Response to: “Useless: Fordham’s Foreign Language Requirement”

language tree

Yesterday, a Fordham Ram columnist, whose work I typically respect and enjoy, wrote a disappointingly narrow-minded article about Fordham’s language requirement. Though I’m rarely the first to sing the praises of Fordham’s policies, be they academic or administrative, his weakly-argued denouncement of Fordham’s liberal arts language requirement has driven me to stand up in defense in a point-by-point response to his column.

The author starts his column by stating “if Fordham’s foreign language requirement worked, I would be able to write this column in Spanish,” accusing the program of failing to transform him into a bilingual writer, as if his role in the language-learning process was to sit back and absorb fluency through some sort of passive osmosis. This is one of the many short-comings of American students learning foreign languages. They assume that either it comes to them naturally or that they simply weren’t destined to be multi-lingual. As a linguistically inclined student, it used to be hard for me to pooh-pooh this sentiment; I empathized with those who didn’t have the same natural proclivity for foreign languages as I seemed to have, just as my innate talents fell short of physics and multi-variable calculus. However, if you’ve ever traveled outside these hallowed States-united (to places other than Canada, the UK, or “the islands”) then you’ll recognize just how obstinate you’re being. If an old Hungarian man running a fast food truck can speak fluent English, a language radically different from his own in just about every way, then you can plod your way through a lexically similar Romance language– or at least you should be able to after completing your fancy Rolex-a-month liberal arts private university education.

The author then goes on to complain that he can’t even form a coherent sentence in Spanish. That, my friend, is either result of your own stubbornness, a pig-headed refusal to push your own intellectual boundaries, or, even more disconcerting, you are sensationalizing the truth about what you have or haven’t learn in order to back up your argument.  I know for a fact that had you (you referring to the average Fordham student, not just the author) put in at least 10% of the effort into the class as you had into commiserating with your fellow classmates/martyrs or existentially pondering what purpose this could possibly fulfill in your life, you would be able to PUT TOGETHER A FREAKING SENTENCE. It’s actually heartbreaking to me that students consider this acceptable.

Furthermore, I cannot see the math that the author used to justify that the “average” Fordham student spends 150 hours language classes (it’s actually literally impossible for that to be the average, since it is the maximum number of hours needed to complete the requirement, and hundreds of students pass directly into the intermediate and advanced levels, but maybe I’m being pedantic about your use of the word average). Anyway, the point is that the “average Fordham student” doesn’t need to take the language every semester, as languages are graduation requirements for many high schools—I don’t know just how many, but I know it was true for my public schools system, and feel comfortable in saying it is true for the vast majority of private schools—so many students will come in with 3-4 years of SOME language under their belts. The introductory course should only be there for students who, laudably, are actually interested in starting a different language, or who weren’t required to take several years of it in middle or high school.

Then he continues that time spent on language courses (11% of your course-load to be exact, a number rendered bogus given my prior explanation) would be better used on other subjects, seemingly ignoring the purpose of a liberal arts core to begin with. (Require another credit to fulfill a major? Fordham’s major requirement are already high compared to other schools) Sure, many math and physics majors would argue that another class in their field would have more application in their careers than Spanish, but if they wanted to focus solely on their major subject area, then they didn’t have to come to a school that prides itself specifically on its well-rounded academic requirements. Furthermore, how can you say that philosophy is objectively more useful than a foreign language? Using your argument that the core offerings don’t prompt students to “master” the subject, is Fordham’s philosophy requirement also a waste of your time? I’m no master of philosophy after the core, but I don’t consider it worthless. Foreign language, philosophy, English, history and theology are all important components of the philosophy of Cura Personalis espoused by this university; you can’t discount one in favor of the other.

Instead of worrying so much about how that time could be better spent on other subjects, why don’t you worry about how the time could be better spent in THAT subject? Because I can’t say this enough: after 4 semesters of ANY subject, you should have a fairly sturdy grasp on it, whether it’s Accounting, Biology, or History, and a short-coming of that is a failure on your part. If you truly think the class would’ve been effective in another format, then maybe that’s a discussion you should bring up with the department, or at least a healthy debate you could have with your classmates.

