Spanish program seeks department status

The Modern Languages and Literature Department is composed of seven different language programs, making it the largest department at the college. Of these, the Spanish program is the biggest, both in terms of enrolled students and classes offered. As such, there has been a push in recent months to begin a conversation about possible reconfigurations, including a stand-alone Spanish department.

“The Modern Languages department is a mega-department,” said Professor of Spanish Luciano Martinez. “It’s an umbrella covering seven different areas of study, seven different disciplines. And that makes it difficult to really organize ourselves, to have a common project, because there’s the distinctiveness of each language and also the sheer size of the department [to account for].”

The MLL has 36 professors and lecturers, eight professors emeritus, and four administrative staff. As a point of comparison, the Biology department — one of the biggest after MLL — currently employs 13 professors and six lab instructors who teach 12 courses. But departments can also be as small as to accommodate nine professors and offer nine courses a semester, like the Educational Studies department currently does. A popular department like Political Science is offering 15 courses this semester, with 12 professors on staff. Numbers-wise, these departments don’t differ too much from the Spanish program on its own, whose seven professors are currently offering 12 courses.

As a whole, the department has 479 students currently enrolled in 57 different courses. Of these, the Spanish and Chinese programs have the largest share. Spanish is responsible for 130 students on campus and 11 studying abroad or in the Bi-Co. Chinese has 113 students in 12 courses, and smaller programs, like Russian and Arabic, currently enroll 36 and 32 students, respectively.

Unlike the other programs, however, Spanish has a higher concentration of students in the higher-level literature courses. Students come to Swarthmore with a strong grasp of the basics.

“Every year, we have more and more freshmen who place directly into the literature track,” Martinez said.

Andrew Dorrance ’15 is one of the many students that placed into Spanish 4, the highest-level language course, as a freshman.

“As a [Spanish] major, I’ve seen that a lot of the attention — because of the realities of the program — is put on the lower-level grammar students, which is great, because it’s great that people are taking those classes. I took them too,” he said. “But most semesters, there have only been three options for classes that I could take.”

He doesn’t know, however, whether having a department is the only way of creating further opportunities for higher-level Spanish courses. In the last few years, after all, these options have grown, given the increased capacity of the program to hire professors and lecturers. Still, he worries that not being a department places a huge burden on professors, who are responsible for a lot of the administrative work that department chairs or administrative assistants would normally take care of. This, for him, is a problem that needs attention, even if students do not feel the limitations of the program.

However, Dorrance also noted that the Spanish program has significantly more minors than majors. He wonders whether having a department might give the program more breadth and depth, and encourage more students to pursue majors, rather than take isolated classes, or only pursue a minor.

Ned Weitzman ’15, a Spanish minor, never felt that the number of literature classes were limiting, but he did note that the upper-level courses he took could have benefitted from smaller class sizes. He also feels that if, as a department, Spanish had more resources for extracurricular programming, majors and minors would benefit immensely.

“In terms of extracurricular programming, I’m aware of very little and that may well be a symptom of [Spanish not being a department],” he said. “Especially since a lot of the courses focus on literature rather than just language learning, since so many students come in with a background in the language already, learning about the many many cultures associated with the Spanish language can really shed a lot of light on the literature that you study in the classrooms.”

This, according to Martinez, is due to the fact that Spanish receives funding through MLL, and therefore has fewer resources than any other department would. The resources MLL has must be distributed evenly, even though the number of students in each program varies greatly. Spanish also lacks the ability to send students abroad for summer programs for this reason.

“It’s very complex to address seven different constituencies,” Martinez said. “Spanish students are very active and sometimes the department can’t accommodate them. It’s an issue of fairness.”

Though this is an issue for every program in MLL, and Martinez understands and supports the reasoning behind it, he also thinks the Spanish language is singular in several ways, both at Swarthmore and in the United States.

“I think that our pedagogical practices are much closer to those of the English department than other languages,” he said.

Indeed, the strong focus on literature and the proficiency of its students distinguishes the program from others. According to Professor of English Peter Schmidt, who sees the similarities to his own department, this is especially due to the growing popularity of the language.

“Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the U.S. Its number of U.S. speakers will only grow in future decades,” he wrote in an email. “Given this cultural importance, it makes sense that a college based in the US such as ours would grant Spanish the status of a department.”

Martinez agrees. He insists that apart from being a logistical issue, it is, above all else, a political one.

“It’s in Swarthmore’s best interest, not just the best interest of the discipline, to have a stand alone Spanish department,” he said. “Having a Spanish department sends a message to prospective students about how the college values the second language of the United States.”

