VOLUME 33, NUMBER 23 THURSDAY, April 4, 2002

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Feal believes teaching is "a privilege"
UB faculty member recognized by students, national colleagues from MLA

Reporter Assistant Editor

Rosemary Feal is the quintessential erudite scholar, who still calls teaching an "honor and a privilege." And after talking with her, it's unlikely anyone would question the importance of studying modern languages and obtaining a liberal arts education.

Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Feal has earned the admiration of her students at UB and the respect of her peers on a national level. She recently was selected to receive the Student Association's Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award.

Moreover, she will take a leave of absence from UB this summer to assume the position of executive director of the Modern Language Association, one of the most eminent scholarly societies in the world.

Feal will succeed long-time MLA executive director Phyllis Franklin, who will retire after heading the organization for 27 years. While replacing Franklin may seem daunting, Feal believes that pressure only generates opportunity. "My first job is to appreciate and learn how the organization runs and to find my role there—the senior staff is outstanding" she says.

Feal's active involvement with the MLA began in 1988 when she was appointed to the association's delegate assembly. She later was elected to several other positions, most recently to chair the association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. She was selected executive director after a nationwide search.

The MLA's membership is comprised of professors and graduate students in the fields of modern languages and literatures, and is unique in its comprehensive approach to providing scholars with extensive resources to address and support nearly every aspect and stage of their careers.

The MLA's bread and butter, says Feal, is the scholarly preservation of texts; publication of the bibliography, which is the most essential research tool in the field of modern languages, and production of the MLA handbook—considered to be the key guide for scholars and professional writers, as well as for writers of term and research papers.

Equally important, she adds, are the organization's numerous book publications, publication of a wide variety of pedagogic materials, surveys of the state of the profession, efforts to find ways to preserve cultural and literary material, the translation of texts, organizing sessions at the annual convention and running a job information service that connects employers and job seekers.

Because the MLA is the largest organization of scholars in the humanities—with about 33,000 members in 100 nations—it is a natural place, Feal says, for issues of scholarship to be discussed and for progress to be made on a variety of professional matters. One of her goals is to see more of the knowledge and experiences of MLA members brought into the public arena.

"I'm very interested in the role of MLA members as public humanists, public intellectuals, and as scholars and teachers who find ways to bring their specialized knowledge to groups that don't necessarily have the same specialized knowledge," says Feal. While scholars often are good at communicating with one another, she says, they haven't always been as effective at communicating in more general terms with the public at large, which may be due, in part, to the increased specialization within disciplines.

Feal also echoes an ongoing concern in academia about the trend towards employing adjunct professors and having fewer available tenure-track positions on many college campuses.

"A major concern (of MLA members) is the state of the job structure or employment system, wherein new Ph.Ds seek primarily tenure-track positions so they may carry on a research and teaching career in the way that many of them have trained for and aspire to," she says.

"More Ph.Ds are trained and get their degree than there are tenure-track jobs available," she notes. "It's most acute in English and in some of the foreign languages, such as German, which have diminished enrollments." The MLA already has taken a proactive approach to the problem by developing guidelines for the evaluation of doctoral programs, as well as getting those in charge of graduate programs to take the initiative to tackle the issue, she says.

Feal believes strongly in the importance of a liberal arts education and the significance of knowing a second language.

"Some of the reasons for studying foreign languages include national security, the preparedness of the nation to interact globally, but the other aspect would be the study of the language," she says. "It's just a basic part of a liberal arts education—a liberally educated person should know about the history and the uses of his or her own language, and the history and uses of at least one other language, the history of the nation one lives in, the history of the nations with which one's nation interact. A liberally educated person should know those things—they should have exposure to the great cultural, historical traditions."

But that argument, she notes, doesn't hold the same kind of weight that it did in previous generations. In the United States, she says, it is due in part to a positive change: the availability of higher education to a larger sector of society. "It's no longer considered the finishing school for the elite," Feal says. "It's now considered the right of every person in the U.S. to aspire to as much higher education as they're capable of and desire.

"So what happens is that some of the cornerstones of the liberal arts education have not stood up in the same way—it's kind of like a trade-off," she adds. Those cornerstones remain in many liberal arts institutions—including UB—but a student might have to seek them out, she notes.

Another issue that may be contributing to declining enrollments in foreign language programs is that American students, and much of the rest of the world due to the push towards globalization, recognize English as the "Lingua Franca"—the language of diplomacy and the language of the Internet—and the second language for most international students.

"What they don't see or don't fully appreciate until they study a language is the degree to which knowing another language will give them an advantage in the communicative process, in national security issues they deal with that they couldn't possibly have without it," says Feal.

Students enrolled in UB's foreign language programs are taught to read and explicate the linguistic and literary signs that they encounter and to understand meaning in context and how that context varies—an essential element in the work of translation, says Feal.

For example, students of Spanish will come to understand that "the context of the word 'privacy' as a hallmark of the way we construct ourselves in the U.S., both legally and socially, doesn't exist in Spanish—which is a more social culture in general," says Feal.