Traveling As A Learner’s Attitude

(Investiture Speech by Gundolf Graml, August 2012, Agnes Scott College)

Thank you very much for this very kind and generous introduction. Dear students, parents, dear president Kiss, and esteemed colleagues–I’m extremely humbled by the invitation to speak today. Class of 2013: What on earth were you thinking?

—I must admit, when I received your invitation, one of the first things that came to mind was: I didn’t attend an American college, I can’t relate to the experiences of seniors, and I’m therefore not qualified to speak here.

Unfortunately, everyone I talked to about this said: You just sound like the–of course, purely hypothetical–student, who claims that she could not write her German essay because her keyboard doesn’t have any Umlauts.

—Thus, not being allowed to duck the challenge, I began to reflect on the moments that have taught me probably the most about what it means to be in college, and to be a college professor:—my study-abroad trips with students. So, I want to use this privileged moment today to explore the connections between learning and traveling.

I know what you’re thinking: “Here it comes, the ‘Life is one big, interesting journey’-speech”—not quite. What I want to discuss is the attitude of traveling and exploring as an appropriate attitude for becoming and remaining a curious, innovative, inspired and inspiring lifelong student and citizen.

Many, if not all of you, have been traveling this past summer: Perhaps you were hanging out at the beach, or you’ve spent part of your summer abroad, participating in a global awareness trip, learning a new language; or, perhaps you traveled from Atlanta to Chattanooga.

Regardless of the distance you covered, most travel experiences share a mix of the following two elements: first, the departure from something familiar and the encounter with something new; second, the experience of an intellectual and/or linguistic “dislocation.” I wish for you, the senior class, and for all students in here, that your learning experience at Agnes Scott and afterwards will include these elements.

Why should it? Apparently, it enables good learning and thinking. In a book titled, What the Best College Students Do,–a book that I will cite more often in this talk–historian-turned-education specialist Ken Bain cites a 2009 study from Northwestern University that shows a strong correlation between having experience with another culture and language and being a creative problem solver.

Why is the attitude of the traveler so pertinent for learning? The basic answer is, because you learn how to fail on so many different levels.

All of you who have lived abroad know what I’m talking about: Whether it is your electrical plug that doesn’t fit the outlet or the librarian to whom you can’t convey how crucial access to the stacks is for your research, you constantly need to depart from familiar ways of problem solving and figure out new ones. You need to learn, as Ken Bain calls it, from “expectation failure.”

It will not surprise you that I firmly believe in the value of knowing a foreign language and culture, of studying abroad, and of Fulbright fellowships, but I do not claim that you can’t be a creative thinker without them. While it helps to travel abroad, you can experience and learn from “expectation failure” at home as long as you reflect on it.

Actually, you probably experience some “expectation failure” right now. Instead of talking about the great time you will have during your last year at Agnes Scott I talk about departure; and instead of praising your accomplishments, I speak of failure.

But wait a second: I do not wish for you to leave this place yet, and I certainly do not want to ignore your great achievements, for which you do indeed deserve praise. However, for many of you, the senior year will be a year with a lot of pressure: There are required courses yet to be taken to complete your major and your degree; there are applications for jobs, for graduate school and for internships waiting to be written and submitted. There are, in short, a great many overt and covert expectations about what you will or must accomplish.

In classes and during office hours and advising meetings, I have seen quite often how a student’s push to satisfy this web of expectations results in a drastically limited perspective on her education: Any required course outside her major becomes a nuisance, any thought of an unusual elective an unaffordable luxury.

Instead of taking advantage one last time of the smorgasbord that a liberal arts curriculum offers, some students only feel the urge to specialize, to narrow their experience rather than expand it. So one of the attitudes of the traveler I wish for you to discover is the courage to break away from the all-too-familiar routines of thinking and to allow for your intellect to become dislocated.

Of course, only a humanities person like me can have such touchy-feely ideas about education. The cynically inclined among you might think: “Nice words–but come tomorrow, we’ll sit in classes, our work will be graded, the registrar’s office will keep track of our GPAs, and if the numbers are too low, graduate applications, fellowships, and financial aid are in jeopardy.”

