THE ASSIGNMENT WAS SIMPLE–a reflection about our seniors’ changing relationship with the Spanish major–which made for one of my best weeks as a teacher. Not necessarily because of my own classroom performance, but because of what the students’ writing revealed about their development. I spent a couple of days checking my computer every ten minutes, expecting to receive their texts.
I assigned the reflection in a class we have been developing for the last couple of years–our program’s Integrative Experience. As mandated by the University’s General Education Council, it should provide “a structured context for students to reflect on their own learning and explore the connections between the broad exposure provided by General Education and the more focused exposure of their major.” At first this seemed like one more unfunded mandate from the administration–yet one more requirement to teach and assess–but developing and teaching the course has become one of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher.
Assuming that one of the best ways for students to integrate their studies in Spanish was to put them in real-life situations, the Spanish faculty determined that all our majors should either study abroad, or do an internship or service-learning in a Spanish-speaking environment. To guide and give context to this experience they must take two classes – one to help them begin thinking about their major and choose the most appropriate “experience” for them, and a concluding class to give them an opportunity to reflect upon their education and experiences. The papers I was eagerly expecting came from the second class. The question was simple enough, “How has your perception of the Spanish major changed during your years at school?”
Having taught and advised in a Spanish department for close to two decades, I’ve learned that many students join the major for almost random reasons–they liked the language’s sound, got good grades in high school, had a good teacher, or thought that having this language skill could help in any profession. Many just expect to improve their Spanish, some want to learn about their cultural heritage, and many more think that this degree will allow them to “help”. With this limited information, we faculty and advisors must help them figure out possible paths as college students and future professionals. Their reflections showed the ways in which many of them have forged their own paths, often with professors’ guidance, and often opening up their own trajectories. And that engagement with the Spanish-speaking world, either abroad or within the United States, has been a crucial step.
As their graduation date approaches, I was fascinated to read about my students’ growth during their years at the University. Many began their papers with a similar statement: “When I first came to UMass, I had no idea what I wanted to major in…”, “I did not come into UMass with the intention of majoring in Spanish, but did plan on studying it, just as a minor…” Only one of my students had applied to college as a Spanish major, having made the decision as a high school junior when, at an Afro-Cuban All Stars concert, she translated for a friend and “realized at that moment that this was something I could do as a job.” The others started in programs as varied as music, social work, political science, or chemistry. Having studied Spanish previously, they continued taking the language in college, and experiences, classes or other circumstances moved them towards the major, and to a clearer understanding of what this implies.
A class here, an experience there, making connections between them has marked my students’ paths through the University. For some just learning about the complexities of Latin America and the broader Spanish-speaking world have been transformative discoveries. They have realized through classes on culture, literature and political science, and by traveling and working, that the world they understood as a coherent “Latino” universe is contested and changing, as is the society they inhabit and have taken for granted. As one student put it, reflecting upon her education class called “Social Issues and Intergroup Relations”: “I learned so much about not just foreign identity but my own identity.” Referring to another class, she made what’ struck me as one of the most relevant comments: “I walked away from that course with new thoughts and opinions, but most importantly, more questions. Sometimes it is the courses that don’t fill your head with answers, but rather with questions, that teach you the most.”
More than the academic development – that was very clear in their texts – I was moved by the many ways in which they have grown as people and engaged citizens who question common sense. Students who have spent time tutoring, working in a hospice, or translating have discovered that linguistic and cultural competency is both very personal and very public. “Spanish is far more than just a language to me,” wrote one, who recognized her personal investment in understanding something much more complex than grammatical rules and vocabulary. Another one remembered the human connection that was kindled just by speaking with a hospice patient in the native language of his youth. Yet another one remembered a moment when, being among the only bilingual students in a group, she suddenly became an ad-hoc interpreter and realized the privilege and responsibility that it implied: “I was nervous, realizing how important this was and not wanting to screw it up, but I knew I had to do it because I could. I was utterly humbled by this experience. It was powerful and gave my major a much deeper meaning for me. It made me realize how I could use my privilege as a tool for something greater than myself.” A student reflected upon her realization of becoming “an interlocutor or an intermediary”, which she now understands as having far greater nuance and complexity than the mere desire to “help” many have when they arrive to the major.
Their texts show that classes led them here, but also their actual lived experiences, both abroad and with Spanish-speaking communities in the United States. Translating and volunteering helped, but also just eating, chatting and interacting with people: learning to appreciate the mate ritual in Uruguay; sharing a “host mother’s” kitchen in Sevilla; attending soccer games in Montevideo or Bilbao; interacting with young students in Holyoke schools; surfing in Costa Rica or hitchhiking across the Andes. These experiences have given them a much greater understanding not only of their object of study, but also of themselves and their place in society.
Their reflections made me reconsider the term “experience”, a word that was assigned to the class title with the University’s mandate, but which every day I continue conceiving in broader terms. What began as an effort to guide them in a career path is now becoming much more of an effort to reveal, as a group, a conscious self-awareness. An awareness of careers, yes; awareness of how their training and experiences are setting them up in a path to more fully engage the world. But it has become also a reflection upon ourselves, our position in the world, our growth, capacities and limitations.
The beauty of this class sequence for me has been manifold. I have definitely enjoyed following my students’ experiences and seeing them mature as Spanish majors and, more importantly, as people. But engaging them and following their growth has also made me consider my own relationship to teaching, particularly as I happen to be seeing in them the future of my own daughter who will begin college in about six months.
Content, the main point in most of my curriculum is not necessarily the center any more. The emphasis here is actual reflection about the content of students’ classes and experiences, and their relationship to the self. My students’ reflections have shown me what I take for granted theoretically, that self-awareness emerges as we become conscious of our relationship to our surrounding world.
For the last couple of decades, and in my early planning and teaching of the class sequence, I have urged my students to make broader connections between their classes and career plans. In many of my meetings with them I learn that most of them don’t have a clear path ahead of them as they embark in their University journey. I have insisted that their choices should be focused on their plans for a profession. But now, as I reflect with them, I’m keenly aware that my own path was one of exploration and experience. Experiences in and outside of the classroom; in cafes and bars, work and organizations, parties and gatherings, travel and exploration. In group engagement. Their reflections help me again question the place of specific, disciplinary (and disciplined) knowledge. A knowledge that I still hope they have, but one that is just a component of a larger academic formation. Their reflections remind me of the virtues of a Liberal Arts education, not limited to a discrete number of courses, but also focused on human interactions, experiences and personal introspection.
And writing, that such personal yet public process, has allowed them to bear witness to their own reflection. With little guidance, they produced beautiful, self-aware texts. Like Tomás Rivera wrote in his masterpiece, …y no se lo tragó la tierra, “Relacionar esto con esto, eso con aquello, todo con todo. Eso era. Eso era todo. Y le dio más gusto.” Putting this together with that, in an effort to make meaning for themselves and for others.
LUIS A. MARENTES is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has also been a visiting professor at MIT and Tehran University’s Faculty of World Studies. He is a contributor to The Huffington Post’s Latino Voices and Latino Rebels. You can read his personal blog at UMASS here and find many of his Twitter musings at @marentesluis.