Modern Languages and Cultural Studies

Our History

“Friday night dances and Saturday morning classes” 

The history of the Department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies 1908 to 2019

by Laura Intemann


The Beginnings (1908–1939) 

The Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS) is a multisection unit in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. It has not always carried this name, nor has it housed the same programs of study. The Department’s history goes back over 111 years and is closely intertwined with the foundation of the University of Alberta.

In 1908, the Department of Modern Languages was one of the original members of the first Faculty, Arts and Sciences, created along with the Departments of English, Mathematics, and Classics. At that time, the study of modern languages and literatures was understood as one of the core elements of a liberal arts education, and every student had to study two foreign languages for at least one year in order to receive their BA degree. Besides Latin and Greek, French and German were the two languages in the University’s inaugural curriculum. One of the first four university appointments was a Professor for Modern Languages: Luther Herbert Alexander who taught French and German, however, he only stayed for a year before he returned to Columbia University. His work was taken over by William A.R. Kerr, who was Department Head first and became Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science for the next 20 years. He would become President of the University of Alberta from 1936 to 1941. 

In 1911 the Department moved from Strathcona, the place where the University of Alberta was originally founded, to today’s North Campus (consisting only Athabasca Hall at the time). The move brought two new teachers to the Department: Edouard Sonet for French and Barker Fairley for German. Due to increasing demand, Dr. Fairley was the first professor hired to teach only one language. Dr. Edouard Sonet would become head of the Department of Modern Languages later on (1936). Only three years after the University was founded, courses in beginners’ Italian and Romance Philology were introduced. While classes back were small, instructors had to teach more than 13 contact hours a week, lacking any support staff or teaching assistants.

During the First World War the Department’s development stopped—no meetings were held. During that period, the Department moved into what was then the “new” Arts Building, designed by Percy Erskine Nobbs, which has remained its home ever since.

Numerous Students and Many Concerns (1919–1939)

The years between the two world wars were characterized by constant growth of the Department. Registrations and staff in French were predominate. Spanish was taught on an ad-hoc basis and many students from the Commerce Faculty took the language as the Department offered “Commercial Spanish.” After 1923, courses in General Linguistics, Comparative Literature, as well as French-Canadian Literature were introduced by the Department. Since the 1920s, students could participate in the “French Club,” which came out with an annual theatre production, a tradition that continued on into the 1950s. In 1929, the first Spanish program was established. An initial listing of a handful of French graduate courses appeared in the 1931/32 calendar, which may have been the cornerstone for the formation of major areas of study at a later stage. In the same year, the first Graduate Teaching Assistants were appointed. In 1938, the Department had five full time members of which three were French teachers, plus a temporary staff position teaching Spanish.

Despite the positive development of the Department, there were some concerns in the 1920s and 1930s. One was convincing senior administration that 20 students was the maximum enrolment for a language class. Prior to this, teaching staff had to deal with 100s of students in one course. Another cause for concern was the difficulties of language instruction caused by the students’ poor knowledge of English grammar. The Department was also worried about not having enough staff to meet the demand because other programmes also had language requirements, including Applied Sciences, Medicine, and Education, which brought many students to the Department. This same problem resurfaced in 1983 as well. Notes from a 1928 departmental meeting log a rather unusual complaint: How to deal with the Friday night dance and the poor performance on ensuing Saturday morning classes? Even though complaints were made, Friday night dances and Saturday morning classes went on for the next thirty years.

World War II marked a disruption for the entire university and thus also for the Department of Modern Languages. Staff had to leave for military service. During the war years, experiential courses emphasizing oral French became popular and stayed as a post-war trend. 

Growth and Separation (1945–1980s)


In September 1945, a former flight lieutenant during the Second World War wanted to start studying chemistry at the University of Alberta. His school transcript showed that he had excellent grades in French and German whereas his work in Sciences was only average. He admitted that he had great interest in modern languages and that he had served for some time as a liaison officer with French units. His reason for choosing chemistry, though, was more of a practical nature as he wanted to participate in a rehabilitation program to earn a living in civilian life. Fortunately, he was convinced that enrolling in a program he liked would benefit him more. Ultimately, he graduated with honours, completed his PhD, and became head of a Department of modern languages at another Canadian university.


