Students at Charlottesville Bucking the High-Tech Trend By Alison Muscatine Washington Post Staff Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Mike Roberts, a senior at the University of Virginia, is applying to medical school and plans to be a doctor. But Roberts has taken an unusual academic route to prepare for his career. His favorite course: 16th century French poetry. His major: French literature.
While undergraduates on other campuses are flocking to courses in computer science, business and engineering, Roberts and a large contingent of French majors at the University of Virginia are bucking the preprofessional trend.
"I felt it would be good to have a background in the humanities because medicine is supposedly a humanitarian field," said Roberts, whose father is an electrician in southwest Virginia. "My parents are taking it so-so. They don't look upon French as something particularly practical."
In the job-oriented 1980s, the French Department at Virginia is a thriving oasis of humanities study. About 140 of the university's 7,000 undergraduates have declared majors in French, up from two in 1969, making it by far the most popular foreign language department on campus.
There are 17 full-time faculty members, including three with endowed chairs. Several dozen students have a French conversation hour each week at a pub near campus, and the department organizes frequent and well-attended wine-and-cheese parties where speaking French is de rigueur. Just last week the university unveiled a plan to help finance a new $800,000 French House, where 34 undergraduate French majors will eat, sleep and live -- in French.
The success of the French Department is a happy consequence of good teaching, accessible faculty members, a liberal arts tradition at Virginia that dates to Thomas Jefferson, the university's first president, and, perhaps, a tad of cultural elitism. But it also reflects a new attitude about the value and relevance of studying the humanities. At U-Va., at least, students no longer believe that majoring in history or literature dooms them to a life in academe, or unemployment, or that majoring in French is useful only for reading menus in restaurants.
"There is no question that it is a thriving undergraduate program," said Merrill Peterson, an American history professor and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. "We consciously project to students . . . that an undergraduate doesn't have to make a choice between something that is blatantly professional and one that is academically serious."
The increased popularity of French at Virginia reflects the generally improved national picture for language study. The number of college students taking foreign language courses increased by 9 percent between 1980 and 1983, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association, with the heaviest enrollments in Spanish and French. At the University of Maryland the number of French majors -- 158 of the 30,000 undergraduates at the College Park campus -- has tripled in the past decade.
"There is an increased interest in better education, and the study of foreign languages is considered one of the basic parts of a good education," said Monica Devens, assistant director of foreign language programs at the language association.
With one eye on the job market, students who love French literature and language also see the utility of knowing a second language in a wide array of professional fields. Reflecting a trend on campuses across the country, including Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, many French majors at Virginia have a second major in international relations, economics or government, a combination that has academic and practical appeal.
Charlotte Peliccia, a 21-year-old senior from Charlottesville, is applying to business school and hopes her French major ultimately will help her get a job with the Central Intelligence Agency, a Swiss bank or the YMCA's overseas program. Pam Wooley, a double major in French and psychology, wants to use her combined studies to pursue a career in international advertising and marketing.
"I was feeling a little bit guilty about majoring in French and going to medical school, because I was worried that med schools wouldn't take me seriously," said Lance Goodman, a senior from Norfolk. "But I had an adviser who told me, 'The most practical thing to do is to major in what you like.' That was exactly what I wanted to hear."
Few, if any, of Virginia's French majors plan to get doctorates in French.
"I strongly discourage them from going on to get PhDs because the market is still very bad," said David Rubin, a specialist in 17th century French literature and chief faculty adviser for French majors. "But I do encourage them to add a second major, to become computer-literate, and to take one year of accounting courses.
"I have former students who are now security analysts with foreign banks and middle-level managers with Swiss banks."
In Cabell Hall, across the lawn from the university's Rotunda, there is a constant chatter of French in the third floor corridors leading to the French department. The bubbly atmosphere is one of the department's strongest selling points with students.
"The department is very humane and easygoing, but at the same time rigorous academically," said Robert Kellogg, an English professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
English remains the largest and most prestigious department at Virginia, but the enrollment in French courses is testimony to the popularity of the subject. This year students had to be turned away from a course in French civilization. They are crammed into others, such as department chairman Robert Denomme's course on Romanticism, where last week the lectures (always in French) were devoted to two takes from Chateaubriand's classic work, "Genie du Christianisme."
Even in such courses as Advanced Composition and Introduction to Literature, a department staple that has several hundred students divided into different sections, assistant professor Scott Bryson had intermediate-level French students engrossed in analyzing -- in French -- a 19th century poem by Arthur Rimbaud.
"We have huge numbers enrolling in the French literature courses," said Denomme, whose enthusiasm for his subject sets the tone for much of the department.
By and large, students who major in French say they had an early exposure to the language and also an ear for it. Jennifer Kennedy, a double major in French and economics from Wilmington, Del., began taking French in fourth grade. "That's what got me interested in it," she said. When she arrived in Charlottesville she planned to enter Virginia's undergraduate business program, but she opted against it in order to spend last semester in Paris.
Even with the burgeoning interest in the humanities, some French majors say they feel stigmatized by peers and parents who question the practicality of studying French.
"The question I always get is, 'What are you going to do with your major?' " said Naren Tayal, a senior from Falls Church.
"A lot of people assume you're going to be a language teacher," said Lance Goodman. "Or they ask, 'Why are you majoring in French?' "
Denomme jokes that few of those with double majors attend the French department's graduate reception in the spring. "They don't want their parents to find out they are majoring in French."
In the face of questions about the usefulness of their undergraduate concentrations, most French majors survive with little discomfort and a conviction that the humanities are part of a good education.
"I've had my parents wonder what I'm going to do with it," said Christine Voss, a junior French major who foresees a career in military intelligence. "It's pressure from society we're living in. Fifty years ago a well-rounded person had read a little of everything. Now it's all specialization."
That French is the most popular foreign language at Virginia is something of a mystery to the French faculty, despite its recent fifth-place ranking among graduate programs and the wide acclaim of its best-known faculty member, Roger Shattuck.
The program grew dramatically after the university admitted women more than a decade ago. Today, however, about 40 percent of the French majors are men.
"I was relieved that there were other normal guys taking French here," said Bruce Layman, a junior majoring in French and rhetoric. "In high school it was just that guys didn't take French. I was ready to hang it up."
Rubin says the department also expanded after former chairman Lester Crocker revamped the program and began recruiting top-notch faculty members. The flexibility of the major, which allows students to choose a literature or a language option, seems to attract a broad group of undergraduates.
Also at work is a university -- and southern -- tradition in which French has been emphasized as part of a classical education. Jefferson, in minutes he took at a board of visitors meeting in 1817, described a plan to have a French House on campus so that students could master the language.
"I don't know how to explain its current popularity," said Rubin, who has taught at Virginia for 16 years. "It's a unique institution with a very special clientele. From a socioeconomic and cultural point of view, we are an elitist school. But there is something else at work here that eludes all of us."