Western Michigan University
Pathways to empower Black and African American students in college-level Spanish classes
Background and overview
When I arrived at my large state university in Michigan five years ago, I was pleased to see a sizeable number of Black and African American students on campus and in the introductory Spanish classes I was hired to direct. Analysis of our program’s strengths and weaknesses, however, revealed that Black and African American students receive lower grades and are less likely to continue studying Spanish at higher levels than other students. As the language program director and an academic dedicated to fostering success for all students, I am determined to investigate and address this reality and to implement necessary changes.
In this application I describe my path to deal with issues of inequity encountered by Black and African American students at my institution. The project consists of three phases: describing the problem at hand, understanding its origin (the current phase of the project), and, finally, taking concrete measures to solve the problem.
Describing the problem
In Spring 2020, I sought permission to compile a database for our Spanish program using students’ official demographic and academic information provided by my institution’s office of institutional research. I ran several descriptive statistics on this dataset to determine the magnitude of the problem.
During academic year 2019-2020, enrollment in the four introductory Spanish courses I direct (Basic Spanish I and II, and Intermediate Spanish I and II) plus the two 3000-level “bridge” courses (Spanish Conversation and Spanish Composition) totaled 1,261 students, of which 209—or 16.6%—self-reported as Black or African American. I am pleased this percentage is above the 12% reported for our institution and the 14.1% for the state of Michigan. Over the last six years, the rate of Black and African American students has remained stable and represents the biggest minority group in our program.
A breakdown of enrollment by course, however, reveals that the proportion of Black or African American students in our courses progressively declines in higher-level courses. Graph 3 shows that over the last six years roughly 20% of students enrolled in SPAN 1000 and 1010 were Black and African American, well above university rates. However, percentages for the 2000-level courses declined to the 11-18% range. Proportions for this student group continued to decline in 3000-level courses to figures often below university means and to an alarming six-year low of 6% in the last academic year.
The disadvantage that Black or African American students experience in our program becomes more pronounced when considering academic performance, as evidenced by the final grade value obtained in the course (on a 0-4 scale). The last 6 years show that Black or African American students have consistently received lower grades than their peers in our Spanish program, as depicted by boxplots in Graph 4. An extreme area of concern is academic year 2016/17, when the median (horizontal line inside box) final grade for Black or African American students was an entire grade point lower than the median for all other groups, while the mean grade (blue dot) also trailed substantially behind.
Inequity in academic performance between Black or African American and other groups becomes increasingly worrisome when data are broken down by course, as shown in Graph 5. At every level, both mean and median grade values are below other groups, with the starkest contrast in the 3000-level courses, where the median final grade value for Black or African American students is 1.5 points below that of White students.
In summary, Black or African American students at my institution begin Spanish education at high rates but are less likely to advance to higher-level courses and more likely to obtain lower final grades than other groups. Also, the grade gap becomes more pronounced at higher-level courses.
Understanding the problem
Issues of advancement and academic performance among Black or African American students are not unique to my institution. Several studies have shown Black students begin second language (L2) education at rates that reflect the general population, at both K-12 and post-secondary levels. However, their participation later declines or vanishes altogether in upper-level courses and they are less likely to major or minor in languages than peers (Charle Poza, 2013; Gatlin, 2013; Moore, 2005). Not surprisingly, low academic performance has been linked to demotivated African American students in language classes (e.g., Moore & English, 1998).
What accounts for lower participation and performance in L2 education among Black and African American students? Previous research shows that the reasons are complex and multifaceted but overwhelmingly tied to systemic and long-standing patterns of exclusion, self-perceived inadequacies to learn languages, lack of culturally-relevant materials in the L2 curriculum, and restricted access by educational gatekeepers who discourage Black students from pursuing language study. For example, Lucas (1995) and Charle Poza (2015) reported that Black college students tended to see little value in studying French or Spanish, viewed themselves as less skilled at language learning than their peers, and experienced high levels of anxiety over the low grades they expected to receive, or actually received, in their language classes. Black students enrolled in Spanish classes at a historically black institution expressed high dissatisfaction with the scant emphasis their classes placed on the Black experience in Spanish-speaking cultures (Davis & Markham, 1991), while 128 Black students at a predominantly white university found L2 classes and materials boring or irrelevant to their African American identity (Moore, 2005).
