A Champion for Foreign Languages

At least there are a few people who, like me, want to see foreign languages saved in the schools. Professor Robert D. Peckham (a professor of French in Tennessee), otherwise known by his nickname — Tennessee Bob — has been trying to reverse the foreign language slide in schools and universities.  The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article, written by Mary Helen Miller, about his save our foreign languages campaign.

“Foreign Language Programs, Facing Cuts, Find a Champion in ‘Tennessee Bob” (May 23, 2010)

Robert D. Peckham, a professor of French, had more to deal with this spring than his usual end-of-semester duties. The countryside in western Tennessee was bright green and dotted with the yellow of wild mustard blooms, but Mr. Peckham was less than cheerful. His department at the University of Tennessee at Martin was restructuring. The oldest of his four kids had just moved back home, so the family was adjusting. Most of all, Mr. Peckham was anxious that a university more than 400 miles away was thinking about cutting its programs in Spanish and French.

Albany State University, in Georgia, included the elimination of the two languages in a proposal to save $3.6-million that it submitted to the Board of Regents in February. Mr. Peckham, a national advocate for foreign-language programs known among his colleagues as “Tennessee Bob,” felt he had to act.

Albany State’s dean of arts and humanities, Leroy E. Bynum Jr., says that the programs were included on the list because they are “vulnerable,” but that the university has no plans to actually discontinue them.

Still, Mr. Peckham says, program eliminations always start as “worst-case scenarios.” So he is crafting arguments showing how language skills are a key to students’ success—arguments that faculty members at Albany State can use.

“Administrations see getting rid of a foreign-language program as a politically low-cost thing to do,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is say, You can’t get away with that.”

This is not an easy time for foreign-language departments. Programs at California State University at Fullerton and the University of Maine at Orono, to name two, were recently shrunk, and decisions about the fate of some language programs at the University of Nevada at Reno and University of Tennessee at Knoxville are pending.

Mr. Peckham is chair of the Commission on Advocacy of the American Association of Teachers of French, but he sees all languages as his to defend. Every week he spends roughly 20 hours scouring the Web for reports of threatened language programs and giving advice to those that ask for it. He does research on institutions and their surrounding areas, and passes along material for faculty members to use to defend their programs.

His work has been “very helpful,” says Raymond J. Pelletier, chair of the department of modern languages and classics at Orono. Mr. Peckham pointed out to Mr. Pelletier that nearly half of Maine’s export revenue comes from countries whose languages are taught at the university, a fact that informed the Orono faculty’s campaign to save French and Spanish.

Languages for Leaders

When he was a student, Tennessee Bob recalls, a person had to know a foreign language to be considered well educated. The same should be true today, he believes. Learning a foreign language is crucial to becoming a strong leader, he says. Most of the schools and colleges he helps are public, and he would especially like to see good leaders come from those institutions.

That desire drove him to become vice president of the French teachers’ association, in 2003. He was “never one of those people who was gung-ho to be part of an organization,” he says, but the group seemed to be a good vehicle for advocacy work.

“I want to see people given the chance,” Mr. Peckham says. “If all we’re going to do is take folks from Harvard and Yale and put them in the best jobs, eventually we’re going to have the same problem that you have with an ecosystem that’s not varied. You’re going to lack certain types of thought.”

To faculty members at Orono, he wrote a letter suggesting that they point out that while well-to-do private colleges in Maine offer foreign-language majors, only 10 to 12 percent of their students are Mainers, “and so, while the sons and daughters of the wealthy summer residents you might see at a posh Bar Harbor cocktail party will have the advantage of an informed international point of view, those of the hard-working Maine taxpayers will have to satisfy themselves with something less.” He added some political advice to be used in discussions with the administration: “Twist this to be just a little bit embarrassing.”

Now, as the head of advocacy for his association, he maintains a section of its Web site with data on foreign direct investments in the United States, statistics on imports and exports, and other material that faculty members can use to argue for the relevance of foreign-language instruction.

He leads workshops at conferences where he teaches people how to make alliances with local politicians and the most effective ways to contact alumni. (He also advocates against language cuts at K-12 schools, advising teachers on how to present solid arguments to parent-teacher associations.)

Working as a behind-the-scenes strategist, he has been joined recently by another foreign-language scholar who tries to rally the masses directly. Glenn S. Levine, an associate professor of German at the University of California at Irvine, is president of the American Association of University Supervisors and Coordinators, which promotes foreign-language instruction. When he hears of a threatened program, he’ll post a call to arms on his organization’s e-mail list, which he estimates has a few hundred members.

“I actually completely sympathize with the plight of the university,” Mr. Levine says. “We’re saying that simply cutting language departments with the assumption that it will lead to savings … is shortsighted.” Language programs generate money through tuition, he says, and if an institution decides later that it wants the program back, it would be very expensive to start from scratch.

Mr. Levine and Mr. Peckham became aware of each other’s work through their attempts this spring to save languages at Fullerton. Mr. Levine received a message from Tennessee Bob in response to one of his e-mail posts. Mr. Peckham provided Mr. Levine with some statistics, which he forwarded to colleagues at Fullerton. Mr. Levine also persuaded dozens of people to write letters to Fullerton’s president.

Their effort was only partly successful. A major and two master’s programs were cut, although the university agreed to continue them as minors.

Losses and Victories

Inevitably, some fights are simply lost. Despite Mr. Peckham’s efforts to help Meredith College, a women’s college in North Carolina, the guillotine fell on its French program last October. He exchanged e-mails with faculty members there, asking for details of their situation and providing them with material, such as statistics about North Carolina’s exports to Francophone countries.

But because he became ill for a time last fall, he couldn’t do as much as he had hoped. “I felt very, very sad,” he says, his voice dropping.

He also recently failed to save the Latin program at Centenary College of Louisiana and the French program at Winona State University, in Minnesota. No date has been set for a decision at Albany State.

Last spring Mr. Peckham found himself fighting on the home front. The French and Spanish programs on his own campus, at Martin, were put on notice by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission because they didn’t have the minimum number of 10 majors that the state thought every program should produce each year. In testimony before a commission panel, Mr. Peckham suggested that the university would risk its top-tier ranking by U.S. News & World Report if it cut French and Spanish. He also argued that, in terms of the university’s educational goals, it would be hypocritical to eliminate those programs.

And he had backup: more than a dozen supportive letters from schoolteachers and academics around the country. “I’ve done things for people, and they returned the favor,” he says.

The commission decided to keep the programs, and the experience reaffirmed Tennessee Bob’s commitment to helping others win their fights. “It really pushed me to want to be in the action,” he says. “I could taste part of the anguish that people were having.”

But tempering the anguish is the pleasure of familiarity with another tongue and another culture. Mr. Peckham sings in a trio, Au Coeur du Vent, at French-immersion weekends at state parks and at foreign-language conferences in Tennessee. And each spring, at Martin’s humanities-and-fine-arts barbecue, in the basketball stadium, he takes the stage with his autoharp. This year one of his three daughters, who is a junior minoring in French at Martin, accompanied him on vocals.

Marjolaine, j’ai ta vie dans la mienne,” they sang, he with his eyes closed, shaking his head slowly. “Marjolaine, I have your life in mine.”

Trying to focus people’s attention on another language is never easy. Most people chatted over the melody or concentrated on their pulled pork and lemonade. A few folks, though, sat and listened, drawn in by Tennessee Bob’s French song. Perhaps, when the next foreign-language department is threatened, they might be inspired to write a letter of protest.


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