Moving Beyond Words

Content-centered language learning teaches not just how to speak but how to think by Briee Della Rocca.

“Language is generally taught to students as if their primary identity was as consumers. They learn how to order food, how to buy something, how to get something,” faculty member Stephen Shapiro explains when asked why Bennington’s language curriculum looks so different to most people. “We do something else. We teach language by engaging with a student’s intellectual identity.”

Ikuko Yoshida uses her World War II course to illustrate the point. Students in the course are learning Japanese by reading history textbooks and Japanese accounts of World War II. “Yes, they’re learning Japanese, but really they’re using language to deal with bigger questions about truth in history and how to figure out what is true.”

It is Bennington’s approach that attracts both native and non-native speakers. “I have fluent Chinese speakers in some of my beginner classes,” Ginger Lin says. “They are there because of the subject. Some of them have never had a chance to learn about the Revolution or certain art that has been censored. It’s important to me that there’s something in my classes for anyone, whether or not they are fluent.”

It has helped a good percentage of Bennington students—some, like Kagan Marks ’16, who did not easily or joyfully learn a new language in high school or at other colleges—find a way to learn a whole new language and culture from first source materials, rather than standard issue textbooks.

“I took Spanish in high school and really didn’t get much from it. You know it’s the typical thing: textbook one, textbook two, textbook three....” Marks, a senior who recently returned from a year long study abroad in China, recounts. “When I got to Bennington I felt like I should continue in language in some way but I took Chinese instead of Spanish because I really liked the art and wanted to learn more about that. It was so interesting and I kept taking classes.”

“This is not easy work,” faculty member Barbara Alfano explains, “It takes a lot of time to create the innovative materials to teach this way.” Sarah Harris adds, “We work hard to meet the students’ intellectual needs and interests. Because of the intensity of this endeavor, you could not do it without the smallness of our community.” But make no mistake, they say, “It is the most rewarding way to teach and learn."

Following is a sample of language courses recently offered at Bennington. For a full view visit curriculum.bennington.edu.

Sarah Harris

What are cartoons? Why study them? What do they have to do with Spanish culture? Students in this course will consider the theoretical and artistic concerns that graphic narratives raise, especially in the interaction between text and image. We will examine the gradual evolution of the so-called historieta from its historical relegation to the realm of the juvenile and lowbrow, to the more recent boom in the academic and critical legitimacy of graphic novels. Our exploration will encompass comic strips, cartoons, and graphic novels from Spain, critical analyses, articles about the art form, as well as films and works of literature inspired by cartoons. Throughout, we will investigate what these media expose about, and how they simultaneously influence, the cultures from which they emerge. The focus of the course will be on student-generated discussion and critical thinking about these media, but continual practice in all four major areas of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) will be essential. Students will learn to defend their own ideas in spoken and written language. We will explore grammatical and linguistic questions as they arise naturally in the classroom. Conducted in Spanish. Intermediate–low level.

Noëlle Rouxel-Cubberly

Introduced in France after a complex trajectory from the New World, chocolate constituted, when it arrived in Paris, a medical and cultural catalyst for the French seventeenth-century aristocracy and haute-bourgeoisie. In this course, students will explore the economic, historical, social, political, artistic, and cultural legacy of chocolate production and consumption in French-speaking contexts to understand how the “food of the gods” has shaped societies throughout the world. Students will hone their linguistic skills using films, videos, literary excerpts, ads, and articles. Written assignments, oral presentations will help students develop their listening and speaking, reading and writing, as well as their critical thinking skills. Conducted in French. Intermediate–high level.

Barbara Alfano

The course focuses on a few accomplishments of the Italian genius that have had a strong impact on the development of world civilization. Italy as a nation did not exist either when the city of Cremona produced the first violins, or when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. There was no Italy as such when Dante was imagining his “Italia,” nor when da Vinci painted La gioconda. The nation had existed only for 20 years when Carlo Collodi set out to write Pinocchio in 1881 —not all Italian children could understand his language. Yet, for centuries the world had had no doubt about who and what was Italian. We will explore the lives and works of figures recognized and acclaimed worldwide, and the Italy(ies) they lived in; particular attention will be given to the Renaissance. The following is only a short list of the personalities with whom we will get acquainted: Dante and Boccaccio (literature), Monteverdi (music), Brunelleschi (architecture), Leonardo da Vinci (arts and sciences), Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena (religious activism), Saint Thomas Aquinae (philosophy), the Medici family (artistic patronage and the banking system in the Renaissance), Federico Fellini (film), Dario Fo (Nobel for literature), Maria Montessori (pedagogy), Rita Levi-Montalcini (Nobel for medicine).

Jonathan Pitcher

One of the more ubiquitous problems in formulating thought on Latin America, evident in anything from a page-long critique of a painting to governmental policy, is the premise that liberalism, for all its apparent flaws, has good intentions, and is coupled to the increasing obsolescence of religion, which only serves to divide theory and practice. The development of political, economic, scientific and cultural spheres as distinct to the Catholic Church in nineteenth-century Latin America was a cornerstone of the secularizing agenda of liberalism, which contributed and continues to contribute to the redefinition of relations between religious institutions, the state, and public life. This course will consider reformist positions towards the Church in Latin American society to draw attention to the processes of negotiation between liberals and the Church, as well as their effects on the public realm. It will incorporate U.S. perspectives to examine the emergence of Masonic and Protestant movements in Latin America in a comparative frame, and the extent to which liberal traditions in the Americas were and are affected by different theologies.

Ginger Lin

All the children of one’s parents’ siblings are all just called cousin in English. However, in Chinese there is a different word for each particular relationship. This stems from how in traditional Chinese Confucian culture each individual’s duties and obligations toward others are dictated by their relationships, with family relationships being the most important. But then in Chinese “everyone” is da jia, literally “big family.” By studying the etymology and morphology of the most basic Chinese characters, students will simultaneously gain insights into traditional Chinese cultural values. This course introduces students to spoken and written Mandarin Chinese, paying particular attention to practical vocabulary and sentence patterns. Students learn the Pinyin (romanized) system of writing and to read and write the most basic Chinese characters. After they master 200 characters, students are able to create skits and write short essays about their daily lives. By the end of the term they are able to recognize up to 500 Chinese characters.

Stephen Shapiro

In this course, we will study the representation of the city of Paris on film in order to examine modernity’s challenges to tradition. In particular, we will focus on the question of how urban communities and city dwellers react to increasing disconnectedness, anonymity, and solitude. Films will include Le Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain, La Haine, Chacun cherche son chat, Paris, Playtime, and Paris, je t’aime. Class discussions, activities, written assignments, and oral presentations will allow students to improve their linguistic proficiency and analytical skills. Conducted in French. Intermediate–low level.

Ikuko Yoshida

What is the truth in history? Is there one truth? In this course, students learn World War II from the Japanese point of view by reading and examining Japanese history textbooks, novels, essays, and films. Historical events such as the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima can be perceived differently depending on whether you study them in Japan or in America. In other words, history textbooks in Japan and in America don’t necessarily share the same perspective for the same event.

Throughout the course, students will read and discuss the Japanese perspective on World War II to improve their Japanese skills and knowledge as well as to reinforce previous knowledge of Japanese language and culture. As a part of the course, students are required to give a presentation on their understanding of how history can be taught differently at a local high school. Students are also required to revise the Japanese history textbooks based on their understanding of how history should be taught as the final project of the course.