While an unpredictably strong snowstorm raged outside on Nov. 15, Montclair State warmly welcomed Modern Language Association Executive Director Paula Krebs for a public program designed to illustrate the innovative teaching approach adopted in Italian at Montclair State University thanks to the support of the Inserra Endowment (full footage of event). A committed audience made up of MLL professors, administrators from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, members of the Montclair State University Foundation, and high school teachers and students witnessed a roundtable with five presenters who, being afforded more time thanks to the weather-related modifications to the event, provided an in-depth description and assessment of the programs under discussion: an intensive summer course in Italian for HS students (the only pre-AP and college credit-earning course of this type in the U.S.) and two paid internships in Italian Business and Translation for opera. Dr. Krebs repeatedly praised these innovative projects for their breadth and depth, describing the Italian Program at Montclair State University as a “national model.”
Dr. Teresa Fiore set the general context for the conversation by stating that while the expression “crisis of the humanities and foreign languages” continues to dominate the public discourse (and by osmosis now even the academic environment itself), some professors and teachers in the university and school systems have responded to new challenges with new ideas, and a spirit of experimentation to which the event aimed to give front stage.
In particular, the innovation that the Italian Program at Montclair State has devised and implemented has at its core links with the high school system and the professional world in order to create a continuum and encourage students to value the humanities and international components of their education as they transition through education systems and into work. Fundamental to this innovation, which respects the relevant legacy of the past, has been the ever-expanding synergy activated with governmental offices, state institutions, and non-profit organizations, beside individual donors (see list on the event’s page). This innovation has benefitted and will continue to benefit from exchanges and collaborations with other languages and disciplines: Dr. Fiore underlined this interdisciplinary aspect several times in the course of the conversation.
In his greetings, Dean Friedman stated how honored the campus was to have Dr. Krebs as a guest given the caliber of the association she represents, the Modern Language Association, which is the most established and oldest (130 years) organization in the field in the U.S. He also provided an introduction to the theme of the evening by linking the rise and fall of entire disciplines (and majors) to the size of the budget they are assigned, whether locally or federally.
In quoting Harvard History professor Jill Lepore from her recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Ed, he said “If we have a public culture that suffers from the lack of an ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.” Dean Friedman concluded by saying that “the palpable under-evaluation that the humanities continue to experience requires pragmatic and tangible efforts, like those discussed tonight, to situate our disciplines as the essential core of a satisfying, gratifying and, yes, materially successful lives.”
Dr. Krebs, who served as a College Humanities Dean in the area of Boston prior to her post at the Modern Language Association, is an advocate of synergies as she herself created a regional consortium of educators, employers and community leaders to define and assess the success of humanities majors. In her speech, she started out by sketching the state of the field.
While interest in languages (and multi-lingualism) continues to increase in our society along with the importance attributed to globalization, enrollment in languages at the university level has been steadily decreasing in recent years. Still, a multi-year higher-ed experience remains central to providing a full education in languages and cultures. With this premise in mind, Dr. Krebs pointed out what a solid university language program does, and highlighted the Italian Program as a “national model” because it has dynamically responded to the current challenges through: 1. Curricular innovation: New courses which combine language and culture at various levels; 2. Outreach to the community to form dynamic networks of supporters as well as to high schools, for example, via summer courses (embracing students before they get to the university is key, since the humanities are not necessarily offered as a path by guidance counselors and, as a result, by parents);
3. Supporting career readiness which allows students to utilize classroom skills in hands-on ways in the community – projects in Italian and Business serve as a great illustration: while in some sense they have an ideal environment to thrive in this NJ-NY metropolitan area, this formula can be reconstituted everywhere;
4. Utilizing technology, especially if linked to culture as in the case of the Audiovisual Translation project, which Krebs described as a “fascinating” example of career readiness.
She concluded that “the Italian Program at Montclair State is the future of language learning in the country [because] it resists the urge to take a narrowly utilitarian approach to language learning:” it provides applied experiences through internships but leaves post-graduation options open as an outward view of the professional world where skills and knowledge are transferable.
Patti Grunther, Italian teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School, illustrated the genesis and development of the summer intensive course for high school students which functions as a pre-AP learning space that eventually offers college credits (it has been recently recognized as a Best Practice by Italian government-related offices that promote Italian language in the U.S.).
The dynamic content and objectives of the course are fully covered in the VIDEO she showed that evening, after which she highlighted some important outcomes, now that the course has been offered twice (summer 2017 and summer 2018). First of all, the impact that the course has had on enrollment: of the 19 students in the 2017 summer class, three are now Montclair State students, of which two are either majoring or minoring in Italian. Secondly, the course has allowed a number of students to take AP Italian classes with more confidence, thus turning them into potential advanced students of Italian if they choose to continue studying it. Indeed, the course is not in competition with pre-existing AP classes: it actually provides them with more qualified students. In essence, Grunther enthusiastically remarked that the summer course continues to offer benefits to both the HS and university system as part of a virtuous circle that solidifies enriching collaborations among people active in different environments. She concluded by inviting the audience to visit the 2019 course page which also functions as a survey to gauge current interest.
Following Ms. Grunther’s presentation, first-year Montclair State student Cristina Latino shared her experiences in the 2017 edition of the summer course, which in her words functioned as a revelatory moment: she had already chosen to attend Montclair State University in 2018-19 but had planned on starting as an undeclared.
The summer course, with its well-integrated and hands-on business component (presentations on Made in Italy and visits to Italian companies and stores in the area), opened her eyes to the possibility of combining Italian and Business as well as Fashion and she is now a double major with a minor active in these three disciplines, all smoothly complementing each other. She also recalled the visit to Eataly in New York where she met a graduate from the Italian Program at Montclair State, Emilia D’Albero, who made her realize that a degree in Italian can allow you to work in one of the most coveted Italian food companies in the world (see post).
Eric Perkins, an international business lawyer representing Choose New Jersey, braved snowstorm-related traffic to join the panel and shared the experience of Montclair State student Emma Rush, who in 2017-18 completed an internship in Italian and Business at the Italian Trade Agency and Choose New Jersey. Beside learning about the vitality of Italian businesses in the New Jersey and the NY metropolitan areas, the intern was able to travel to Italy for 10 days on a business trip with a group of experts, meeting dignitaries and CEO’s supporting the expansion of Italian business in New Jersey. Perkins repeatedly stressed the importance of combining the humanities and languages in any profession.
The Q&A allowed the audience to learn about the increasing attention the MLA is giving to the high school system with, for instance, a K-16 Committee devoted to the alliances between secondary and higher education, as well as a plan to include essays designed for the HS environment in the classic MLA series Approaches to Teaching. A teacher from the audience recommended organizing a professional day for HS teachers about the summer course. In conclusion, Dr. Fiore highlighted the potential for these programs to be extended to other languages as collaborative efforts, in particular the summer course, which can easily bring new majors and minors to language programs as part of a Middlebury College-style affordable initiative in a vibrant metropolitan area.
The Nov. 15 event organized and sponsored by the Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University, in collaboration with the Italian Program (Modern Language and Literatures), is part of an ongoing effort devoted to refashioning the Italian program to respond to current needs. Many more issues and questions will be addressed in the course of future events and targeted internal meetings. See some questions on a dedicated page and write to firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.