Binghamton receives NEH CARES grant to support language instruction during pandemic

To master a foreign language, you need to do more than listen and study a textbook. You need to speak as often as possible, immersing yourself in conversations. But that’s not possible with the coronavirus pandemic, which forced classes online this spring and summer, and will keep some of them there this fall.

Language instruction can thrive online, but that requires planning and additional resources. To that end, Binghamton University has received $300,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ NEH CARES Grant program to provide critical support for foreign language instruction.

“Binghamton has made its reputation on the liberal arts and it has one of the most rigorous language curriculums in the SUNY system,” said Associate Dean of Harpur College Nancy Um, who worked with Research Development Specialist for the Office of Strategic Research Initiatives Kevin Boettcher and Vice Provost James Pitarresi on the application, which required a quick turnaround.

All Binghamton students are required to take at least three semesters of foreign languages, the most rigorous general education requirement in the SUNY system. They can choose from 15 different options: Arabic, American Sign Language, Chinese, ancient Greek, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Yiddish. All told, five different Harpur College departments teach languages: Asian and Asian American studies, classical and near eastern studies, German and Russian studies, Judaic studies and Romance languages and literatures.

Grant funds will support hiring four faculty members, who will teach more than a dozen lynchpin foreign language courses in Russian, Spanish, French and Italian. Funds will also offer summer support for both tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty, who are currently designing their fall 2020 courses for an online or hybrid environment, and pay for tools and technologies needed for remote language instruction, from hardware and software to subscription programs and training.

“We are excited about all the new ways of learning languages we will discover together in the semesters to come,” said Ana Ros Matturro, chair and associate professor of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. “We are grateful to the administrators for pursuing the grant and for their hard work supporting language learning at Binghamton.”

The resource question

The State University of New York system is also currently under a budget freeze due to the impact of the pandemic, stalling needed hires. At the same time, this summer has been an intensely busy time for instructors, as they work to make their fall classes as effective as possible, whether online or an in-class/online hybrid. These include contingent faculty and adjuncts who do not have tenure and aren’t typically paid during the summer months.

Non-tenured instructors play a major role in teaching languages, with more than 50 employed in these departments. While contingent instructors teach a heavy load of courses, they are paid less and don’t have the same access to resources that tenured faculty members do — for example, research funds that could be used to purchase a needed piece of equipment.

“Contingent and adjunct faculty don’t usually get resources. This grant and these resources will make people feel that they’re valued,” observed Associate Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies Tina Chronopoulos.

Kyung-Ah Kim, lecturer in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, has items in mind to upgrade her online teaching. She hopes to acquire a second monitor, to allow her to see every class member while sharing a presentation on her screen. An iPad and a stylus to grade test papers electronically would also be helpful, as well as a subscription to software for online Korean speaking exercises with virtual native speakers. She’s spending a lot of time this summer developing those exercises, she said.

Adapting pedagogy

While the University plans to adopt a hybrid model this fall, many language instructors will continue to provide online instruction. On the practical side, it’s difficult to teach a language in a socially distanced classroom, with all participants wearing masks, Kim pointed out.

Even when it’s possible to recreate the opportunities for conversation and interaction on Zoom, gaps remain in spontaneous explanations, feedback, comments and even jokes that flow between students and professors sharing the same physical space. Small class sizes also foster connection between students and professors, which is crucial for creating the relaxed atmosphere required to learn languages, Ros Matturro said. Both students and professors needed to find new ways to connect in virtual space.

“The difficulty and the beauty of languages is that they’re highly interactive. It’s not just about talking; it’s also about listening and being able to see the other person and the emotion,” Chronopoulos said. “All of that is lost when we go online.”

Language departments offered online courses before the pandemic, typically during winter and summer; these courses were asynchronous to accommodate working students, Ros Matturro said. Synchronous courses — which require the instructor and the student to be online at the same time — were new to many faculty members, and they had to quickly master Zoom and other tools when classes moved online in March. This summer, instructors are reworking syllabi to adjust to new realities and give students an authentic language experience.

Students, too, face challenges in digital learning, ranging from internet connectivity issues to distractions and interruptions in their home environment. Romance languages will use open educational resources in many introductory and intermediate language courses this fall as a way of helping students financially in difficult times, Ros Matturro said.

“We really want to continue to deliver an excellent curriculum, even though we know it’s challenging. We’re using the summer to prepare to deliver the best language instruction possible,” Um said.

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Harpur