Faculty votes on amendments to general education requirements

By Emily Brindley / Assistant News Editor

Randall Halle wants every Pitt student to learn a foreign language well enough to comfortably navigate daily life in another country.

Halle, the Klaus W. Jonas professor of German film and cultural studies, said this level of proficiency is the goal of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ foreign language requirement. Among the school’s general education requirements, students must take two semesters of a foreign language at Pitt, unless they earn exemption through a native language other than English, by passing a placement exam or by earning at least a “B” grade in three years of a high school foreign language class.

When students use their high school classes to earn exemption from Pitt’s requirement, Halle said they may or may not be reaping the intended benefits of the University’s language department.

“I have seen high school programs where that [goal] has been impossible, and I’ve seen high school [programs that] have blown me away,” Halle said. “In the language requirement, it doesn’t tell us anything about the student’s abilities.”

To circumvent this ambiguity, Halle submitted an amendment the Dietrich general education requirements, which about 100 members of the Dietrich faculty considered at a meeting Thursday afternoon. The amendment, which appeared alongside six others — mainly focusing on wording and clarity — would alter the exemption guidelines to the foreign language requirement while not altering the requirement itself.

Under the amendment, incoming students, starting with the class of 2021, would not be able to use simple “seat time” from their high school language courses to exempt themselves from college courses. Instead, they would be required to follow one of the other existing exemption paths, such as testing out of the requirement or scoring a four or five on the AP exam.

Halle’s amendment did not pass, as faculty instead voted to refer the amendment to the Undergraduate Council — a representative group of faculty members alongside five undergraduate students who evaluate Pitt’s policy revisions and grading regulations — for further research and discussion.

The faculty referred the amendment to the Undergraduate Council in a vote of 80 to 32, but the vote will not be official until the faculty who requested absentee ballots submit their responses as well.

Joshua Hanley, a sophomore history and political science major and the executive vice chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, supported the amendment going to the Undergraduate Council, because he said there was not enough data to determine how the amendment would affect students.

“We just felt that we needed more data, more info, in order to make a well-informed decision,” Hanley said. “We felt the best way to remedy that was to send [the amendment] back to the Undergraduate Council.”

Hanley said his primary concern with the amendment is that it would require students to take more credits during their time at Pitt — even if they took a foreign language in high school — and restrict students’ freedom to add a second major or take courses simply for enjoyment.

“It’s going to limit the amount of opportunities that are available to [students] here at Pitt,” Hanley said.

Halle, however, said the only reason students would have to take more credits is if their high school did not actually teach them foreign language skills. For students who did learn basic communication in a foreign language, they will still be able to test out of Pitt’s language requirement.

This is already the process used to exempt students from mathematics and composition general education requirements, which avoids the ambiguity and variability of high school courses across the nation.

“Instead of seeing ourselves in competition — humanities and sciences — [we should be] working synergistically together,” Halle said. “I don’t want to be in competition about this. This doesn’t close off — it actually opens up opportunities.”

Halle cited examples of science students being able to work in labs in Germany or use Fulbright Fellowships to study geology abroad after combining their scientific and foreign language interests.

Another way to address Hanley’s main concern of overloading students with general education requirements would be to roll back the requirements in other areas, such as mathematics or physical sciences. Hanley said the Undergraduate Council discussed a policy with this goal last year, when he was not a member, but that such large-scale policy changes are difficult to implement.

“Obviously, that’s a difficult task to accomplish,” Hanley said. “It’s hard to get things accomplished at the University level, [where] there’s just so many moving pieces.”

Hanley said the Undergraduate Council, tasked with reviewing the amendment, will hear input from faculty from a range of departments and research to determine the potential impact of the amendment. At the end of this process, Hanley said there’s a possibility the Council will submit a recommendation on the amendment, although he said a recommendation was not mandated and is not required.

After his amendment was sent to the Undergraduate Council Thursday, Halle said his goal now is to make sure the amendment doesn’t get forgotten, but is instead instituted as a way to further Pitt’s excellence and to encourage students to reach high standards.  

The current foreign language requirements, Halle said, are over 20 years old and reflect an outdated version of the University’s standards — which have changed even since he came to Pitt 10 years ago.

“I have experienced the University rising, rising, rising,” Halle said. “It’s up to us to make sure what we offer our students and expect of our students is on par with who we’ve become and not who we were.”

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