I hypothesize that these patterns of exclusion explain poor retention rates and lower academic performance among Black and African American students in my institution. To better understand the problem, I am currently conducting a needs analysis informed by methodologies and findings from previous literature and composed of the following:
Methods a-c above have been employed in research projects conducted by others. Techniques in (d), however, represent a departure from studies that limit themselves to indirect descriptions of the issues that Black students face in language programs. As Anya (2020) states, “rare are the studies where the actual language-learning interactions and activities of black students and their instructors are directly observed” (p. 101).
Addressing the problem
The last phase of the project will seek to remedy the disadvantages Black and African American students experience in our introductory Spanish program. As previous research has shown, Black students can thrive in L2 learning when the playing field is leveled (Anya, 2017; Flores & Rosa, 2019; Moore & English, 1998). Based on this premise, this last phase will center around two components:
Abreu, L. (2016). Awareness of diversity in the Spanish-speaking world among L2 Spanish speakers. Foreign Language Annals, 49(1), 180–190.
Anya, U. (2017). Racialized identities in second language learning: Speaking blackness in Brazil. Routledge.
Anya, U. (2020). African Americans in world language study: The forged path and future directions. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 97–112.
Anya, U., Baralt, M., Gómez, D., Hecheverría, H., Hobbs, W., Robinson, A. (2019). Improving Spanish-language teacher retention and success among Black Spanish-language learners: An HIS-HBCU collaboration. CLASP. Retrieved from http://claspprograms.org/pages/detail/43/Publications
Charle Poza, M. (2013). The beliefs of African American students about foreign language learning. NECTFL Review, 72, 61–77.
Charle Poza, M. (2015). A comparative study of beliefs among elementary- and intermediate-level students at a historically black university. NECTFL Review, 76, 37–49.
Davis, J. D., & Markham, P. L. (1991). Student attitudes toward foreign language study at historically and predominantly Black institutions. Foreign Language Annals, 24(3), 227–237.
Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2019). Bringing race into second language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 103, 145–151.
Gatlin, N. (2013). Don't forget about us: African-American college students’ newfound perspectives on foreign language motivation, foreign language anxiety, and beliefs about foreign language learning [Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin].
Kennedy, J. (1987). Strategies for including Afro-Latin American culture in the intermediate Spanish class. Hispania, 70, 679–683.
Lucas, R. (1995). The role of beliefs and anxiety in the attrition of African American students in foreign language study [Doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University].
Moore, Z. (2005). African American students’ opinions about foreign language study: An exploratory study of low enrollments at the college level. Foreign Language Annals, 38(2), 191–200.
Moore, Z., & English, M. (1998). Successful teaching strategies: Findings from a case study of middle school African Americans learning Arabic. Foreign Language Annals, 31(3), 347–357.
AAUSC is pleased to announce the new Innovation in Language Program Direction Award to recognize outstanding examples of curricular and pedagogical innovation in the field of foreign/second language education within institutions of higher education.
This year, AAUSC will give four awards worth $500 apiece: 2 awards for racial/social justice innovation and 2 awards for innovation in online/remote teaching. In addition to receiving monetary awards, the winners will be recognized during AAUSC’s annual business meeting.
All AAUSC members (tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track faculty, adjunct faculty and graduate students) currently employed in aninstitution of higher education are eligible to apply. Applications will be evaluated based on the following criteria:
Relevance: How relevant is the project to language program direction and L2 education?
Innovation: Does the project leverage innovative theories, technologies and/or practices?
Replicability: Can the project be replicated by other language programs in the US?
Impact: How many students are potentially impacted? How profound is the impact?
Applicants must submit a Word file document (approximately 1000-1500 word length) that contains their name, affiliation, and description of their programmatic innovation by October 31st to email@example.com.
Applications will be evaluated in a blind, peer-review process. Winners will be contacted by November 14th, and awards will be presented during AAUSC’s annual Business meeting November 20th held via Zoom.
In August 2020, AAUSC Board of Directors approved the following statement:
AAUSC rigorously opposes all forms of racism and ethnic violence, particularly the forms that affect black, brown, and indigenous communities as well as other marginalized peoples in the US and around the world.