As for the departments being stretched thin by the number of intro classes? I could concede that point to an extent, depending on the semester, who’s on sabbatical, etc. But is the appropriate response to cut the intro classes? Of course not. That’s equivalent to saying that Fordham should cut the philosophy requirement so that the same number of professors could teach more advanced classes. Fordham should simply add a few more professors to the budget. It shouldn’t be a question of siphoning from a fixed pot, but rather growing the pot.

I would also agree that Fordham dilutes the standards of its introductory language classes so that they can spoon-feed them to the masses. I can hardly blame them- they, the unfortunate souls tasked with a job equally vexing as say, trying to coax a house-cat into a brisk leash-walk through a quagmire- for watering it down. Unfortunately, this isn’t helping anyone. It’s slowing down the truly intellectually curious while trying to appease a population who has dug its heels into the ground in stark refusal. This would hardly be considered acceptable for the other liberal arts core standards: philosophy, theology, English composition and literary analysis, history, etc. Fordham should raise the bar. If you can’t complete a coherent session after 4 semesters, nay after 1 semester, you should not pass the class. Maybe this would be the motivation that the students need to actually absorb the knowledge, instead of just rolling their eyes and sighing for 4 semesters.

Finally, this columnist asserts that it’s “too late” to learn a language in college because after a certain point the brain loses its cognitive ability to develop native fluency (at least this is what he alludes to in his vague explanation of the fact). But that’s really ok. You will be fine if you speak grammatically acceptable French with an American accent. You’ll even be OK if you can never quite roll your Spanish rrrrrs.  No non-native English speaker has decided not to learn English because they may never be able to shake their accent or remember every conjugation. You don’t need to learn a second language to become perfectly bilingual. You need to learn a second language- Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, German, Wolof, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Portuguese, it literally DOES NOT MATTER WHICH- to be a responsible global citizen. You need to show some respect for the international community. To throw up your hands and say it can’t be done is a slap in the face to everyone who has broken his or her back to learn your native tongue, and just because you won the birth-place lottery and happen to speak the most important and ubiquitous language in the modern world doesn’t mean that’s where you stop. Pull yourself together, suck it up, and learn a second language– at least more than asking where the bathroom is.


Blurring the Lines of Feminism: A Criticism of the Criticism of “Blurred Lines”

Dear capital-F Feminists, Please Stop the Slut-Shaming. Love, a lower-case-f feminist. 

The first time I heard the funky beats of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” emanating from my radio, I did what any normal, able-bodied human being would do…I boogied my ass off. But just days after the song’s meteoric rise to the top of the charts, scathing criticisms began to arise, citing sexual harassment, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming among many of the artists’ apparently blatant offenses. Because I could never QUITE make out the words behind Thicke’s panting falsetto, I decided to do my own research into the lyrics and see what was really causing the problem. What I found was shocking. I began reading the words fully expecting to arrive at the bottom not only incensed at their content, but also ashamed that I had ever bopped my head and shaken my buns to the beats.

What shocked me were not the lyrics. What shocked me was that I was not offended. In fact, the more I thought about it, I was becoming incensed at the “feminists” who were responding to it. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the trigger-happy mob reaction that was really spreading slut-shaming ideas, not to mention criminalizing all male sexuality.

I think in order to understand why I don’t find the song offensive, we have to ask ourselves what it is really about. Everyone seems to think it’s about a guy slinging a helpless girl over his shoulder or dragging her home by her hair. Not so. It is, in essence, about a guy trying to steal a girl away from her boyfriend/current love interest for some hanky-panky. In this sense, the song is no more offensive than “You Belong with Me” by Taylor Swift (although in this brief side note I would argue that the latter is actually MORE offensive. Look at her lyrics: “She wears high heels/I wear sneakers….She wears short skirts/I wear tee shirts.” Here, Ms. Nice-Girl-Next-Door is actually implying that the clothes she chooses makes her more down to earth, and therefore more worthy of Neighbor Boy’s love. Now THAT is Grade A slut-shaming, and I don’t see anyone batting an eye).

Now let’s look at these lyrics:

OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you

But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate you,

You don’t need no paper,That man is not your maker.