—Point well taken. Being conscious of the evaluation system of higher education is important, but nonetheless: once good grades and a high GPA have become ends in themselves, then you are not traveling anymore; you have grounded yourself.

In the research literature about learning, students who concentrate predominantly on grades figure as “strategic” and “surface” learners: They know how to play the “A-game” and how to avoid endangering their GPAs. Unfortunately, by doing so, they also avoid the experience of “deep learning” and thinking, the eye-opening discovery that even the most cutting-edge research results your professors teach you, are, in the end, only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Deep learners pursue questions because they want to know, they understand that solutions presented to them are often only temporary, that there’s more to a topic than the syllabus suggests. Deep learners become their own advisors. Their grades, the research shows, are good anyway, but they come as a consequence of the passion with which these students pursue their self-education.

Of course, none of this is new for you. I know that, because I have seen you do it, over and over again. During the study-abroad trip to Germany this past May, for instance, all participants engaged in projects that clearly pushed both their personal and disciplinary boundaries of learning, whether it was in the realm of art, literature and culture, music, history, sustainability studies, German, or biology.

Let me just describe one of these projects in more detail: During the semester leading up to the trip, one of the students had developed a particular interest in the lives and works of several 19th and 20th-century German bio-medical researchers. This first-year-student had identified herself to me already before the trip as a “science geek,” without much patience for the “soft” knowledge we treasure in language, literature, and art–these are my words summarizing, and probably distorting, her much more nuanced self-description.

During our stay in Berlin, Prof. Katherine Smith from art history and the student visited the Charité, a renowned clinic in Berlin, where one of these scientists, Rudolf Virchow, had conducted his research on cell biology and public health issues. To the student’s surprise, the exhibit about Rudolf Virchow’s scientific work was accompanied by an art exhibit, which, as she later wrote on her blog, seemed to “contaminate” the science elements.

However, in hindsight, what had first appeared to her as a strange and unrelated art exhibition became essential for the student’s understanding of the ways in which Virchow’s research and discoveries have shaped public health concepts and people’s lives.

As a consequence of that museum visit, the student also began to take a closer look at the connection between public health and the design of daily life in German cities. She observed how public transportation systems might encourage or discourage walking, and she compared the starch contents in German and American fast food meals and considered their impact on obesity levels.

This and all the other projects that I do not have time to describe in more detail, illustrate the learning that occurs when we allow our thinking to depart from the linear path that we often feel compelled to follow. In their projects, these students became travelers between different concepts not just by way of connecting the content of different disciplines but, more importantly, by reflecting about how one can combine and integrate the thinking in one discipline with the thinking in another discipline in order to create new knowledge.

All of these projects are, in one form or another, the result of “expectation failure.” All of them have in common that the students examined why their initial ideas failed, decided to adjust their approach, and then reflected on the process and the outcome. The students practiced what the American educational philosopher John Dewey stated succinctly this way: “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from thinking about experience.” It is that kind of mind traveling that, I hope, all of you newly-capped seniors will be able to practice repeatedly as you go through your last year.

While I prepared for today’s talk, it dawned on me how special the opportunity to stand before you really is. As I mentioned at the beginning, when I left Austria over a decade ago, I knew very little about this American institution of the four-year liberal arts college. Now that I teach at one, I have come to appreciate its potential for  truly interdisciplinary and innovative learning. But I have also come to see its precarious position in today’s political and economic environment.

I realized how lucky I am to talk to you, for you were supposed to be the last of your kind. You didn’t know that, I bet! According to a 2009 article from the Washington Post, the rise of online learning, and a changing economic landscape, will likely make the graduating class of 2013 “[…] part of the last generation for which going to college means packing up, getting a dorm room and listening to tenured professors. […].”

Thank god, the members of our next great first year class sitting in the audience prove this statement thoroughly wrong. But the challenges do exist, and while I am the last person to ask about a viable business model, I know for sure that we can’t afford for the liberal arts model to disappear.

In a world where ignorance about biological facts seems to be a required qualification to run for political office, in a climate getting hotter by the month, and on a planet where social and economic inequality is increasing, the “adaptive expertise” of people who can put facts into historical context, who understand the social and political ramifications of environmental change, and who are aware that going global requires an understanding of the local, is needed more than ever.