An interest in other languages was renewed after the war and brought the introduction of Russian in 1945. Spanish found less popularity at that time and did not receive approval to be taught at the senior level. At this time, the Department had 14 Honors students and five MA candidates. Dr. Sonet, then Head of the Department, retired in 1946. His successor was Dr. Francis Owen, who held the position until his retirement in 1952. In the 1950s, E.J.H. Greene became Head of the Department and hired Erich von Richthofen for Spanish and Romance Philology. At the same time, individual courses were brought up to date, for example Modern French Literature was offered as a stand alone course. In addition, the department’s language laboratories developed with the latest technology, as they were equipped with Magno recorder, gramophones, and Linguaphone recordings. The tools were used for instruction in all languages. The language laboratory was first located in an army hut and moved to the Arts Building in 1958. Language clubs and the French theatre production was brought back to life. A graduate Spanish program started in 1959. In the same year, first and second year Ukrainian classes were offered for the first time. In 1961, the first PhD program (in Romance Languages) was approved in the Department.

Three Different Language Departments

In the beginning of the 1960s, the Department had 18 academic staff members of which ten were teaching Romance Languages, four German, and four Slavic Languages. It was becoming larger and its interest more and more diverse. Rapid growth in the Department was accompanied by changes in the Department’s administration and structure, as Head became Chair. Unofficially, the Department split into the three divisions of Romance, Germanic, and Slavic Languages, all three with its own Head. So it was only natural and welcomed by all parties to make the separation official in 1963. All three departments were authorized to offer MA level instruction. In 1969, the Department of Comparative Literature was found by Dr. Milan Dimic.

Romance Languages

French, Spanish, and Italian were now assembled under the roof of the Romance Languages Department. The Department employed 13.3 continuing academic staff members of which only one worked in the area of Spanish and another in Italian; most worked in the French area. The Department also employed five sessional instructors. Dr. Greene continued as Head of the Department of Romance Languages. In 1961, Italian expanded to Honours and Graduate levels of instruction. The first student to finish his PhD in Romance Languages at the University of Alberta was J. Alan Dainard. His thesis on “Charles Vion Dalibrary, vie et oeuvre” by Manoël Faucher was finished in 1967. In 2008, he said “I believe I was not only the first PhD in Romance Languages at the U of A, but maybe in any Canadian university west of London.”

New staff members in Spanish helped to establish a graduate program for Hispanic Studies. In 1965, two Romance linguists were hired, one of whom was Eugene Dorfman. This marked a new area of study and included courses on the graduate level. In the late sixties and in the beginning of the mid-seventies, the Department collaborated extensively with the federal government in its French Language Training Program. The growth peaked in 1970 when the Romance Language Department had 1817 undergraduate registrations, 69 graduate students, and 34 full-time teaching staff. In 1975, the choice of Jo Ann Creore as the first woman to chair the Department reflected the strong role played by the many women members of Romance Languages during the 1960s. 

By 1977, the curriculum was completed with the addition of Portugues courses. One problem faced in the 1970s was that the reasonably complete range of courses in all its programs of studies were still lacking the full complement of continuing staff members required to teach all of those courses. The formation of the Faculty took place early enough and its program had developed firmly enough for it to begin to mature before financial cut-backs took place. Due to death or retirement, the Department lost many of its long-term members in the beginning of the 1980s. The Department of Romance Languages still viewed the study of languages and literature to be essential for their humanistic values, but added contemporary needs and interests by developing programs in Applied Romance Linguistics, French-Canadian Culture, Spanish-American Literature and French Translation. Students were keen to appreciate the intellectual traditions of their times by studying Borges, Sartre or Moravia. 

