Following the departure of its only full-time professor, next year, the college's Hebrew program will no longer offer upper-level Hebrew classes on campus and will instead require students to video conference into Middlebury-devised courses at other colleges. These changes have raised concerns about the program's future among students who see it is as an invaluable focal point of both academic learning and Jewish life on campus.
The program's current professor, Oz Aloni, will leave the college when his contract expires after this semester. In the last year, Hebrew Program Head Tamar Mayer — who teaches only geography at Middlebury — requested twice that a new Hebrew professor be hired. Mayer's requests were denied both times.
According to Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrea Lloyd, the college denied Mayer's request because the Hebrew program continually sustains a very low level of enrollment in its classes. Since 2013-14, there has been an average of three students per semester enrolled in one of the introductory Hebrew courses, which are offered in a three-course sequence.
Additionally, the college must maintain an equilibrium of 248 full-time equivalent (FTE) professors across departments at all times, and must decide each semester which new hire requests to approve to keep that number constant. Enrollment level is one of the factors that the Educational Affairs Committee considers when approving new hire requests.
Board members from Hillel, the college's Jewish student life organization, voiced fear in a March 21 op-ed in The Campus that reductions in the program will ultimately result in the end of the Hebrew program entirely. The op-ed, entitled "We Need the Hebrew Department," encouraged the college to hire more Hebrew professors and advocated the importance of Hebrew studies, both linguistically and culturally, for Jewish students on campus.
"Middlebury is an academic institution; this title implies a commitment to academic excellence above all else and a responsibility to make the campus inclusive to all students," the board wrote. "Refusing to fill this position in the Hebrew Department would be a failure on both counts."
But although the op-ed said the reductions would "effectively end the Hebrew Department on this campus," the college insists that the program will continue through its beginner-level Hebrew course offerings taught by a teaching fellow, who is scheduled to leave after next year, and through indeterminate alternative advanced language studies and video conference classes.
The Hebrew program has always had one FTE with a three-year appointment, meaning that the sole Hebrew professor changes every three years. The other professors are fellows, not FTEs. Mayer believes that this lack of continuity has hurt the program.
Each semester, the Hebrew program offers one 100-level introductory Hebrew language course, taught by the teaching fellow, and one or two intermediate and advanced Hebrew language courses at the 300, 400 and 500 levels, taught by Aloni. It also offers cross-listed courses about Hebrew culture and history, taught in English by Israel Institute Teaching Fellow Zohar Gazit.
The teaching fellow will continue teaching the introductory courses next Fall. The higher-level Hebrew language courses are listed in the Fall 2019 catalogue, but the professors teaching the courses remain unlisted. As it currently stands, these classes will be taught online through the video conferencing software Zoom, through which students will video conference with professors at other colleges.
300 and 500-level courses will no longer be available.
"People wishing to take advanced Hebrew will need to be in the one 400 level course," Mayer explained. "This means that some students will simply have to stop their Hebrew education."
Currently, students can minor in Classical or Modern Hebrew, as well as Jewish Studies. They can also make Hebrew their primary or secondary language in an International and Global Studies (IGS) Middle East major, or can integrate the language into a Comparative Literature or Religion major.
The new cutbacks will make these courses of study more difficult. The Hillel op-ed expressed concern for students currently planning to minor in or study Hebrew and highlighted the importance of maintaining Hebrew as a language option in the IGS Middle East major. In the absence of Hebrew, the major will now require the study of Arabic, which Mayer believes limits the Middle Eastern perspective that the study of Hebrew offers. When IGS Middle Eastern Studies was created in 2004, it was conceived of as a track that would include both Arabic and Hebrew.
"It is difficult to think of Middle Eastern conflicts while exposing students to one language only, providing a limited opportunity, at best, for those who would like to get the Israeli perspective," Mayer said. "A loss of Hebrew at the undergraduate college means a loss of perspective and a narrower education for our students."
Earlier this year, the Middlebury study abroad school in Beer-Sheva, Israel was suspended, again for reasons related to low enrollment.
Advocates of the Hebrew program's continuation argue that low enrollment in Hebrew classes is not enough of a reason for its shrinking, and emphasize the cultural and academic significance of the program.
"Our argument is that you can't base the value of a class on the number of people enrolled, and that Hebrew is really important on this campus, not despite low numbers but separate from them," said Rachel Horowitz-Benoit '21, one of the authors of the op-ed and a Comparative Literature major with a focus in Hebrew Literature. Horowitz-Benoit and Mayer both argue that Hebrew is a uniquely valuable program because of its connection to Jewish cultural and religious life on campus.
Horowitz-Benoit also does not see lack of interest as the sole reason for the program's low enrollment.
"The size of the program inhibits many people who want and plan to take Hebrew from doing so," she said. "It's not necessarily a lack of interest but a lack of availability."
Since only one Hebrew class at any given level is offered in a semester and all of the upper-level classes are taught by one professor, students with an interest in taking Hebrew may not be able to because the single class time conflicts with another course. Additionally, students might not click with the teaching style of the single Hebrew professor teaching those courses.
Horowitz-Benoit and other Hillel Board members formed a committee to advocate for the program. They are collecting signatures in support of increased Hebrew programming and used the op-ed to publicize the situation. Over four weeks ago, the committee sent suggestions to President Laurie Patton, Dean of Faculty Andi Lloyd and Provost Jeff Cason. These suggestions included hiring a student employee to promote enrollment in Hebrew classes and creating a committee of students to assist in the hiring of a new faculty member so that the professor is well-suited to the students in the program. This week the committee received a response from administrators and, as of press time Tuesday, are planning to meet with Dean of Curriculum Suzanne Gurland soon to discuss their concerns.
In the meantime, administrators have suggested creative solutions to learning Hebrew at an advanced level without a professor: in addition to the integration of video conference classes, they have proposed that students attend the summer Hebrew language school.
Mayer takes issue with both of these propositions, especially the language school, which she sees as an insufficient replacement for courses, and a resource only accessible to the wealthy.
"The language schools are expensive and even if students are able to secure a full ride, they are unable to spend the summer making money that they need for the upcoming year," she pointed out. "I see this as an opportunity only for rich kids and that is not okay."
Mayer also finds the new virtual class plan problematic.
"Students do not want to pay such high tuition to just sit in front of their computers," she said. During this past Winter Term, Aloni was ill for a week and students in his class video conferenced with a professor at another university. Some students reported to Mayer that they were not satisfied with the experience, and that video conferencing does not replicate the classroom language-learning environment that Middlebury is known for.
Molly Babbin '22 was a student in the intro winter term Hebrew class. "I understood the importance of filling Professor Aloni's brief absence with the video calls, but I probably would not be satisfied with it as a long-term solution. I found that I was less engaged, as I was not sitting in a classroom and was not speaking as much Hebrew to the other students," Babbin said. "The class therefore lacked the social aspect that I have enjoyed in my in-person Hebrew classes. I understand that online classes can be effective, but it felt more difficult in a language class where I would prefer to have an immersive classroom experience."
It is unclear precisely what will happen to students who are already pursuing Hebrew studies. In an email to The Campus, Lloyd said that these students "will be working with their advisors to address any issues that arise with respect to course offerings."
According to Horowitz-Benoit, there are five students hoping to take above-300-level Hebrew next year, and several first-years who were planning to minor in the language.
For these students, the future is uncertain.
"I'd probably have to switch my major to English," Horowitz-Benoit said. "I'll graduate, but I'm in the Comparative Literature major, I've done the prerequisites for that, and this is really out of left field."