Kind of sounds like a women’s lib anthem if you ask me. I recently read an article on XO Jane that discusses the problems with women in relationships being seen as a man’s territory. And that is exactly what Robin Thicke’s character is saying! “That man is not your maker”—he’s saying her boyfriend doesn’t own her! Granted he has a vested interest in saying that, in that he wants her to stray from her relationship to be with him, but essentially he’s reminding her that she’s an independent person who can make her own decisions about her sexuality, regardless of whether she has a boyfriend.

The reason I was inspired to write this article was because the reactions I saw were becoming increasingly offensive and inaccurate. It began with the controversial feminist parody created by the Law Revue Girls, and the last straw was this article, which compares Thicke’s lyrics with things actual rapists have said to their victims. Quite frankly, the way they take words out of context is reprehensible; it’s dangerous to make statements as powerful as these without anything to actually back them up. I want to walk through each point they made and show how it’s a misinterpretation of the actual words and message.

In the article, the author compares Thicke saying “I know you want it” to the practice of victim blaming, which is to say, if a rape victim acted or dressed in a certain way, then he/she was clearly inviting the attack. Of course this is a repulsive notion, and one that is, sadly, ever-present in our society. But we have to remember, in the song, no one has forced any sexual contact on anyone else! There is a WORLD of difference between “I know you want it,” and “I know you wanted it.” If when Beyoncé or Rihanna say “I know you want it,” they’re seen as strong, empowered, independent sexual beings rightfully expressing their desires, why, the second a man says it, do we equate him to a rapist?

The article continues by saying that the line “you’re a good girl” brings up the virgin/whore dichotomy and (erroneously) analyzes that to mean that “a good girl wouldn’t show her reciprocal desire.” (My 11th grade English teacher would give this analysis a C-.)

The “good girl”/”bad girl” dichotomy is NOT equivalent to the virgin/whore dichotomy, and is in fact quite egalitarian when compared to the “good boy”/”bad boy” complement. Think of it this way. The “bad boy” image? That’s the turbulent James Dean untethered by the bonds of societal judgment, player with a pair of Levi’s and a leather jacket type. And a good boy? The steady-as-she-goes financially secure Jimmy Stewart, faithful to his wife and family with a closet full of sweaters type. If you think about it, the same applies for the female counterparts of those roles. The “bad” refers to sexual freedom and straying from the herd, and the “good” refers to commitment and playing by the rules. It’s a tongue-in-cheek a statement about an aesthetic that derives from our overarching societal norms, which is almost always used in a playful manner, and it is not confined to one gender. Saying “I like bad girls” does not mean “I like whores.” Saying “I like good girls” doesn’t mean “I like virgins.”

The next line is a little bit trickier:

“The way you grab me/ Must wanna get nasty.”

The problem with this is obvious. The sexual assault epidemic is largely caused by men (and sometimes women!) who misinterpret mutual interest as a carte blanche to the sexual menu, who don’t understand that explicit consent is still needed, and who furthermore cannot accept ‘no’ for an answer. However, the lyric only poses a problem if Mr. Thicke is ignoring this woman’s rejections. Come on guys, it’s not a crime to think someone might want to have sex with you! That’s how sexual attraction works! Is it not normal for a woman to think “He probably wants to sleep with me” if a man buys her a drink? Maybe he does. Or maybe he just wanted to have a conversation. But a woman who thinks that isn’t some kind of sexual deviant for making an assumption, unless, after he declines her advances, she forces herself upon him. The same works in reverse: When a woman “grabs” a man in a sexual way (as the song states), there’s a chance that she might “wanna get nasty.” And it’s OK for a guy to think this, so long as he respects the woman’s boundaries and obtains permission before proceeding. However, I think in this case using the word “must” may be in poor taste, because it does evoke the memories people have of someone over-analyzing certain gestures as an invitation to do what they please, and many of us have been there.

The following example is one of the most infuriating. The author states that the line “He don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that” is offensive because women want a man who will treat them with a respect, and such contact is degrading. Who made you the bedroom police? Did it ever occur to you that there are a lot of women who like that? Who are in healthy relationships in which each partner has mutual respect for the other as a human being? It is none of your business to decide what the boundaries of respect are in a consensual relationship!

