The University of Texas at Austin is currently home to the premier Arabic Studies program in the nation. Our Arabic Language Flagship is a federally funded mandate to produce the professionals the United States needs to understand political currents in the Arab world, including revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. We have graduated 26 students in the past three years with advanced to professional proficiency in Arabic.
Some of these students are working for the government now, two in jobs they can't tell us about. Others are seeking higher degrees, and one is engaged in very low-cost research on Islamic movements in Egypt. For undergraduates to accomplish this level of proficiency was unheard of five years ago. Today it is reality. Efficient? Yes, if we consider that it used to take twice as long for the most dedicated students to reach this level of proficiency. In terms of class size? Not so much.
I and my colleagues in Arabic are not at the top of the efficiency charts in terms of the number of students taught — certainly nowhere near the top 20 percent cited by Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Fortunately, our costs are subsidized in part by the National Language Flagship, so our bottom line is pretty good, but we are not a cheap program.
We could certainly become much more "efficient" if we expanded class size to 50 or 100 students. I could lecture six hours a week to 50 Arabic students with little preparation on my part - lecturing is easy, and I can take up lots of time showing videos and explaining the finer points of Arabic grammar. The best part about lecturing on grammar is the more you lecture, the more questions students have. It quickly becomes an exercise in hypothetical. Efficient? Many students are being taught. But are they learning Arabic? Not so much.
What I can't do with a class of 50 students is have my students actually speak the language they are learning. Perhaps 25 students would have half a minute to answer a short question with a sentence, but then I doubt that many in the class would have the self-confidence to perform in a new language in front of 50 people they didn't know. Our students do not reach professional fluency by listening - they reach it by interacting with partners in guided tasks. "Time on task," as it is known, means the time students spend engaging the language: the time they spend speaking, listening, reading and writing. Not much time on task is to be had in a lecture.
In fact, I just returned from a trip to the University of Oslo, where my counterpart teaches Arabic by lecturing to about 75 students. I was invited to instruct her and her colleagues in a more "efficient" way of teaching Arabic: more work for students and faculty, and more expensive with smaller classes, but one that they are confident will bring the results they want.
What seems to be efficient in terms of numbers of students in a classroom with an instructor turns out to be inefficient in terms of skill development. Teaching is one thing; learning is another. For learning to take place, classwork needs to be coordinated with homework. In language learning, almost anything that can be done in a class of 50 students can be done at home. This is one of our true efficiencies: We use homework time to the fullest extent possible. We struggle a bit against a general culture that sees two to three hours a day of homework as excessive, but to the credit of our students, it doesn't take them long to grasp its benefits. They see the efficiencies of a greater investment of time and effort in the payoff of active learning.
My colleagues and I spend the same two to three hours outside class for every hour in class that our students do. For us, correcting homework is the most efficient way to make sure that students are absorbing and learning the material actively. Homework is also an important means of communicating with my students as individuals.
Language exists to serve a community, and for students, their language class is that community. The best communal learning environments emerge when each student feels that the instructor understands him or her as an individual. With a class of 50 students, I simply would not be able to follow the progress of each one. My "inefficient" teaching means constant one-on-one contact with my students, and that in turn means that they have the support they need to take risks with Arabic. And in the language classroom, if I may paraphrase, no risk, no gain.
In addition to correcting homework, preparing for class is time-consuming. Students are doing the mechanical work they need outside class; in class we need to come up with information-gap activities that require language skills to solve a problem or get information.
And there is no language outside culture. In Arabic, we have about 18 countries whose cultures need to be brought into the classroom, including popular culture and current events. We are experts on our region, and simply maintaining that expertise is time-consuming. The world is not standing still, and Arabic is not the same language it was a year ago. Keeping up with the changes is one aspect of our research, and we cannot be responsible teachers without doing it. We don't get any grant money to do this research however, so here too we do not fit in Vedder's top 20 percent. The good teachers I know do not teach any class the same way twice.
Teaching intensive language courses is not an efficient use of my time, if one merely counts hours spent and warm bodies in a classroom. But this past semester, the 17 students in my 8 a.m., second-year Arabic class performed at the skill level that my third-year students did two years before. And that's efficiency in my book.
Brustad is chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.