Romance studies department responds to criticism of new French, Spanish minors

Nina Gerassi-Navarro, professor and interim chair of the Department of Romance Studies, poses for a portrait. Courtesy Nina Gerassi-Navarro

Tufts’ Department of Romance Studies recently announced the creation of new French and Spanish minors. This decision, which had been called for by the student body for many years, has led to significant praise and celebration by students who have the opportunity to pursue these minors, while also drawing criticism on the minors’ restrictive eligibility requirement.

Interim Department Chair and Director of Latin American Studies Nina Gerassi-Navarro said that these minors were not created in the past as most students who entered Tufts would be able to complete a major in a language.

“Students came with a healthy amount of language preparation, so that they could come in to work [on] developing the major, and I don’t think the Department really felt the need for a minor,” Gerassi-Navarro said.

The department decided to consider implementing French and Spanish minors following a petition from students in 2016, according to Gerassi-Navarro. Student demand was high among students who were taking lower-level classes in either languages.

“I think [especially] the lecturers, who deal more with the language teaching of the program, felt that there was more interest and it would warrant us to reconsider, and so we started looking at the population and did a questionnaire,” she said. 

The department ultimately approved French and Spanish minors, as it saw that students without much prior language experience find it difficult to get a major in French or Spanish.

“The minors allowed us to say, well, those students [with little or no language experience] will make an effort to learn French or Spanish, but aren’t going to be able to get a major. But they may take one literature class that is an effort, so let’s recognize that effort, so that’s how we structured it,” Gerassi-Navarro said. “Those students who want to have some linguistic competency, and would like recognition for that can minor … [but others can] go in depth, in the culture, in the literature, and have a much broader and much more in-depth knowledge of a particular region for a major.”

The department decided to restrict minor eligibility only to students who began in levels 1, 2 and 3 of the respective languages, since the minor was created for students who begin their French or Spanish careers at lower-level courses, Gerassi-Navarro said. She added that this policy is not meant to be seen as a way to earn recognition in French or Spanish for a smaller amount of work.

“We have to be able to differentiate between the assets that students had, and what they worked for,” she said. “You’re kind of measuring the effort [that someone puts in]. For someone who didn’t start with anything, [a minor] is a big step, and for someone who does [have background], well, build it, and that’s also a big step, but that becomes a major.”

For students in higher-level courses, like Megan Szostak, a first-year currently taking Composition & Conversation 1 (FR 21), the eligibility requirement only allows them to pursue a major in Spanish or French.

“I have too many other classes, yet I want to continue my studies in French, so a minor I think would be really nice. I would still take the same number of French classes that I would have otherwise taken, I would just get some actual recognition for it,” Szostak said.

Gerassi-Navarro said that pursuing a minor is not the only way to gain proficiency in the Romance languages and cultures.

“I get that students and our society want to have more things written on their diplomas but also, we have to have criteria, and so, we had to draw the line … Even if students are not pursuing a major or a minor at that, just being exposed to another culture, another way, another form of moving your tongue and pronouncing, it’s hard,” Gerassi-Navarro said. “And that’s part of the whole process of how we think about a liberal arts education.”

She added that the Department of Romance Studies wants to avoid students acquiring minors for a title.

“If you have a major, you should be proud of it, and you should have worked for it, and we want to help students uncover the complexity of what that major means,” Gerassi-Navarro said.

Brett Sachs, also a first-year currently taking FR 21, said that the eligibility requirement discouraged him from continuing his study in French, noting he would have if it had potential of resulting in some formal recognition.

“I would actually take additional classes if I could get a [French] minor, but I’m not going to pursue it as a major because I already have another path to go on,” Sachs said. “Ten classes is ridiculous to pursue [for any recognition], especially if I want to major in something else, but if it was just six classes for a minor I would probably do that.”

Studying abroad in a French or Spanish-speaking country can help students complete the requirements for a major, Gerassi-Navarro said.

“If you’re a science major, you can go abroad and do a science class, [for example] ‘Marine Biology of Chile.’ Well that should count [toward the Spanish major], because it’s not just a science, but it’s a science connected to Latin America, and reality,” she said. 

Gerassi-Navarro added that beginning a new language is another option.

“Start a new language, and just get a minor, and be exposed to something totally different,” she said.