And for this, I firmly believe, it takes true travelers of the mind, people who don’t just focus on the destination but who, to cite Bain one last time, “enjoy[…] the ride.”

So, in the spirit of your mascot, I wish all of you Valkyries a rich, adventurous, and successful senior year, and an amazing ride! Thank you very much for the honor!

Wohin, German Studies?

In recent weeks, the future of German Studies has (again) been debated in various venues. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, German Studies professors Martin Kagl (University of Georgia) and William Donahue (Duke University) have proposed to save German Studies, via Europe (if you don’t subscribe to the Chronicle, here’s a link to the pdf.) Responses to their article in the form of letters to the editor can be found here.

English Is Not Enough

By Catherine Porter
From The Chronicle of Higher Education

(Copied from the AATG Website:

Many Americans have come to believe, consciously or not, that it’s just too hard to learn a second language. We typically wait until early adolescence to introduce schoolchildren to their first foreign language. We start with small doses and don’t usually offer, let alone require, extended sequences. Our teachers have often had a late start themselves and don’t always have much opportunity outside the classroom to extend their own language skills. Articulation between high-school and college foreign-language programs is haphazard at best. College students often perceive language requirements as obstacles to be avoided or impositions to be endured.

Thus, generation after generation, our society produces large numbers of adult citizens who have never tried to learn another language or who see themselves as having tried and failed. Is it any wonder that as a society we think it’s not worth the effort and expense to make foreign-language study an essential component of the public-school curriculum?

But the result is a devastating waste of potential. Researchers in a wide range of fields increasingly attest to the benefits of bilingualism. Students who have had an early start in a long-sequence foreign-language program consistently display enhanced cognitive abilities relative to their monolingual peers—including pattern recognition, problem solving, divergent thinking, flexibility, and creativity. After the first three or four years of second-language instruction, those students perform better on standardized tests, not only in verbal skills (in both languages) but also in mathematics. They demonstrate enhanced development in metalinguistic and critical thinking: They can compare and contrast languages, analyze the way language functions in different contexts, and appreciate the way it can be used for special purposes, like advertising, political propaganda, fiction, or poetry. In short, they have a decided edge in the higher-order thinking skills that will serve them well as college students and citizens.

What accounts for such remarkable benefits? Does foreign-language study itself have an impact on brain physiology? While there is still a lot we don’t know, intriguing clues are emerging. Experiments have shown, for example, that foreign-language study increases brain density in the left inferior parietal cortex. Research also suggests that bilingual people process languages differently than monolingual people do. They may take fuller advantage of the neural structures involved in cognitive processing. They appear to have a greater ability to shut out distractions and focus on the task at hand. Demands that the language-learning process makes on the brain, like other demands that involve encountering the unexpected, make the brain more flexible and incite it to discover new patterns—and thus to create and maintain more circuits.

The effort involved in learning and controlling more than one language may even “train the brain” in a way that slows down the losses that so often come with aging. Indeed, one recent Canadian report indicates that dementia may be delayed by as much as four years in bilingual adults who use both languages regularly. Virtually all “brain fitness” experts include foreign-language study among the activities that may help delay the onset of dementia.

Although it is never too late to begin or resume foreign-language study, in principle adults can choose whether or not to pursue it, while the children in our society must depend on us—on school boards, state legislatures, federal agencies, educational organizations—to create contexts in which foreign-language learning can and will occur. Given the enhanced cognitive capacities attributable to bilingualism, we should do whatever it takes to make those advantages available to all children, especially now when the perception is growing that Americans are being outperformed in the international arena on several measures of educational attainment and are at risk of losing a crucial competitive advantage. On the worldwide scale, we are decidedly lagging behind in foreign-language education: According to a survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics published in 2000, presecondary foreign-language study was offered in all of the 19 countries responding and required in 15 of them.

