Saying goodbye to a fellow troublemaker

I won’t be the first person, nor the last, to mention that 2016 has been an awful year in many ways. Last week it took a particularly hard turn when I received the news that a colleague, Jan Marston of Drake University, died suddenly.

Jan was a frequent visitor to Language Lab Unleashed! back in our days of weekly podcasts and also a regular commenter on this site.  I was just going through the archives and see that she appeared on our 8th show in November 2006.  (Excuse me as I stop and catch my breath and realize that was 10 years ago…) In that show she was talking about DULAP, Drake University Language Acquisition Program, a project that resurrected language instruction at Drake in new ways, what some might call today “disruptive ways,” by creating a student centered learning out-of-the-classroom learning environment.

Drake made the news in 2001 by cancelling all of its language instruction.  This created a collective and audible gasp in the language world… further proof that academic budget cuts were targeting poor, defenseless language programs… the sky was falling, clearly.  But in retrospect,  Drake did it for all of the right reasons: students weren’t learning in the traditional classroom model, so a new model had to be created. And Jan, with a little help from her friends, did just that.

Jan and DULAP were thinking about “disruptive technologies” and “disruptive learning” long before the term got coined and associated with Clayton Christensen or totally overused by EdTech in general. And one of the reasons I appreciated the DULAP model was that it wasn’t about the tools and the shiny new innovation… it was about learning as well as admitting that not all learning happens in a classroom.

To quote Jan herself from a 2007 Inside Higher Ed article “You need to let go of the idea that it all happens in class.”  She continued:

“Most traditional language departments are language and literature departments, and most of what they were doing is focused around their desire to prepare other people — their best students — to do as they were doing,” she said. As a result, she added “many enrollments are declining.” The Drake program is based on the idea that “students don’t want to become language professors — they want to go out in the world, so they have to be able to communicate.”

This was 2007.  Just let that sink in for a moment. Almost 10 years have passed and this idea about student-centered language learning is still scary to many.

The DULAP model didn’t work for everyone, but that wasn’t the expectation necessarily. Over time, students eventually given options to take more traditional (read: classroom based) courses if that is what worked for them.  Meanwhile the personalized DULAP model allowed students to excel: “students who had finished Drake’s Spanish 101 and 102 classes would likely be placed into a third-year language class when studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country “primarily on the strength of their speaking skills.”

I was going through old emails today and I found one from Jan when she was Director of DULAP with the following after her signature: “The Drake University Language Acquisition Program mentors students as they gain functional proficiency in a language other than English, develop cultural understanding, and become responsible global citizens. Students prepare to study or live abroad, enhance professional development, and pursue personal interests while working alongside native speakers and language acquisition specialists.”

In that same email she said: “Things are lively here (I’m killin’ rats all around, as my friend from Texas puts it). ” My sense is that not everyone at Drake embraced her innovation, and many  felt she challenged “the ways things have always been done.”  But Jan persevered.

In the official message from Provost of Drake today, he stated “[Jan] carried the immersion program forward under not easy circumstances.” From what little and as much as I knew, that sounds like a very accurate description.

I will forever remember Jan with (at that moment in her life perhaps?) her large imposing walking stick and her wide, gleeful smile at conferences.  She was genuinely happy to talk about languages, learning, innovation, breaking the rules, and  “killin’ rats all around.”

We have lost an important ally, and an excellent troublemaker, in the world of language learning.

Jan Marston, you will be missed.


Jan Marston, 2016

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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