As educators, researchers, administrators, and artists whose life work centers on a deep awareness of and appreciation for linguistic and cultural difference, we stand in staunch solidarity with social movements that actively address systemic racism and other forms of injustice that impede fair and fruitful living for all.
We support the peaceful protests taking place across the United States; we encourage full participation in our democracy and society; and we commit to anti-racism and social justice through our scholarship, our teaching and our service to our communities.
The schedule at-a-glance and the registration link for the Symposium on Language Pedagogy in Higher Education (SOLPHE) 2020 are now available:
Please be sure to register by September 24. Registration is limited to 300 participants.
Please be sure to register by September 24. Registration is limited to 300 participants.
Due to COVID-19, the Symposium on Language Pedagogy in Higher Education will take place online (via Zoom) and will be free for everyone.
It will still take place on October 2 & 3, 2020, and our invited speakers have all kindly agreed to present virtually:
* Dr. Bill VanPatten will give a plenary address on "Barriers to Innovation in Language Program Direction"
* Dr. Claudia Fernández will facilitate a workshop on "Re-designing the Basic Language Curriculum for the 21st Century"
* Dr. Cori Crane will do a workshop on "Working Towards Perspective Transformation: Fostering Critical Reflection in the Language Classroom"
The symposium will also feature a special workshop (also online!) for language program directors and coordinators on "Conflict Resolution: A Guide to Crucial Conversations."
For more information about the symposium, please visit: solphe2020.wixsite.com/uiuc
Registration opens in August. For now, I am reaching out to encourage you to submit a proposal. We have extended the deadline to submit an abstract until June 15. We welcome submissions from language program directors, graduate students, and faculty of all ranks and languages, for 20-minute presentations. Proposals may be either practice-oriented or research-oriented, as long as they have practical implications that may be relevant to different language programs in post-secondary settings. For the submission requirements or to submit an abstract, please go to:
Call for submissions: Second Language Research & Practice, Volume 2
Second Language Research & Practice is now accepting submissions! To be considered for publication in Volume 2 (Fall 2021), research papers and reports must be received by January 15, 2021. Learn more at http://www.slrpjournal.org.
AAUSC will hold a session at the 2020 MLA Conference with the following presentations:
1. Past, Present, and Future Challenges in Educating the Future Foreign Language Professoriat, Heather Willis Allen (U of Wisconsin, Madison) [#11432]
2. Redefining Speakership: The Impact of Postmodern Sociolinguistics on Second-Language Teaching and Learning, Carl Blyth (U of Texas, Austin) [#11434]
3. Examining L2 Learning and Teaching Issues in Hybrid, Online, and Open Environments, Joshua Thoms (Utah State U) [#11435]
Kate Paesani (U of Minnesota, Twin Cities)
Johanna Watzinger-Tharp (U of Utah)
For more information on the conference, visit http://www.mla.org.
We did it! Our fundraiser for start-up costs for the new AAUSC online journal, Second Language Research and Practice, brought in the needed resources in record time! Thanks to all who contributed. Stay tuned for news of the new publication!
In fall 2020, AAUSC will celebrate 30 years of publishing high-quality scholarship relevant to your daily work as language program directors and coordinators. To honor this milestone, we will publish the 30th anniversary issue in AAUSC’s new journal, Second Language Research and Practice. This online journal will expand the reach of our work and transition AAUSC into the cutting-edge world of open-access publishing.
Be part of this celebration by supporting the start-up costs associated with the new journal. The journal co-editors have already committed $200 of the $1500 needed. If another 40 members pledge just $30, we will reach our goal in no time!
Your tax-deductible gift to AAUSC will ensure that our scholarship reaches a broader readership, which will increase our publication’s impact on the field. We hope to reach our goal of $1500 by July 1, 2019, so please make your gift before you leave town for the summer!
Gifts of any size are welcome and can be made directly through the AAUSC website.
Celebrate 30 years of high-quality research on topics relevant to your daily work!
Your gift to support AAUSC’s new online, open-access journal will increase the impact and visibility of our scholarship.
Help us reach our goal of $1500 by July 1, 2019. Donate today!
FAST FACTS ABOUT AAUSC PUBLICATIONS:
© 2019 AAUSC
AAUSC is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.