Slavic Languages

The University of Alberta was one of the first Canadian universities to offer courses in Slavistics, starting in 1946. Mr. N. J. Karatiwe offered the first Russian language course. Additional courses and Russian literature courses were held in the following year. In the 1950s, the Department of Modern Languages offered undergraduate, honors, and graduate courses in Russian. In the late 1950s, the Department expanded its courses in Russian language and literature. In 1959, even a course for Science students was offered. By 1960, due to the huge interest in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Slavonic Languages became its own Division, which quickly thereafter grew through the addition of a Ukrainian program. A minor in Polish was offered for the first time in 1961.

In 1963, the division became the Department for Slavonic Languages and Literatures. Dr. O. Starchuk was named the first chair. With its growing emphasis on Russian at the end of the 1960s, the faculty looked to offer their senior students the opportunity to study in the Soviet Union. Through exchanging letters and visits from a delegation of the University of Kiev, a cooperation between the two Universities was established. A meeting of the Administrative Committee in 1966 brought a flood of new courses in Slavonic Languages. 

Starchuk’s successor was Dr. G. Schaarschmidt. Under his chairship, the Department changed its name in 1970 to the Department of Slavic Languages. The curriculum was expanded with courses in diachronic and synchronic Slavic linguistics, Old Church Slavonic, and Old East Slavic literature. During the 1970s, new courses were developed that better fit the students needs. Chairs during this time were Dr. T.M.S. Priestly and Dr. R.L. Busch. Even students who were not majoring in Slavic languages could take translation courses for Russian and Ukrainian. In addition to the Winter session, courses the Department offered courses in Spring and Summer.

In 1981, the Department of Slavic Languages amalgamated with the Division of East European Studies. The idea behind it was to increase scholarly activity through pairing administrative and non-academic costs. Beside the increased interaction between these two parties, most courses and programs were kept alive. In addition to understanding social, political, and economic issues related to Eastern Europe, the Department tried to promote the awareness of Alberta’s Eastern European cultural heritage. It played a key role in the creation of the Central and East European Studies Society in Alberta (CEESSA). The Department employed eleven staff members and one visiting professor from the University of Haifa.

Slavic and East European Studies sponsored the Dalhousie University–University of Alberta Russian Studies Programme for the first time in 1986. At the same time a Russian instructor from Moscow University, Prof M. L. Remneva, came to assist in preparing participants for the Winter term in USSR (Moscow or Leningrad).

The University of Alberta began receiving Soviet TV programming via satellite in 1987. In the same year, Mr. and Mrs. Erast Huculak donated $250,000 to the Huculak Chair in Ukrainian Culture and Ethnography. The first PhD in Ukrainian was awarded to Dr Halyna Mucchin on the dissertation “Populism and Modernism in Ukrainian Literary Criticism: 1860–1920.”

Germanic Languages and Linguistics

The Department for Germanic Languages included German literature as well as Scandinavian Studies. Throughout the 1960s, first and second year Norwegian (1964) and Scandinavian (1963) language courses were added to the program. The first Scandinavian course was titled “Modern Scandinavian Literature in English Translation.” The latter was unique in Canada. Instruction in Scandinavian languages enjoyed increased demand in the 1960s for which reason Susan Baker Klatte was hired in 1965 to become the first staff member to teach Scandinavian courses full time. The branch of linguistics was also developing quickly so that the Honors program in General Linguistics was created in 1967.

Dr. Ernest Reinhold, born in Germany, had already been Head of the Germanic Languages and General Linguistics Division from 1959 until 1965. When it became a Department, he became Chair until 1970. In 1969, the name of the Department of Germanic Studies and General Linguistics was changed to the Department of Germanic Languages and the first PhD in German was awarded. Swedish was offered the first time in 1987 and first and second year students could learn Danish in 1999.


Mandarin was offered for the first time in 1975.


Reunification (1990s)

Even though the separate units of three traditional language-literature-culture Departments (Romance, Germanic, and Slavic) enjoyed a strong reputation, the Departments had to face difficulties. In 1994, the three amalgamated along with Comparative Literature into one Department called Modern Languages and Comparative Studies. Shortly thereafter, professors in the area of Comparative Literature looked to adopt a more global focus by including African and Asian literature. Thus, Comparative Literature became part of the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies. The new Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS) progressed as an emerging and complex unit beginning in April 1998. 

