Latin American and Latino Studies: Modern Languages Proposes One-of-a-kind Interdisciplinary Program

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
April 26, 2012

A globally focused interdisciplinary major

A new proposal from the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures could help MSU students understand the cultural context behind phrases like “Qué tal,” in addition to the literal meaning of the words. Modern Languages is proposing to expand its current Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS) minor into a full major.

With roughly 100 students who have declared or intend to declare a LALS minor, this new option responds to the needs of students and the MSU campus as a whole.

The department currently offers degrees in Hispanic Studies and a Spanish Teaching option, but this program differs from both programs in important ways.

The proposal to the Board of Regents said the program would “complement the knowledge of culture and language with courses from other disciplines that address the region from a different and focused perspective.”

Associate Professor of Spanish Patricia Catoira explained that the differences are similar to those between an English degree and an American Studies degree. Hispanic Studies focuses primarily on language acquisition and literature, while the LALS option would augment language and literature courses with a heavy focus on interdisciplinary sociology and history coursework.

Catoria explained that “most universities around the nation” offer this major. It would be the only one of its kind in Montana and could attract not only globally minded Montanans, but also motivated out-of-staters.

Service learning projects

An optional service learning component would provide students the opportunity to engage with Latinos in a meaningful way, while earning credit toward their degree.

Volunteer opportunities include chances to partner with the Bozeman-based community group Tías y Tíos, an organization similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters that pairs MSU students with local children from the Gallatin Valley’s often-invisible Latino immigrant community.

LALS students would build on MSU’s land grant mission by disseminating knowledge about Latinos in Montana and identifying areas of special need, which could include Spanish-English translation in medical, legal and many other fields.

Tutoring immigrant adults in English as a Second Language classes could also be an opportunity for students to give back.

Another option, which I have written about before, is collaboration with Montana Tech’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Tech’s EWB chapter is working in the western part of El Salvador to replace a too-small culvert, fill a ravine and reroute an eroded road. The ability to speak Spanish is important, but so too is the ability to understand Salvadoran culture and institutions and operate within them.

Student support

Frances Moore, a Spanish and Education major, said that “any study of another culture broadens your horizons.” Moore is an organizer for Tías y Tíos and explained that the LALS proposal has “incredible potential for collaboration with Tías y Tíos” through “service learning projects.”

Potential benefits extend even to the business world. Isaac Hunter, a senior in Business Marketing with a minor in Hispanic Studies, discussed the importance of studying the culture that shapes a language. Hunter is interested in international business and explained that the opportunity of complementing business studies with a LALS degree would “set you above the competition when it comes to the job search.”

Paola Torres, a senior in Hispanic Studies from Lima, Peru, explained the importance of people who can “speak and understand” two languages, citing the importance of cultural understanding and “social context” — both of which this major would augment.

The LALS proposal would further advance the goals of MSU’s Strategic Plan and MSU President Waded Cruzado’s commitment during her 2010 inaugural address to “a significant expansion of interdisciplinary programs at MSU,” termed “MSU Moving Mountains.”

This program could also function as an excellent second major, designed to complement a student’s studies in engineering, architecture, film or any number of other disciplines.

Faculty support

Ten or 12 students showed up at a Faculty Senate meeting last Wednesday, April 18, to support the proposal. The senate’s two biggest concerns were that the program was not sufficiently different enough from the current Hispanic Studies option and that new faculty would need to be hired.

Catoira, working with Modern Languages Department Head Bridget Kevane, submitted a proposal, obtained by the Exponent, that clearly differentiates the LALS major from the Hispanic Studies option and ensured the senate that no new professors would be needed.

John Neumeier, Vice Chair of Faculty Senate, expressed concern about one department “capitalizing on” the courses offered by another department.

After Neumeier’s legitimate concerns were discussed, both the History & Philosophy and Sociology & Anthropology Departments voiced support for the LALS proposal. The History & Philosophy Department’s number one hiring priority is to hire a new Latin Americanist, a post that has been vacant for a few years, said Department Head David Cherry.

Scott Meyers, head of the Sociology & Anthropology Department, sent an email supporting the new major.

After discussion, the proposal was put to a vote at Faculty Senate. It passed unanimously, with no abstentions.

Robin Gerlach, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering concluded by saying, “You’re taking a risk, but we all take risks when we start something new.”

Kevane explained that “by majoring in this program … our students will have more opportunities, both here and in Latin America.” Kevane cited the 2010 Census, which indicated that the Latino population in Montana grew by 58 percent since 2000. “Understanding the inextricable political and economic ties that bind the United States to Latin America would give students an advantage,” she said.

This proposal has all the merits of a well-thought-out addition to MSU’s curriculum that would not only give students a valuable interdisciplinary education, but provide an opportunity to engage an underrepresented community in the Gallatin Valley in a meaningful way. And that’s a program worth supporting.


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