My Problem With Language Skills & Culture

Raph al Guul

Let me be critical for a second or two. And how about instead of getting offended, you use the comment feature and provide me with your take on the situation? Because as always: there will be no apologies.

If everything plays out right, I will put my fourth and final semester of Language Skills & Culture behind me this summer. While I certainly enjoyed some of it, I do not believe that a course like that should consume such a large portion of my studies. I obviously understand that in a country where the native language is not English, there have to be some regulations to ensure that the language of students conforms to academic standards. And I certainly won’t deny that my own linguistic skills and cultural knowledge have profited immensely from Language Skills & Culture. However, it disturbs me that instead of actual linguistics or literature seminars, I am spending my time in a course that is essentially an advanced high-school language class.

Now, I understand that a great many students at the University of Zurich need that course. Language skills among Swiss students obviously vary on a broad spectrum. Some may be bilingual since childhood, some may have spent time abroad acquiring improved linguistic competence, while others may only rely on mediocre high school English grades alone and be motivated more by their interests than actual language skills. And while there is nothing necessarily wrong with that and I believe that every student who is enthusiastic about it should get a chance to study the subject of their choice, it is self-evident that this particular group of Zurich’s English students has to improve on their skills if they want to be eligible for a Bachelor’s degree.

What I do not agree with, however, is that the department awards students with credit points for courses that are primarily aimed at improving students’ academic register and writing skills. If a student wants to study English, then it can be expected that said student either already has a sufficiently appropriate command of the English language, or that – with the student’s own time and effort, possibly with the support of academic resources – the deficit is eliminated before or during those studies. This does not mean that the Language Skills & Culture courses should be entirely dismissed. Instead, I would prefer it to no longer be compulsory and to no longer reward students with credit points. I understand that the University of Zurich states that studying English “ensures improved proficiency in the English language, especially with regard to English as a scientific language, and facilitates an understanding of cultural and regional issues, particularly in Great Britain and the USA.” But I was led to believe that this would be a side-effect of my studies, not part of its focus.

Linguistic competence can and should also be developed in seminars, particularly those discussing literature, and it should become the instructors’ and professors’ responsibility to advise students with insufficient language skills to take part in Language Skills & Culture. Should those students choose not to do so and should that result in unacceptable papers, then those same instructors and professors should have the courage to fail those students. This seems like a harsh consequence, but let’s be honest: if we decide to study a language that we are not sufficiently competent in, then we made a capital mistake and there is no one else to blame but ourselves, especially if we are not committed enough to make the additional effort to take on Language Skills & Culture when we know we need it.

The way the system currently works, students that do not believe their lack of language skills to be grave enough to negatively influence their grades will still have to spend four entire semesters on Language Skills & Culture and they do not even have the option to substitute this module with a “real” English course. I believe that is unacceptable. And I am not being elitist here, either. As already mentioned, I have greatly profited from these courses and I am sure that my grades actually reflect that. What I am concerned about are my studies. Call me idealistic, but I still want to make the best of the few years that I spend at university. I want to take the courses that interest me. That is the sole reason why I am studying English. If I have to improve on my language skills, I like to think that I am committed enough to invest my own time in that, not the time that I am supposed to be studying the subject.

Now, I know that it has been like this for a while and that my feeble complaints will be unlikely to change the situation. And quite frankly, what do I care? In the summer, I will hand in my final assignment and be done with Language Skills & Culture, anyway. But I believe this feedback is important. I understand why the course exists, and I agree with those reasons, yet the execution disappoints me. And if I am the only one who has this problem, then let this be a minor stain on an otherwise perfect course record. But if other people voiced their complaints then hopefully there would be a slight chance that change could be effected. After all, it is about the students, not the university or department; we should be able to spend our studies the way we deserve: on topic.

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24 responses to “My Problem With Language Skills & Culture

  1. I think it’s absolutely important to voice your opinions and give feedback to the university. It would be excellent to hear others’ opinions on this. If this kind of reflection doesn’t occur, nothing changes – and sometimes things need to change.

    I can see your point about LSC not being compulsory for those who don’t feel they need it, since this time could usefully be taken up with other courses. At the same time, perhaps it is partly to do with keeping up demand for the course – if nobody had to do it, would it be likely that a lot of people (who DID need it) would still feel they ought to take these courses?