The new structure—much like it is currently today—was formed in a period of fiscal restraint and administrative efficiency. The Department focussed on upholding its original three main areas (German, Slavic, Romance), but also used the merger in a constructive way, for example, establishing cooperation on the delivery of graduate courses. Another reason for the pooling of various areas of shared expertise was to offer students the opportunity to combine their specialization in one area of language, literature, culture or applied linguistics by encouraging interactions and shared initiatives among the colleagues in the original and traditional divisions such as Germanic, Romance, and Slavic. As a result, the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies was unique in Canada with its bridge-building, border-crossing, interdisciplinary initiatives that offer a broad base of expertise.

After the amalgamation, new teaching initiatives and programs were developed. These were no longer language-based, but instead were based on the areas of literary theory, second-language acquisition, applied linguistics, translation studies, and folklore, according to a graduate-program review in 2004.

The breadth of MLCS is reflected in its numerous languages that have been added in the last 20 years. In 2004, MLCS added Hungarian and American Sign Language to the program. It also houses four of the University’s non-European languages: Arabic (1980), Persian (1998), Swahili (2005), and Punjabi (2008). In recent years, it specialized in Translation Studies, Applied Linguistics, Latin American Studies, and Ukrainian Folklore, which added a strong foundation for cultural studies and for applied aspects of language and culture. In 2003, the first “International Translation Day Conference” was held and has taken place each year since. It has changed its name to today’s St. Jerome's day.

In 2008, MLCS was the third largest unit in the Faculty of Arts with 38 full-time continuing academic staff and 30 contract instructors. It displayed a vibrant profile at both the undergraduate and graduate levels with over 5,000 students annually, eight BA, six MA, and five PhD programs, plus graduate specializations in Applied Linguistics, Humanities Computing, Translation Studies, Latin American Studies, and Ukrainian Folklore. Its study and work abroad programs were considered outstanding with exchanges in France, Mexico, Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Norway, Sweden, Italy, and Spain. It offered Honours options and a Translation Certificate. 

In 2008, MLCS colleagues taught on average 2/2 courses per academic year, and were highly engaged in research. The fruits of MLCS research generally appeared as monographs, refereed articles and translations. Furthermore, academic staff was extremely active in international conference participation. 

Regarding administrative structure, the Department of MLCS maintained it with five administrative staff, including Undergraduate and Graduate Program Administrators. Given the complexity of the Department itself, this formal administrative structure—which is still the same in 2019—is necessarily supplemented on the academic side by a number of coordinators to whom the Chair’s Executive turns to ensure optimal consultation and communication. Those are called Language Area Coordinators. Between the period of 2003 to 2008, the Department’s academic staff complement remained relatively stable overall, although the number of full professors declined slightly as a result of several retirements and unanticipated departures.

Recent Challenges and Reorganizations (2010–2019)

Already in 1983, the Department’s outlook and its surroundings were described with the following words: “No past generation enjoyed the facility to travel as much as today’s students. Their first hand awareness of other cultures and, more generally, our society’s growing appreciation of the value of modern languages study bode well for the Department’s future.” In today’s time of economy flights, global agreements, and ways of communication beyond borders, the ability to travel has only gotten easier in all imaginable ways in the last 35 years. Nevertheless, the Department has been buffeted by many grave trends in recent years. Shrinking resources in the University’s overall budget, seismic shifts in student populations, a changing faculty profile, and debates about how to organize and evaluate teaching, learning, and scholarship have all produced challenges. Under those circumstances, the Department felt the imperative to reimagine its mission and its praxis for teaching and research in language and culture for the twenty-first century.

