (or perhaps ruthlessness) as I do with books in English. The detailed tables of contents are very useful for getting the overall sense of a book, although the lack of indexes tends to make looking for particular topics more difficult.


  28. I just want to pick up on what TFP says about how class/ethnicity plays into how one approaches issues related to time to degree and language acquisition, and I’d dispute that wanting to shorten the time is about a lack of willingness than about lack of resources and support – material (immigration status for int’l students, needs to support oneself and potentially family members for int’l, working class, other minority students) as well as emotional. I’ll also go one step further: people from many backgrounds are also often less likely to get significant encouragement toward (and sometimes are actively discouraged from) picking up multiple (or even one additional) language in high school or even undergrad. Often people from such backgrounds find their way to the humanities late – having started first in their educations toward more “practical” or “applied” or “technical” fields that may not have any language requirement – which puts them behind even those unfocused students who at least begin college as history or English or philosophy majors.

    I’m not sure what the answer to all of the above is, but I suppose I’m bristling a bit at the idea that people who are concerned about the costs of remaining longer in a graduate program – who choose the “easy way out” by opting out of second or third languages – are in some way resistant to learning or that they aren’t deeply committed to their disciplines or to broad intellectual inquiry.


  29. Absolutely, Dr. Crazy, I certainly did not mean to use the word “willing” in a derogatory sense but more in the sense of “not willing to put up with”, if that makes sense. All the points you raise are valid and I should make clear that I am one of those students dealing with scanty familial material resources as well as emotional ones. (And also came to the humanities late after going to college to be a doctor.)

    Let me see if I can make my point more clear: I’ve noticed a certain romanticization of being a “poor graduate student” among many of my colleagues, almost none of whom grew up poor/working class/nonwhite. They often seem to be more blasé about being in graduate school with little or no funding or about not having medical insurance or about adjuncting, whereas these are key issues for myself and my colleagues who have no safety net from our poor, working class, minority families, not to mention those people whose families are in different non-Western countries. It’s this latter group that seems much more concerned about time-to-completion and questions about when the money’s going to run dry. These isn’t intellectual laziness, just the reality of living without a certain kind of safety net.


  30. Dr. Crazy–I agree with you that not everyone has the same advantages in coming to graduate school. But–in History, most Ph.D. programs require a basic competency in two languages besides English. It’s neither easier nor harder for grad students to learn new languages than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but there seems to be more resistance to it among our students. I think grad programs should hold the line on languages, *especially* when they’re encouraging students to read more broadly and to do comparative or transnational histories. Perhaps universities should think about covering summer language courses for their grad students, if so many are coming to grad school unprepared to meet the language requirements.

    People who think they may want to pursue a graduate degree would do well to familiarize themselves with the requirements of the programs they’re interested in. If they’re still in college, they may be able to start on another language. (Even if they’re not, they can take some language courses at a CC to get a jump start before starting a grad program.)


  31. Pingback: Ronald Takaki Dies « Like a Whisper

  32. My subfield of English, rhetorical history, seems to overlap into other languages all the time. First, of course, every culture and country has its rhetorics. And in the course of my own research about an erudite US rhetorician, I’ve found Italian newsletters my research subject wrote, letters to and from her in French…a little Portugese maybe. I didn’t anticipate running into Italian and French documents, but I sure find it interesting.
    My grad school’s wimpy foreign language policy (which was “you spoke a lot of Spanish in your former jobs, you’re off the hook as far as we’re concerned”) hasn’t helped me a bit with this mishmash, of course.
    Nor did official policy force my grad school’s medievalists through 17th century scholars to learn Latin–but the faculty did ensure that serious students grasped Latin before they got their diss done. (Tom, can you imagine Mary Blockley letting a student escape alive without decent Latin skills?)
    However, I’m counting on the scholarly community to help me out. I know the foreign language departments at the research universities instate have grad students or faculty who will translate documents. So although our own translation abilities may not be good enough, I’m assuming we can do what needs to be done to produce good scholarship. And in this crazy intellectual double boiler in which we live in–pace Paul McCartney–that’s what matters, nyet?


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