Op-ed column: UAlbany hurts students, community by dropping languages

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from the University at Albany Alumni Association. I replied that

In the 1980s cult-film “Repo Man,” there are references to an overlying lattice of coincidence, the idea that at times random events begin to connect until they come together to create a very odd whole.

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from the University at Albany Alumni Association. I replied that although I was indeed an alumnus of the University of Albany, I was unlikely to donate as I’d found the experience disappointing and now advise people to enroll elsewhere.

Actually, I’m a double alumnus. I earned a bachelor’s degree from there in the 1980s, and returned last year to earn a master’s degree in education, specifically teaching English to speakers of other languages. I chose UAlbany the second time for geographic and economic reasons, as well as a naïve belief that my first bad experience had probably been based on my own immaturity and laziness. I’d earned a master’s degree from Cornell in East Asian Studies in the meantime and figured I was now able to work hard and should be able to get out what I put in.

Unfortunate reality

Instead, I found everything negative I had heard about UAlbany education classes was largely true. In my program, I was taught that one should not correct students’ pronunciation but instead respect accents. I was taught that research shows there is no connection between a person’s grammatical knowledge and the quality of their writing. (The professor who said it was both unable to clarify or provide the research.) I watched while my department released glowing press releases on professors I thought should be fired.

Still, I got the degree. I even carried a flag in the graduation ceremony. Then I parlayed it into a position at a university in Shanghai, China, where my job duties are primarily to correct pronunciation and teach grammar so that people can improve the quality of their writing.

This week I read of UAlbany’s plans to cut programs in Russian, French, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek. This hardly makes me love the university more.

Few educational institutions have such bitter alumni as UAlbany. Not all alumni, of course, but a surprising number speak of the university with anger, crying about the bureaucratic snafus and cold-hearted acts of ignorant stupidity they endured.

My position here came largely through the actions of a Chinese visiting scholar at UAlbany, who felt mistreated by a department head who ignored his contract. He believes it is stupid for the university to spend money to invite scholars, mistreat them and thus hurt its own reputation globally.

Until a few years ago, I’ve heard, I would not have been hired here. The previous foreign language head had spent time at UAlbany and came home with a hatred of the United States. Ultimately, he refused to hire Americans when he became head of the English department.

Lattice of coincidence. I am not making this up.

Important disciplines

As for international languages? Of course they are important. What is the university thinking? In the ’80s, what attracted me to the university was its wide variety of languages taught, and I studied Chinese, Italian and Spanish there.

French. Let’s be honest. It’s fun to make jokes. The French are snooty. But their language is useful. I’ve used (misused?) phrases to communicate with both non-English speaking Québécois in Schenectady and African refugees new in Albany. Here in Shanghai, I have contact with French speakers regularly. Not to mention constant jobs for French teachers.

Russian. Useful in Russia, Eastern Europe and all those new “stan” nations. Who cares? Maybe we should. We are fighting a guerilla war amid those resource-rich “stan” places. Not to mention the Russian neighbors here I cannot speak to.

Italian. Overlying lattice of coincidence. I spoke it yesterday. In a Shanghai subway station, I used Chinese to ask walking directions to the university. A young woman offered to escort me. A Chinese business administration student, she’d just returned from a semester in Italy and had an amusing habit of accidentally throwing Italian expressions in her English, catching herself then giggling. So we walked and chatted in a mixture of English, Italian and Chinese.

Latin and Ancient Greek. My job is to teach Chinese graduate students to use English. Chinese students would, if asked, memorize and repeat the Schenectady telephone book and think nothing of it, but efficiency is not their strong-point. Not a week goes by when I don’t say, to prepare for the GRE’s, why don’t you try studying Greek and Latin roots? New concept here, but, guess what, Ancient Greek and Latin are important in the United States too.

Really bad move

So my reaction is essentially, the university is doing something terrible. Their excuse will be that they had to do it due to lack of money and public support.

To which I’d like to say to the university, you are only making yourself look worse.

Remember what people say to 4-year-olds? “If you want people to be nice to you, then you’ve got to be nice to them.”

If you want people to support you and help you, then you’ve got to do a better job of supporting and helping the people, people like me, who have used your services.

Peter Huston grew up and lived most of his life in Schenectady County. He now lives and teaches college in Shanghai, China.

Categories: Opinion

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