As the largest minority in the U.S., the ever-increasing Hispanic population is changing the role and prominence of the language, according to Martinez.

Creating a Spanish department would not be revolutionary, though. Swarthmore’s Modern Languages and Literature department is an anomaly in the academic world. Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Amherst, Barnard, and Carleton, amongst many others, have independent Spanish departments. Though Williams does not have a stand-alone Spanish Department, the languages are divided into four different departments. Wesleyan has a Hispanic Literatures and Cultures Department, and Vassar College a Hispanic Studies Department.

Certainly, several different reconfigurations could take place. However, the college has not set in motion a conversation about it. According to Provost Tom Stephenson, they are still waiting to hear more ideas.

“It’s not a question of an individual section deciding that they’re going to secede from the rest of the department,” he said. “What we’re going to have to do is to see what ideas come to the forefront and then have a broader discussion about what the future best structure is and what meets the best interests of not just one individual section but of the college.”

Stephenson notes that it would also be redundant to split MLL into seven different departments. Though he sees how dividing the larger department could create “greater administrative nimbleness,” he also thinks there are advantages to maintaining the department as is.

“There may be some pedagogical commonalities about teaching languages that could give rise to some synergies that could be pretty powerful,” Stephenson said.

Khaled Al-Masri, assistant professor of Arabic and coordinator of the Islamic Studies Program, also sees benefits to the existing conglomeration of language programs.

“The department of MLL provides a space for the discovery of complex scholarly intersections — pedagogical, methodological, thematic, cultural, and linguistic,” he wrote in an email. “In a globalizing world, it is always enriching to be in conversation with colleagues working on diverse geographies and cultures and in different languages.”

Still, he notes that the Arabic program has separate interests and needs from MLL as a whole as well.

“ [A]s head of the Arabic section, I am also always seeking connections with other programs and faculty more directly concerned with the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking and Islamic worlds,” he said. “It is partially because of this that I am serving as the Coordinator of the Islamic Studies Program this year.”

Martinez maintains that creating a Spanish department would be beneficial for almost everyone, including the other smaller programs.

“Institutions are recognizing the uniqueness of Spanish,” he said. “The problem with the program is that it’s very big, so having Spanish as a separate department will add breadth to all the other programs.”

He is hopeful that a conversation to reorganize MLL will begin in the near future. He notes that the Spanish program has grown immensely in the last few years, and this growth has helped them establish a long term project and cohesive curricular plan.

“We are in a much better situation now [than a few years ago],” Martinez said. “With the new professors coming, there’s a renewed sense of hope.”


  1. As a freshman and student of Spanish I think it would be awesome for Spanish and maybe some of the other languages to have their own departments. I would love for more advanced Spanish classes to be offered but having spoken with professors I understand that the MLL department is extremely strapped for resources, the result being that the professors barely have time to keep up with their own class offerings and all the administrative work they must take on, much less publish the articles and books they will be evaluated on as professors seeking tenure.
    It is important to note that the Film and Media studies department has four full-time professors and far more funding than Spanish even though more students are enrolled in Spanish classes.
    The fact that the languages with so many enrolled students do not have their own departments effects the quality of the classes as professors have less time for preparation. It is unfair that MLL professors have to take on administrative work which professors in other departments do not. It is unfair to students who would like to take a more diverse array of advanced Spanish classes and for Spanish majors and minors who have noticed a lack of the community they have experienced in other departments within the Spanish “department” due to how few full-time Spanish professors there are and how little money Spanish has to fund activities outside of class, etc.

  2. This is such an important article! I have had really positive experiences in the Spanish program at Swarthmore due to the professors’ commitment and generosity towards their students, but it’s clear that the limited resources affect what they are able to do. My Latin American Studies minor requires that I study abroad in Latin America, but because of this I won’t be able to take a seminar in Spanish by the time I graduate, even though I have fulfilled the requirements to do so as soon as next semester; the projected course offerings show only seminars on Spain during my remaining time on campus. Having a stronger departmental identity would not only allow for more resources devoted to academics, but could also be an important resource for speakers and learners on campus to connect and unite over political issues of linguistic discrimination in schools and civic spheres in the United States (which are NOT ABSENT at Swat!). The current designation of Spanish as a program within the larger department of Modern Languages and Literatures frames it in a way that doesn’t always leave room to acknowledge all the ways we use it, which have implications in the social science fields of Sociology, Political Science, and Education – and that’s just to start. Thanks for writing.

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