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Ole alum discusses changing academic landscape

The St. Olaf Department of Romance Languages celebrated its centennial on Thursday, Feb. 16 by inviting Timothy Scheie ’85, a French professor at Eastman School of Music, to offer a lecture. Scheie was welcomed on Wednesday afternoon by a reception in Tomson Hall, where he spoke informally with French department professors and students. Several members of the department were curious about his experience as a St. Olaf student. Like many first-year students, he remembers having no tangible idea of what he wanted to major in. He bounced from math to economics to music and finally to French, and he didn’t look back. Scheie admitted that his uncertainty sprang from an inherent “lack of discipline” that has guided his journey through higher education.

On Thursday morning, Scheie stood in front of 50 students and faculty members and spoke frankly about the future in his talk, “The Future of French: Charting a Course Through a Changing Discipline.” Scheie spoke of his strong sense of gratitude for the schooling he received at St. Olaf, but also of the concern he has for the future of French as a major. First, he explained the radical changes that have taken place in the French academic and professional worlds since his graduation in the mid-1980s.

The beginning portion of his lecture focused on how the outcomes of a liberal arts education have changed since his graduation. He described his degree from St. Olaf as reinforced by a “solid curriculum” in twentieth century French literature, and he thought he would certainly find a well-paying position with his background. When he pursued graduate school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, French majors were in high demand. There were 150 graduate students in his discipline when he was a student there, so the outlook was a positive one. However, Scheie confessed that he waited nine years until he finally earned a “real” salary. Liberal arts degrees were, at the time, viewed as impractical, and French programs struggled for enrollment or were shut down completely. This shift lead to what Scheie called “the identity crisis” in the world of French academic study.

The harsh reality of the discipline in the 1990s was that the enrollment in French programs across the country had steadily declined since the ’70s. Several formerly successful programs threw in the towel, such as the University of Rochester’s masters and PhD programs. In addition, the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s pinned Western traditionalists against multiculturalists, each with a different opinion of what the French major and curriculum should be. According to Scheie, this resulted in what we have now – curriculum that focuses more on developing skills than how much knowledge students can cram into their heads in four years.

The last parts of Scheie’s lecture explored a new method to make the teaching of romance languages more successful. His method calls for a collaboration between the department administrators and professors as well as the students.

“We need to become advocates for our programs and let others know why we study what we study,” Scheie said. This begins simply with affirming the importance of studying languages in college. Scheie believes that language study is crucial.

“In the modern age we live in, there is a lot of fear and anxiety over walls, borders and immigrants,” he said. “Languages and cultural studies train students on how to develop a deep and important compassion for other people.”

Scheie left listeners with a compelling message: It is up to students to define the importance of language studies and to chart the future of language curriculums at their schools. The best way to assure the future of a program is to create it, and to constantly prove the relevance of studying language in our ever-changing world.

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