When the University of Michigan started teaching Chinese and Japanese in the summer of 1936, the Asian Languages and Cultures Department didn’t exist.

As World War II approached, these classes became much more pertinent, and the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literatures was created. The program grew rapidly, and in 1985, it was renamed the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Now, the department offers 11 languages that qualify for an Asian languages and cultures minor, and two more — Bengali and Punjabi — that students can take for a two-year sequence. 

The department continues to grow and attract student attention, and the Asian languages and cultures minor is currently ranked as the seventh-most-declared minor in LSA. But though over 100 students graduate with the minor each year, some of them, including Public Policy junior Gabby McFarland, are upset about the name of their degree from the department. 

“I originally decided to minor in Chinese because of the benefits of speaking a second language. However, once I studied abroad in China I grew interested in the cultural aspects of the minor,” McFarland wrote in an email. “I feel like there being no specific Chinese major or minor is fundamentally ignorant. Having an Asian Language Department fails to recognize individual countries and cultures, and instead groups them.” 

As McFarland said, there is no Chinese major or minor. Students also can’t get a degree in Japanese, Thai, Sanskrit or Urdu. But by taking any of those languages — or any of seven others — for three years, plus a few other classes, and a student could declare an Asian languages and cultures minor. 

According to Ashlee Wolfe, curriculum and student services manager for the department, this blanket major is mostly an administrative necessity. Within Wolverine Access, majors allow for a second, specific program sub-plan to be named. For example, Asian studies majors can declare a sub-major with a further specified area of study, and that sub-major will show up on their transcript. But this same technological capability doesn’t exist for minors.

“That really has to do with administrative and technological capabilities. … But they’re still minoring in Chinese, they’re still minoring in Hindi; it’s just that their transcript can’t really reflect that,” Wolfe said. “The only way it could reflect that is if we actually created (eleven) separate minors for the program and that’s excessive.” 

The Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, on the other hand, does offer specific minors for different languages (although one of its minors is a combined minor in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian languages). Prof. Michael Makin, department director of undergraduate studies, explained this separation as a way for students to focus in on a certain area of Slavic culture. 

“When we have had enough teaching resources and courses, we have created a minor in each of those other language areas, and, indeed, it is my own impression that students want to take minors that specifically identify distinct areas of Slavic culture — after all, Czech language and culture are radically different from, say, Russian, or the South Slavic area,” Makin wrote in an email. “I would have nothing against the creation of a minor in ‘Slavic Languages and Cultures,’ but, to my mind, such a minor would denote general coverage of the area.”  

Wolfe said her department understands this desire to hone in on a certain topic, and the minor is set up in a way that student can do that. However, separate minors are not a reality for the department.

“It’s a little bit more realistic for all other units,” she said. “For us, it’s more just administratively silly and redundant to actually create separate minors for every single one of our languages that qualify for a minor. … Minors don’t really get a line on a student’s resume. Majors get a line on a student’s resume. So when it comes to minors it’s more about the skills students get from these minors … and they have the transcript to back these up.” 

According to Wolfe, students usually don’t have a problem with the generality of the minor’s name once she explains to them how the degree works and what employers care about. Nonetheless, McFarland still didn’t feel satisfied after she received a similar story.

“When I declared my minor, our conversation was focused around my Chinese curriculum so it didn’t really occur to me that it would eventually say Asian Languages on my transcript,” McFarland wrote. “I think having an Asian Languages minor could negatively impact my resume because there could be expectations that I might not fulfill having only concentrated in Chinese. Additionally, I chose the Chinese program to develop language skills, which I would like to explicitly list on my resume. An Asian Language minor inhibits this.”

Yet, Wolfe said students should recognize what they are really getting with an Asian languages and cultures minor. 

“It’s more about highlighting the skill-set you gained from a minor,” she said. “And (students) can easily say that they have, for instance, a Korean minor, because truly they do. The fact that it’s named Asian languages and cultures is truly just an administrative, bureaucratic thing.”

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