    I suppose it all comes down to how much responsibility can be given to students for their own studies. And, in my opinion, especially at Masters level, students should be capable of assessing their own strengths and weaknesses and making their decisions accordingly. After all, by Masters level, you’ve made the choice to continue academic study for yourself so you should have a say in what you spend your time doing – at least, this is the case in the UK. Is it the case here that more employers expect students to have a Masters degree?

    Having said that, I do think it makes sense to have a “bottom line” that everyone has to take certain courses that the university deems essential: it is their prerogative to make this decision. At the same time it’s important that they listen to their students and react accordingly if sufficient demand is there. And actually UZH is very good in terms of the breadth of material offered for optional courses. (I speak only with knowledge of the ES Masters degree, of course).

    • Responsibility is key. And I would imagine that a change in this system would result in some quite hard lessons for some of the newer students (and I’m not even sure how I feel about that).

      And I also agree that one other problem with making this course voluntary or even just a substitute for other seminars would be that it leads to inconsistencies in participation, which would cause even more organisational problems than the module already has.

      In the end, it comes down to what students really want from their studies, what is practically possible for the university and the department to offer, and possible what compromise lies in between.

  2. Just on a brief note here:
    I do not think that the situation here is as disturbing as Raph al Guul put it. Theology students also earn credits for their Greek and Hebrew modules (and if they did it in High School already, this gets accredited).
    Further, I think that putting people into different streams (A, B, C) and giving them the same amount of credits (in spite of a substantially different workload) already goes a fair bit into the direction advocated above.
    Further, I disagree that it is the primary duty of Faculty members to correct student’s English in class: this is detrimental to any kind of fruitful and engaging discussion and should therefore be “relegated” to classes intended for it, those being the modules offered in the context of the Language Skills and Culture curriculum.

    • The basic level of Language Skills & Culture surely does reflect my concerns in some way, thanks for pointing that out.

      I obviously agree that the discourse in seminars should not be interrupted by language corrections and it is not what I am proposing, either. There are various ways seminar instructors can – and often do – monitor students’ language skills in written discourse, which is where the real problem lies. This is where I believe an approach to such problems could be made.

  3. Courtney Binkert

    To start out, I absolutely understand Raph’s sentiments – although I cannot say mine coincide with his completely. If you say “I want to take the courses that interest me” during those few years you spend at uni, the broad spectrum that the UZH and the ES want to achieve in English students primary university education will most likely not be reached. I for my part cannot stand linguistics (using ‘cannot stand’ because I suppose ‘despise’ would be a tad bit harsh) and especially do not understand in what ways History of the English Language will ever be useful to the career my wishful thinking has chosen for me. Yet I diligently follow through on the studies I believe unnecessary – sometimes more and sometimes less – even though they compile a total of six semesters, not four.
    For me, Language Skills and Culture is the only course that truly discusses culture – albeit and understandably restricted to GB and the US – a topic i will sorely need in my line of work. I understand what Raph means with literature courses being able to assume the task of teaching culture, yet the broad spectrum discussed in each of the LSC classes, from modern internet lingo to politics in the past, as well as the much needed discussion and practice on how to write essays (let’s admit it, we ALL need those), cannot simply be integrated into a literature class which by its nature must discuss the literature of a topic. I do admit that classes such as Contemporary Canadian Literature can be discussed in context of culture as well, yet this context is greatly reduced in size by the topic (Canadian culture, elements of the book such as feminism or WW1) and the literary aspect of the discussion. But in what way should Shakespearean literature classes and those alike possibly integrate the topics discussed in LSC? Suggestions appreciated and keenly awaited.
    Finally on a more personal note, as an American, I have enjoyed the LSC classes for two reasons: 1) I learned more about the culture and history of my own country and more importantly 2) so did my class mates. I have too often met people who study English and read literary books containing elements of American culture and thus believing they are experts, while truly missing the actual meaning of those elements and misjudging the culture (ahh my favorite comment is “That’s because Americans are fat and lazy and have to culture”).
    Thus in conclusion, in comparison to Raph I feel the necessity of LSC classes is actually undermined by the extensive courses on Literature and Linguistics, especially beyond the mandatory modules, and would enjoy being offered more courses specifically discussing cultural aspects – not of mandatory nature, of course. I understand Raph’s unhappiness with having to take classes he does not feel necessary for his career, i truly do (I mean Old English? Really? 😉 ). But I am certain that they are mandatory for a reason and begrudgingly trust the University to have considered each possibility and every reason for making these modules mandatory – and I suggest everyone else do the same no matter how annoying the feeling can be.

