Catalan Referendum, global conversations work their way into LSA Catalan courses

Sunday, November 26, 2017 - 6:27pm

When the parliament of Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain, voted this past September to hold a region-wide referendum on whether or not Catalonia should become independent from Spanish governance, the question of its future became a matter of international importance.

Faced with such a divisive current event, professors instructing courses in the newly developed Catalan course sequence in the University of Michigan’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures started to work discussion of the referendum into class time.

Susanna Coll-Ramirez, the assistant director to the Elementary Language Program in the Romance Languages Department, moved to the United States from Catalonia 18 years ago. She said in 2011 she was asked to develop a 400-level class in the Spanish curriculum on the Catalan language and culture.

After sufficient enrollment rates and positive student feedback, the class was given a permanent spot in the Spanish curriculum as a one-semester course for students who have already taken three 300-level Spanish courses. From there, another section was added and the sequence continued to grow until the Catalan courses became their own sequence, no longer strictly Spanish classes but instead cross-listed.

“Now it’s not under (Spanish) anymore, it’s also Catalan so it has its own name,” Coll-Ramirez said. “It’s Catalan but it’s cross-listed with Spanish so it’s Catalan and Spanish. The prerequisites, because it’s a 291 class, is that the students have had Spanish 277 so students still come with a very good level of Spanish.”

LSA senior Abbey Derechin is currently taking a Catalan course with Coll-Ramirez. She said she was interested in taking the course because her family has roots in the Catalonian region.

“My uncle is from Catalonia and I’ve always wanted to learn his native language, I guess, because I’ve been taking Spanish since seventh grade so I can speak with him in Spanish but I wanted to be able to speak with him in Catalan as well.”

Ryan Szpiech, an associate professor in the departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and Judaic Studies, said along with familial ties to the region like Derechin has, students have heard the name Catalonia more often after the referendum. Szpiech believes this will allow the Catalan program to grow while other larger languages won’t because there are no current political events happening in these larger countries with more native speakers. 

“Catalan is not a big language worldwide,” Szpiech said. “By comparison, Portuguese, another romance language, is far more abundant as far as native speakers around the world. After Spanish, it’s the most spoken romance language and it has more speakers than all the others, French, Italian, Catalan, Romanian, all of them, except Spanish, combined. So that’s how big it is. It’s huge and yet … (Portuguese has) struggled to get (a program) because people don’t see the relevance of it. Even though the numbers are there, there’s nothing politically happening in Portugal or Brazil to spark interest.”

When the Parliament of Catalonia called for a referendum Sept. 6, the Spanish government met them with strong legal action, according to the Human Rights Watch, an NGO that compiles reports on human rights abuses worldwide. A few days later, the Spanish Constitutional Court deemed the referendum unconstitutional and illegal.

The referendum took place regardless. A 2005 amendment to Spain’s Penal Code decriminalized voting in an unconstitutional referendum and as citizens and proponents of the succession from Spain turned out to vote the day of the referendum, The New York Times reported Spanish and Catalonian police used excessive force against demonstrators. Catalonia’s health department estimated 893 people reported injuries after clashes with police.

Szpiech, who is currently teaching a Catalan class, said reports from the likes of the Times and the Human Rights Watch fail to mention the severity of the separatist movement that called for the referendum, claiming the movement does not strictly consist of peaceful protests and a desire for democratic voting practices.

“Everyone (in the department) is concerned,” Szpiech said. “This movement is very extreme, the Catalan independence movement. It’s not a centrist movement. It’s a pretty far-left movement, some people consider right because it’s kind of so conservative against the state, but it’s definitely something where most people are not in the zone of saying they’re willing to give up or cause injury or cause strife, cause war because who knows what this could bring? … Spanish society is, one way or another, suffering. Whether it splits or doesn’t split, there’s no good outcome to this, I don’t think.”

Coll-Ramirez said when she started to teach the first Catalan 400-level class, she started to see a mobilization of this separatist movement and she said she wanted her students to know the background of the region and the current politics so they understand the reports shared in the media and online.

Currently, Coll-Ramirez’s Catalan class is divided into three units: social information, history and culture. After the third exam, she brings current events such as the referendum into conversation in order to contextualize political Catalanism so the conversations aren’t just opinions but rather full, informed debates.

“Usually we pull a lot of articles,” Coll-Ramirez said. “Students read some articles and then I use the class time to talk about different positions from the Catalan position, from the Spanish position and then I actually want students to talk about … their opinions but I think that … it is important that this (discussion) happens as the end of the semester because the students have had the whole semester to learn why some people may feel a certain way and why some people may demand certain things.”

Szpiech said he brings the referendum into his class to stress that what is taught in the classroom does not live solely in the classroom and these events are constantly evolving, so it’s important to stay informed.

“I’ve been trying to start class every day with the news, if there is some,” Szpiech said. “I put it on the screen and say ‘Hey, look what’s going on.’ This is a really big deal. If you’re a Spanish major, if you’re from a Spanish-speaking country, if you’re Catalan or interested in Catalonia, this is a big deal … It’s been good to just give us something to talk about and then to remind them too like ‘Okay, what are we studying?’”

Derechin said she believes mentioning global issues and promoting dialogue is important for a well-rounded education, but more discussions should take place in one-on-one discussions with the professor so individual views on the issue can be fine-tuned.

“I think (the referendum) should be presented in class, which it was, and if there’s a big issue in the world like this, have the professor say ‘I’m willing to talk to you about it if you want to’ and just go to office hours,” Derechin said. “I think the way (Coll-Ramirez) handled it is the right way to do it.”

As seen with Szpiech, many Spanish professors are teaching Catalan classes and pitching courses to appeal to students. While a dichotomy between Catalan and Spanish instructors in regards to the referendum may be drawn, Szpiech said the department is united against extremist movements and in both Spanish and Catalan politics.

“The conversations I’ve had have all been sort of in agreement about frustration, that there seems to be a very bold group of people who are leading this (independence movement) and it’s not at all clear that it’s going about it in a very representative way,” Szpiech said. “Certainly that’s not to say (unification) for or against independence but … nobody’s happy with the way the politicians are sort of imposing themselves on both sides. Everyone seems very heavy-handed so politically, I think I’ve been in agreement with all my colleagues that this is a very ugly thing for both sides.”