In 2012, the Department began discussing changes in their graduate program, which was launched after four years in fall 2016. When the process of change began, MLCS had nine specializations. In 2013–14 comparative literature had joined MLCS, which added one more specialization to the Department. The reinvigorated graduate program better reflected the complex reality of the Department within a changing academic and global climate. Defining the Department through languages showed disadvantages. With the restructuring, the Department identified itself through the overlap in their broader disciplines and combined more students into stronger cohorts. The reclassification split the graduate program into four disciplinary streams: 

  1. Applied Linguistics

  2. Transnational and Comparative Literatures

  3. Media and Cultural Studies, and 

  4. Translation Studies

The discussions at the graduate level in MLCS led to parallel discussions at the undergraduate level. Although the suspension of more than half of the Department’s major programs in 2013 clearly reduced options for MLCS students, it also presented an opportunity to devise a new major. Proposed reforms to the BA program included better integration of study abroad opportunities and experiential learning, engagement in local communities and across cultures, and encouragement of interdisciplinarity. The MLCS curriculum committee prepared a proposal for a new major, which called for the replacement of all existing undergraduate majors with one single major with language-immersive and community-service-learning components allowing students to use their skills outside the classroom. The new major launched in fall 2019.

Current Status and Outlook

These efforts to rethink MLCS’s undergraduate and graduate programs brought together Department members to envision a shared future, one that is collaborative and built on a collective identity. It must be acknowledged that change is an ever-present condition, one that the faculty members and students of MLCS will need to continue to embrace as the new structures are refined and put into practice.

Sources

n/a: “Report to convocation”. Folio, Nov 27, 1969, page 7, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/FOL/1969/11/27/7/Ar00700.html?query=newspapers%7Cgermanic%7C%28publication%3AFOL%29%7Cscore May 21, 2019.

n/a: “Two long service staff retire”. Folio,Nov  23, 1978, page 5, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/FOL/1978/11/23/5/Ar00500.html?query=newspapers%7Cmodern+languages%7C%28publication%3AFOL%29%7Cscore June 3, 2019.

n/a: “Faculty of Arts Appointments”. Folio, July 31, 1980, page 1, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/FOL/1980/07/31/1/Ar00100.html?query=newspapers%7Cgermanic%7C%28publication%3AFOL%29%7Cscore May 23, 2019.

n/a: “New Department: Slavic and East European Studies”. Folio, Sept 3, 1981, page 2, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/FOL/1981/09/03/2/Ar00200.html?query=newspaper

John, W. H. (1981): “ A History of the University of Alberta, 1908-1969”, https://books.google.ca/books?id=8UL2T5F0rR0C&pg=PA19&lpg=PA19&dq=L.H.+Alexander+alberta&source=bl&ots=qbUVCAPmCq&sig=ACfU3U3oYdPlJvmsREFKGjYYH7EjZ8kIqg&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiMjK3t4eTiAhWPop4KHYAjDlwQ6AEwB3oECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=L.H.%20Alexander%20alberta&f=false June 14, 2019.s%7Cslavic%7C%28publication%3AFOL%29%7Cscore May 31, 2019.

n/a: “The Department of English, 1908-1982”. Folio, Sept 30, 1982, page 5, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/FOL/1982/09/30/5/Ar00500.html?query=newspapers%7Cmodern+languages%7C%28publication%3AFOL%29%7Cscore June, 10 2019.

n/a: “A brief history of the Department of Romance Languages”. Folio, Jan 27, 1983, page 5-7, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/FOL/1983/01/27/1/, May 21, 2019.

Academic Unit Review, “Self-Study Report for Modern Languages and Cultural Studies”, 2009.

untitled “I.Introduction - A.Preamble; B.Brief History;C.Previous reviews/Assessments - Current Essentials, Initiatives, Challenges”, 2015.

Beard, L. / Kost, C. / Ruétalo, V. / Smith, C. / True, M. (2018): “From Silos to Networks: Reenvisioning Undergraduate and Graduate Programs in a Modern Languages Department”. In: ADE Bulletin 156 ◆ ADFL Bulletin 45.1, page 109-121.

University of Alberta Archive, “University History and Traditions”, Historical Sketch, https://calendar.ualberta.ca/content.php?catoid=6&navoid=822 June 5, 2019.

Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta (2008): “100 Years of Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Arts”

A short history of Slavistics at the University of Alberta 1946 - 1982