  4. Courtney Binkert

    (wow sorry, I didnt realize how long my comment had gotten!)

    • verbosity is actually appreciated 😉

      I can certainly relate to the idea that some courses seem more attractive to certain students than others. Which is why I also like hearing about people’s positive reactions to something that I personally don’t quite like. I would be totally fine with finding out that I am the only one who feels this way about Language Skills & Culture, simply because it would mean that the module itself isn’t as “pointless” as it may seem to me.

      And obviously, having gone through the entirity of Language Skills & Culture, I can make things work even if I don’t quite enjoy it as much as other parts of my studies, anyway. We all have our preferences and we won’t delude ourselves into thinking that the university could possibly cater to all of those in a satisfying fashion.

  5. Vicarious Reality

    What floors me is that anyone would actually take enough offence at such a minuscule and insignificant (seriously, 30min work on average per week for a 4 point course compared to the 30+ hours I put in for 20 points in history and political science) course to rant about it.
    If it’s taking up that much time and effort for you, then perhaps you do need it.

    As for the general ‘level’ of ES courses, well, let’s be honest, we all know it’s one of the easiest BAs at the university (second probably only to populäre Kulturen). It’s not economics, it’s not political science and it sure as hell isn’t any of the natural sciences. An English BA at a German university was never going to be taxing.

    • Let me just clearify that this is not about effort at all. I actually have to put much more time and effort into literature seminars than I have to put into Language Skills & Culture. It isn’t about a comparison to other subjects, either. And if anything, I believe that if Language Skills & Culture was to be made a uncredited module, it would result in an increased workload for most students, as most of us do indeed need to improve on our language skills. However, this article is solely my take on what I believe could be improved about the English studies for them to conform to what I want them to be about. If I am the only one to have those views, and everyone else is of the opinion that it is an insignificant issue, then all the better: nothing needs to be changed. I enjoy my English studies very much – maybe that’s why I come up with complaints that others deem insignificant – and I can absolutely live with having to do Language Skills & Culture if everyone is okay with it anyway.

    • I strongly disagree that English “is one of the easiest BAs at the university”, I really ask myself how you came to this conclusion. Of course I agree that the natural sciences, especially at the ETH are much more difficult, but looking at the huuuuuuge amount of effort I had to put into my English studies compared to my German studies, it’s ridiculous! And I am sure this is not because of language reasons (yes, German is my mother tongue) but the amount of work compared to the credits you get for it, that is just not right at all. This is not only true for the reading list and many 2 credit point lectures, where often you had to read a few books etc., but also for the LSC courses, especially in the first year.
      Personally, I found LSC very hard, especially at the beginning and when looking back I wish I would have had to take one of the supplementary courses of streams B and C, because even though I was put into stream A I don’t feel my English has been good enough or improved since then, rather I would probably have benefited from those extra courses. Still, I liked the historical and political content of the LSC lectures (something else than just literature and linguistics…), but struggled with the writing. I also agree that nothing of this was focused on linguistic writing but just literature.
      A few fellow English students and I discussed that it would be good to have an optional “hardcore” grammar course as well, because we want to become teachers, but still don’t know every single little exception in English grammar, instead we know Old English and can interpret complicated literary works which will all not be of use for a teacher career. Of course I know that not every English student will be and wants to be a teacher, that’s why it should be optional.

      • Thanks for defending the BA Anglistik 😉 To be honest, I don’t even care. I am doing this because I like it and thus the work isn’t as arduous as it could be if I were studying something I didn’t like.

        I like your point about grammar, especially for prospective teachers. I agree with you on that.