It is true that English has become a lingua franca in many parts of the world and may suffice for superficial transactions in touristic situations. But English is not enough for exchanges in diplomatic, military, professional, or commercial contexts where matters of consequence are at stake. Whether English-only speakers are dealing with counterparts who speak their language well or working through interpreters, they are always at a disadvantage. They risk violating social taboos, tend to miss subtle verbal and nonverbal cues, and cannot follow side conversations. In general, they are far less equipped than their bilingual or multilingual interlocutors to put themselves in others’ places or to figure out where others are “coming from,” what they are “getting at,” or even trying to “get away with.” In many circumstances, the cultural knowledge and understanding that comes with mastery of a second language is a prerequisite for being taken seriously.

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times last fall, Thomas L. Friedman cited a businessman, Todd Martin, who said that “our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness.” Friedman went on to say that schools need to send forth students who not only have adequate skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but who also demonstrate creative problem-solving abilities. Every child whose ability to think critically and creatively is increased by the boost in cerebral capacity from sustained foreign-language study is a future adult who may bring new perspectives to the daunting problems facing our globalized world—climate change and economic stability being just two examples. Producing a truly multilingual citizenry would give us a vast pool of people who can function in at least two languages and learn others quickly. With the enhanced intercultural awareness that comes with second-language acquisition, Americans could interact with more sensitivity and insight in multicultural contexts.

Studies suggest that the ideal “window” for introducing a second language extends from pre-kindergarten through third grade, partly because of the well-known plasticity of young brains but also because, as with a first language, extended exposure is needed for full mastery. Yet according to a report from the Center for Applied Linguistics, the number of elementary schools in the United States that offer any foreign-language study decreased from 31 percent to 25 percent between 1997 and 2008. The report’s executive summary concluded: “When legislators, administrators, and other education policy makers recognize the need to incorporate foreign languages into the core curriculum, the necessary funding and other resources will follow.”

Professors of modern languages, including English, should be among the first to recognize that need and embrace the challenge it entails. Imagine a context—one we could create in less than a generation—in which most entering college students arrive with 12 or 13 years of sustained, serious foreign-language study behind them. Instructors of foreign literature and languages would find students prepared for advanced work if they chose to go on in the same language or efficient and motivated learners if they chose to start a new one. English literature and composition instructors would find that their students had a comparative grasp of the structures of the English language, an informed appreciation of its capabilities and limitations, and an approach to their subjects nourished by prior experience with literary texts from a different tradition. All instructors would find their students experienced in thinking and talking about language and culture as such, and accustomed to stepping outside their own systems to compare and contrast as well as perform other tasks that we commonly associate with critical thinking.

Experience with more than one language reinforces the insight that language is a vehicle of expression and representation deployed by speakers and writers as they construct their own worlds. Each language does the job differently, puts into play its own approach to filtering perceived realities and its own tools for individual expression in a language-structured relation to those realities. To experience the contrast of differing languages and their distinct expressive resources is to learn valuable lessons in humility, tolerance, and sensitivity to other peoples and cultures.

Bilingual people use multiple lenses to view the world; their horizons are widened and their lives enriched by the ability to embrace difference and find enjoyment in the play within, between, and around languages that stepping outside one’s mother tongue allows. Few if any intellectual achievements open more doors in the mind, in the heart, and in the world than learning to understand and speak another language. And few produce a more profound or lasting satisfaction—even in the blunders and misunderstandings that arise in the learning process and regularly thereafter. Doris Sommer argues in Bilingual Aesthetics (Duke University Press, 2004) that “living in two or more competing languages troubles the expectation that communication should be easy, and it upsets the desired coherence of romantic nationalism and ethnic essentialism. This can be a good thing.” For native speakers of English in the United States, that good thing too often remains the privilege of an elite.

It is time for us to embrace the mandate put forward in the Modern Language Association’s report to the Teagle Foundation on the undergraduate major in language and literature. That report asserts decisively that “multilingualism and multiculturalism have become a necessity for most world citizens” and that “all students who major in our departments should know English and at least one foreign language.” We should work individually and collectively, locally and nationally, to have foreign-language study included as a core subject in elementary schools throughout the country. We need to make our voices heard in a sustained and vigorous effort to persuade all stakeholders in the American educational enterprise that English, while essential, is simply not enough.

Catherine Porter is a professor emerita of French at the State University of New York College at Cortland and was president of the Modern Language Association in 2009.


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