So how are these reactions slut-shaming? If you picture the scene, it seems that the male is making his initial offer to open a sexual relationship with a woman. I don’t know why we assume that the woman is a damsel in distress, incapable of making a decision about whether or not she wants to partake. Of course our mind can run through a hundred scenarios in which a woman says no and a man pursues anyway, and this is wrong. But given that neither the song nor the music video indicates any rejection, there is no reason to believe that the woman in question has ever said no. There is no reason to believe that she doesn’t “want it”. In fact, people who are offended by this song clearly think it is SO UNBELIEVABLE that a woman might actually enjoy being treated like this, that they are in essence limiting the scope of what is considered acceptable sexual behavior for a woman. Slut-shaming and sexual confinement, that’s what the Feminists are up to these days.

Furthermore, I find the feminist parody of the song, “Defined Lines,” by the Law Revue Girls, to be pretty repulsive. Just to be clear—I do NOT think it should have ever been banned, as I don’t believe in censorship of any kind, but I disagree with the way they presented their ideas. This comes from the fact that while Thicke’s song never talks about actually hurting or forcing anything on a sexual partner, the Girls’ song EXPLICITY does. The lines “let me emasculate you” and “castrate” you are wholly immature and strip any credence from the discussion of sexual equality. The response to female subjugation is not to WEAKEN the male but to EMPOWER the female. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Not to mention, I almost blew a fuse when she forced the dildo into the male model’s mouth. Cause that’s how we need to respond to violent sexual crimes. With violent sexual crimes. Hey ladies, men get raped too! That is NOT funny; it’s foul, and tragic.

It’s also as if they didn’t even read the lyrics of the original song that they were making fun of. It’s a parody, right? So they’re supposed to be saying the opposite of what the song says, right? What about the line where the law ladies sing “Not fucking plastic.” I guess that’s supposed to be the opposite of a Robin Thicke line where he implies a woman is plastic. Wait, no, his is the same: “You’re far from plastic.” Gee, it almost sounds like he’s telling the woman she’s NOT an object! Another good one is when they croon “you can’t just grab me, that’s a sex crime.” Interestingly enough, in Thicke’s version, he doesn’t grab anyone. It’s actually the woman who grabs him. Not exactly a sex crime instituted by the male patriarchy now is it?

So let’s recap:

How many times do Robin Thicke’s lyrics and video actually support a feminist manifesto?

  1. “Just let me liberate you/you don’t need no papers/that man is not your maker”- he is stating that women are independent as sexual beings
  2. “You’re far from plastic” – he is claiming that this woman is not an object to be subjugated by any man
  3. “Go ahead, get at me” – he is inviting the woman to make the next move! This screams consensual
  4. Naked/scantily clad women playing with large toys in video show they are sexually liberated individuals. Never once do any of these women show any objection to being there, and they strut confidently the whole time. This is not subjugation.

Total: 4 times. Not bad, considering most of the lines are repeated several times.

And how many times do the so-called feminist reactions actually set back the clock on female equality and sexual safety?

  1. Implies that women never say yes to sexual advances
  2. Implies that a naked woman is automatically degraded (as in, a woman can’t choose to be naked/scantily clad as a form of sexual liberation, as in, slut-shaming)
  3. Implies that no woman would consensually agree to be spanked/ have her hair pulled
  4. Mimics an act of violent rape on a male as a joke

Total: 4 times. Oof, ladies, maybe you should take some lessons on how to treat a sexual partner from this guy.

(feedback and comments are welcome, but the second anyone posts anything hateful or leaves the realm of intelligent discussion I will delete it; ain’t nobody got time for that)

Edit: One year and hundreds of thousands of hits later, I’m still reading your thought-provoking comments! Some of you have swayed me on minor points, but I stand by my main argument. A few clarifications for any newcomers to the article or anyone still tracking the comments: 1) I did not mean to say that this song was ACTUALLY written for feminist purposes. I was just pointing out how surprisingly liberating some of the lyrics were given the criticisms. 2) I was never intending to defend Robin Thicke as a person. I honestly had no idea he who was before this song, and I honestly don’t give a crap. He seems like an ass. Great. Any statements made about the voice in this song are referring to the character being portrayed in the song, because songs aren’t always auto-biographical.

Happy to see that I’ve changed a few minds, helped a few others elucidate their opinions, and even driven others to lengthy rage-filled rants against me.