  6. I am a bit of a fence sitter when it comes to LSC. On the one hand, I think it is partly necessary as many students (I even dare to claim it is the majority of us) do not know how to write an essay or a paper in academic style yet. Pretty sure that is something everybody can improve on. On the other hand, I feel like 90% of everything I have heard/seen/learnt/read in LSC so far had to do with politics – and I despise politics. Had I wanted to study politics, I would have chosen politics as my major, not linguistics and literature. If they offered a course which only focused on academic writing instead of LSC it would be much more useful; or they could try to actually incorporate some talk about culture in the course, else the name needs to be changed from LSC to LSP in order to reflect what it really is.

    • Students’ academic style can always be improved, even if both we and our teachers were to agree that they are sufficient. As I said: I don’t think I took those courses in vain and improved writing skills will continue to come in handy, anyway.

      I find it interesting that you propose a change in terms of content. I am not a fan of politics either, but it turns out there are people who apparently take this even further; I have to say that the aspects of Language Skills & Culture that I am most inclined to make myself appreciate are actually the content of discussions and the choices of topics.

  7. A topic of much debate, obviously.
    My problem is that LSC only teaches how to write essays in literature, neglecting academic writing in linguistics. We only briefly touched on this topic in our Introduction to Linguistics classes, but we spend one whole year on how to write an essay on a literary or cultural topic. However, it is obvious that linguistic and literary essays and papers are structured quite differently. I have to admit that students surely profit from the LSC courses and that this knowledge about writing has a positive effect on the outcome of linguistic papers, but it would be nice to get a broader overview. After all, you can still discuss cultural topics by focusing on linguistic aspects.

    • Intersting. So you are in fact quite content with the general institution of the module but would prefer more diverse content, particularly aimed to also support writing in the linguistic domain.
      I am actually quite surprised that many students seem to be bothered by the content, while I am generally unhappy with the execution. Thanks for your contributions.

  8. anninatroxler

    Truly, LS&C is useless. I can’t believe students wouldn’t investigate by themselves about American and British culture. We’re English students, right?
    And Ralph’s was right. Must we really take advanced level high school courses at university level? The story should be another: they shouldn’t admit students who aren’t proficient.
    Why not have all take a test such as an ESOL (IELTS, Cambridge) and admit only students who get let’s say 6.5 in writing? All universities in the UK require such “proof”. Then there wouldn’t be such need for high school courses at the uni.
    And since such tests don’t teach academic writing, the ES could then magically turn LS&C into an academic writing course. That would be something no one would criticise.
    The content should be all about literature because with linguistic one can’t really learn academic writing. It could be a survey of postmodern literature. Who never wished there was one? There are so many texts we don’t study in seminars that there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest I guess.
    Just my opinion, but Ralph is right. English students only reach a good level of English in second and third year. Why is that? Because courses such as LS&C don’t really centre the target even if students have to work a lot. The Sprachniveau should be reached at a much earlier stadium: before getting in. While academic English courses have a reason to be taught in seminars.
    Thanks for the opportunity. Good observation Ralph!

    • Thank you for your approving words. Always nice to have one or two people in the world agree with me 😉
      I do see the merrit of your suggestion to take the language skills requirement outside of university.
      I have also talked to Frances about this (yesterday, actually). She said that
      a) This course has to be mandatory because it correlates with courses of other universities.
      b) Courses like Language Skills & Culture are actual requirements in BA studies at Universities in English speaking countries. I think it’s good to know that at least Language Skills & Culture isn’t just an undesired side-effect of studying English in a non-English area (which is something my article heavily implies).
      On a minor sidenote: my name is derrived from “Raphael” and consequently isn’t spelled with an “l” =)

  9. anninatroxler

    On a personal note: my apologies for my spelling mistake, Raph!
    I mean, as on
    a) Language Skills & Culture being mandatory because other universities include a similar one in their mandatory courses, well… What universities? That’s the whole point: foreign universities. When we apply for postgraduate courses abroad, they won’t even consider our LS&C, but they will look for an academic writing course tailored around the subject “English”, which is not what LS&C offers. That we don’t know their culture, either British or American, is not a minus point in the minds of the institutions where we’re going to study. They appreciate internationality and what comes with it. If we got a BA in literature and linguistic we are supposed to have read so much that we know what we need about their literatures. Knowing the culture of a place only comes with living there.
    b) I never heard of such a mandatory course abroad. They only focus on the subject and on how to write about the subject, which is n-o-t the culture in itself but as depicted in books, the historical reasons for that depiction and what was or will be the trend in the future as people, and culture, change. We’re waisting time.
    Thanks again, Raph!

