Two years after the German department risked collapse, students and professors of German and Russian language have expressed frustration with the administration’s lack of funding for their programs. Both languages are now located within the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture (CSLC) department.
To complete a minor in German or Russian, students must take literature classes taught in English, according to Ella Roth (senior), a German minor, and Taylor Robinson (senior), a Russian minor. Roth said there is no longer a visiting German language assistant on campus to tutor students in German as there is in the Spanish and French departments. There is no Russian visiting language assistant either, although a student that is a native Russian speaker will be starting a Russian language conversation table this semester, according to Walter Richmond, a full-time non-tenure track professor of Russian. Christopher Gilman, associate director of the Center for Digital Liberal Arts, said that it was the poor supervision of the program, not a lack of funding, that led the German visiting language assistant program to be cut.
“This isn’t just a resource for the college, this is also a student who comes here for a structured experience, and that person deserves the attention and guidance that the other visiting language assistants have in Spanish and French,” Gilman said. “So for that year [when the German department risked collapsed], it didn’t make sense to have a German visiting language assistant thrown into a chaotic situation and forced to kind of fend for themselves.”
German Professor Bryan Klausmeyer, the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow, said he does not know why there is no longer a visiting German student.
“I don’t know the reasons for why that program stopped and I think they should bring it back,” Klausmeyer said. “We’ll probably try to get the position back. It’s just easier for people to take funding away than it is to give it.”
There are currently two German professors: Klausmeyer and Professor Adrienne Merritt, a part-time non-tenure track assistant professor.
Shortly before the Fall 2015 semester began, full-time German professor Jürgen Pelzer retired. Part-time professor Kathie Von Ankum accepted a job elsewhere two weeks into the semester and left the college on short notice. The department brought in two more German professors in quick succession, including Professor Pauline Ebert, who took a full-time position with an agreement that she would only teach for two semesters, according to CSLC department head Damian Stocking. Neither professor is still teaching here, and both Klausmeyer and Merritt started teaching at Occidental in the Fall 2016 semester.
Although Klausmeyer was not teaching here when the German department risked collapse, he said he suspects that the high turnover rate of professors was due to the lack of sufficient full-time positions.
“Part-time positions aren’t as attractive,” Klausmeyer said. “You’re not going to have a high degree of retention.”
Richmond also said his department faces a lack of funding. He said that since joining the CSLC department, the Russian program has become more focused on literature and less focused on politics and history.
“Since we’ve now pooled our resources to create a major [CSLC], those elements don’t really fit in the framework,” Richmond said.
The German and Russian programs both offer a two-year sequence of courses (101–202), but higher level language courses are not offered, according to Klausmeyer and Richmond. Klausmeyer and Richmond each teach English-language literature classes in the CSLC department with optional German or Russian sections, respectively. These optional sections include an extra hour of Russian or German instruction; students can take these sections in addition to the normal classes, which then count for five units.
Although Richmond is the only full-time Russian professor, Gilman also teaches a Russian section of a CSLC class in the spring. Gilman said he has worked with the Dean’s Office and the President’s Office on numerous language learning initiatives, including hiring a language education specialist and moving the peer tutors from the basement of Booth Hall to the first floor of Johnson Hall.
Roth said she is unsatisfied with the German sections of English language CSLC courses and wishes there were more German language courses.
“It’s unfortunate because I think CSLC classes discourage students interested in taking German classes from actually taking those classes,” Roth said. “Just because they might not be interested in the subject. They don’t want to waste three hours a week taking this class just to get an hour of German.”
Roth, who lived in Berlin until she was six, said she hoped to improve her German grammar at Occidental. According to Roth, she tested into German 202 as a first year and decided she wanted to pursue a German minor, but was unprepared for what that would entail.
“Due to the German department falling apart, that ended up being way harder than I anticipated,” Roth said.
Roth said she was only able to complete her minor by studying abroad in Berlin, because Occidental was not offering enough German courses for her to meet the requirements. According to the CSLC department page, a German minor requires completion of five higher-level German courses, but no German language courses beyond GERM 202 are offered. Students must, therefore, go abroad or take English language classes to complete the minor.
Robinson said they ran into similar problems in finishing a Russian minor.
“I didn’t see a way for me to graduate with a minor in this without going abroad,” Robinson said.
Just as Roth wishes there were more German language courses, Robinson said that they wish there were more Russian language courses.
“I was kind of disappointed because it only goes up to intermediate level,” Robinson said. “I’ve literally done every course at Oxy.”
Robinson said that when they studied abroad in St. Petersburg, many of their American classmates studying Russian at other schools were more proficient in speaking than they were. They did say that Professor Richmond makes it clear that the Russian classes at Occidental focus more on reading and writing than on speaking, but they would prefer if the classes had a greater emphasis on speaking.
Gilman said that, when he was an undergraduate student at Syracuse University, he and other students brought their concerns about the Russian Studies program to the school’s administration. He said he recommended that concerned students talk directly with the CSLC department and the administration.
“We had an impact. We increased enrollments. And essentially we reinvigorated the Russian Studies program,” Gilman said. “I think it’s important to be in dialogue because I don’t think there would be any competing interests.”
Citing a national report on liberal arts schools that ranked Occidental No. 44, Richmond said that Occidental is lagging in its language instruction. Richmond said that in 2011, he researched the Russian programs of all the listed institutions ranked higher than Occidental and found that all of them except Harvey Mudd (which does not offer Russian at all) offer at least three years of Russian courses, as opposed to the two-year sequence offered at Occidental. He said he would like to offer higher level Russian classes but, at this time, he is unable to.
“It’s impossible because of staffing. There’s just simply no effort on the part of the administration to increase our staffing,” Richmond said. “This is why we created the CSLC: we realized our staffing is never going to be increased and we said, ‘what can we do with what we have?’ And this is what we have.”
Gilman said that low enrollments could help to explain the funding and staffing issues that students and professors of Russian and German are concerned about.
“In the end, student enrollment and student interest, by and large, are the most important determiners of allocation of resources for departments and positions,” Gilman said.