Low hanging fruit

This entry is part 19 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently

Low Hanging Fruit


O’er the past few days there has been a kerfluffle brewing over at Inside Higher Ed in their Blog U section. As my colleague and fellow LLU blogger Doug posted earlier this week, Joshua Kim, a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, wrote a post about technologies he considered to be obsolete: and lo and behold, the Language Lab was right up there with Scantron Sheets and Overhead Projectors. Yep, the graveyard.

The comments that followed (both after Doug’s post here and and Mr Kim’s posts there) ranged from righteous indignation to just-barely-audible seething. People were angry and upset and questioned not only Mr Kim’s pronouncements, but the fact that he made such a statement from such a visible space.

In my humble wee opinion, Mr Kim has every right to comment, as he does in his IHE blog, about how he sees things, just as all of us here at LLU can also call’em as we see’em… each of us from our little virtual soapboxes.

What I find particularly gratifying is the fire and brimstone that this column evoked from my colleagues around the country. When Mr Kim declared that Language Labs were “obsolete” and “basically gone” I was impressed my the voices that came forward to right this wrong. The majority of the comments that followed his blog post were from Language Center directors. They were quick to announce that their centers were ever-so alive and kicking, thank you very much, and working hard to meet the growing needs of language students in new and different ways.

Ah, but be careful with about the terminology you choose to use when talking about these centers with us language tech types. Mr Kim was admonished for using the term “Language Lab,” saying it referred to timeperiod and a type of teaching with technology that had long since passed.

[An aside: A while back I asked readers to give us the names of their centers (knowing that everyone is avoiding that LL word like the plague). The variety of responses was remarkable. So it seems as a profession we are running away from one term that we really don’t like but we haven’t quite landed at one that we do like.]

“Language Lab,” I think, is up there with “kleenex” and “xerox”…. they are terms or names that refer to something in the abstract, not one thing in particular, and aren’t intended to be derogatory. It’s a common mistake to refer to these places as Language Labs… Heck, when my sister in Nigeria called the switchboard here to try and find me she didn’t know to ask for the “Paul and Edith Cooper International Learning Center.” She asked for “The Language Lab.” I believe that its a term that will hang around for probably another 10 years before it is replaced by something more specific or descriptive.

Overall, I was delighted to see the ire that Mr Kim’s post inspired in my compatriots. I hope that fire continues. Because you see the reality truly is that while Mr Kim’s nomenclature might be off, the sentiments he expresses are not.

Skepticism about who we are and what we do and why we need all that space to do it in is beginning to bubble up (again) on campuses around the country. This always happens when the economy is bad. The bean counters begin nervously cutting away at what they perceive to be unnecessary programs…the teaching of languages and language centers often times being among the lowest of low hanging fruit.

Those of us who work in this field can’t possibly imagine how this could be; and yet those who manage the purse strings sometimes do not understand what we do and why we need to do it.

The point is this: I think we should be thankful for Mr Kim’s post. While he may indeed be guilty of punditry and be ignorant of the state of language pedagogy and computer assisted language learning in 2010, the fact remains that Mr Kim is not alone in his ignorance. And for that reason we should not be complacent.

We should use Mr Kim’s post as a wake up call: if this is how we are perceived by others …what do we need to do to change those perceptionsnow? What is something each of us can do (every day, once a week, once a month) to dispel those rumors about our impending obsolescence?

Ask yourself, please, language center director: What are you doing, in your center, at your school, to prove him and others wrong? What are you going to do today, and tomorrow and the next day to make your center relevant to the teaching of languages and cultures and the academic mission of your school?

Instead of bashing him, we should be thankful for the shot across the bow that Mr Kim just lobbed our way. Like it or not, it is how our centers are perceived by many, and something we need to work very hard to counteract.

Every. Single. Day.


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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


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