    • Right, I can obviously not give you more insight on what particular universities Frances was talking about and how exactly the course was structured which she had to take in the US when studying English.
      From what I have learned over the past couple of weeks, Language Skills & Culture is very much the product of almost political relations that exist in the academic world. Whether or not that is a good thing may be subject to debate, but as it stands, the system probably has too few flaws for anyone with a say in said academic world to bother changing it (and thus risking integrity).
      Also, from what I have heard, the module is currently in the process of being overhauled. I would imagine that this will not bring about much change, but I do certainly appreciate the effort. And once more, all I can say is that I am done with Language Skills and Culture for now (I heard it will come back to haunt us in the master studies 😉 ), anway.

  10. anninatroxler

    Agree. And I know about the Language Skills & Culture at master level. I can’t define that mandatory course but with “really?”
    What especially bothers me is that I’m planning to do my master studies abroad. They admit you for only two reasons: your academic writing (they want samples) and the logic and cohesion of the course programme you’ve been taught at BA level. A strong BA programme is what opens the doors of strong MA programmes. I guess our programme is good for the undecided like me (still weighing linguistic and literature and unable to make a decision) or for devoted linguists. Abroad they are valued as they don’t have much linguistic programmes. But as far as literature goes, I’d say our chances are meagre and depend on personal efforts and interest.
    I’m terrified by the chance that may prefer literature. What will happen of myself? The courses I’ll take don’t promise much cohesion. And syllabi of a few books don’t make a wonderful impression either.
    As I said, I probably will progress in linguistic, but not because I like it more than literature. I just don’t feel like I could really compete in literature. Sorry to say this, but being “fed” with a baby bottle and processed food full of cultures and old English “linguistic” studies, we really don’t have much choice, have we?

    • See, I’m not even all that passionate about the issue. I easily get by even though it is a minor nuisance to me. Seems like you are taking this way more seriously 😉
      And of course, as a literature-oriented student, I hate to see you come to a conclusion like that. I don’t know about master studies abroad, so I wouldn’t be able to make an informed statement. I obviously hope that you will find a way of incorporating literature in your future in some way or another =)

  11. Having read all the comments that people have made (and it’s great to generate such a discussion) I have to say that, in my opinion, the wider contexts that LSC gives literature students are invaluable. The political and cultural side of study should not be detached from literature – literature is a product of society and as such needs to be contextualised within it. Texts should be explored and read in a variety of ways, which I think is one of the main purposes of the LSC courses. Because I haven’t attended the BA seminars, I’m not actually sure exactly what the content is – but I think that further writing practice is never something to be snubbed. It should be embraced as an opportunity to improve your abilities. *Everyone* can improve their writing, and should relish the opportunity to do so. The kind of focused attention that the tutors of LSC give their students is incredibly useful (and time consuming for them too!)

    Yes, I agree that if you didn’t have to do it, there would be more time to take on more “pure” literature courses – but arguably your own self-development would suffer as a consequence. There will be time to develop/focus your literary interests during an MA or even a PhD – what the BA should be about (in my opinion) is giving students an excellent grounding in literary studies, teaching you to approach things from different angles, and ensuring that your academic writing abilities are improved as much as they can be. That the LSC course gives you opportunities to write about things that are not strictly academic should be cause for celebration… 😉

    In England we didn’t have something like LSC as such, but that was partly because a lot of it was undertaken in secondary school – particularly where writing essays was concerned. In the university I attended, the political/cultural/social aspects of studying English Literature were covered in an intensive “Literary Theory” course and close reading/analytical writing were addressed in a “Practical Criticism” course. Now, these were by no means my favourite classes – but I could clearly see that they informed and bolstered *everything* I did over the course of my BA and as such they were a necessary and valuable part of the degree.

    Perhaps you don’t necessarily see the benefits yet of what you are studying in the LSC courses, but I would hope that its influence on your continuing study would be positive – and that it would broaden your mind to approach texts in different ways.

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