Language of Summer

May 1, 2015
SLP Student
An SLP student makes use of Andover-Harvard Theological Library / Photo: Steve Gilbert

The HDS Summer Language Program is an eight-week, intensive program in language study designed specifically for the curriculum in theological and religious studies and taught with a focus on translation and reading comprehension in a foreign language.

With the deadline for applications looming (May 8), HDS communications asked SLP director Karin Grundler-Whitacre about an exciting new offering this summer and about the benefits of enrolling in the SLP for both current and incoming students.

HDS: Why should an incoming student consider taking a course through the Summer Language Program at HDS? What advantages are there to completing language coursework before they've started their first semester at the School?

The SLP supports the mission of HDS and the education of our students by allowing them the opportunity to engage in language study designed specifically for the curriculum in theology and religious studies. Summer language study enriches the students' ongoing coursework at HDS and grounds them for future work in academia and ministry. Students from other schools (and even other countries) travel to HDS to take part in the SLP and to take advantage of our high-quality instruction and unique curricular strengths.

Over the years, I have witnessed many incoming HDS students arrive in Cambridge in June, get settled, then enroll in the SLP to fulfill a language requirement for their program of study prior to the start of the fall term. The benefit of doing this is that students can fully concentrate on their language studies without any other coursework demanding their attention during the summer.

The SLP does more than assist students in satisfying a language requirement; it also enables them to meet fellow incoming students, explore HDS and the greater Boston area, as well as become acclimated to Harvard University. Many former SLP students have commented that taking a course in the SLP and getting an early start was one of the best things they did at the beginning of their careers at HDS. When other students arrive for orientation, SLP students already know the library very well, they are familiar with various Harvard and HDS-specific terminology, and by the time the fall semester begins, they have already established a network of friends.

HDS: Is the SLP only open to Harvard students? Who else can register for classes?

Grundler-Whitacre: Anyone who is currently registered at any college in the United States or abroad (with some restrictions because of visas) is eligible to apply. We generally have a good mix of current and incoming students, and as of last year, recent HDS graduates may enroll—perhaps in preparation for a doctoral program at Harvard or elsewhere.

One of my favorite functions of the SLP is the "cohort-forming" experience for students who have been admitted and who will commence their studies in the fall. Having said that, we also have had staff members and faculty be a part of the SLP. Because many of our courses meet in the late afternoon/early evening (and no classes meet on Fridays), it is ideal for staff members who are interested studying translation.

HDS: Who teaches the language courses? Are they HDS/Harvard faculty or doctoral students?

Grundler-Whitacre: Generally, classes are taught by faculty members who have been teaching either in HDS's language program or in the SLP for several years. Some of my colleagues in the SLP are faculty members at other schools who spend their summers at HDS providing high-quality instruction to our students.

Everyone is dedicated to the students' success and enjoys the SLP as a change of pace. With nine hours of regular instruction during each week of the SLP, the pace is fast and intense. Seeing the progress of the students in such an accelerated fashion is quite amazing. Each class also has a teaching fellow (generally an advanced doctoral student from HDS or FAS), who provides additional tutoring, exercises, and review sessions for the students.

In the German class that I teach, we have students start with no prior knowledge of German, but within a few weeks in the SLP, they are able to read and translate academic texts in Germanor even Paul Tillich and Karl Barth in the original. Amazing!

HDS: Pali, a language studied by scholars and students who want to read the original Buddhist scriptures, is being offered for the first time this summer. Why was it added to this year's language offerings? Is it in response to the increased attention on Buddhist studies here at HDS?

Grundler-Whitacre: Last fall, during a discussion I had with HDS professor Charles Hallisey, it became apparent that after Pali had been added to our regular language offerings during the academic year, it would be a great opportunity to offer it in the SLP. After some meetings and talks, we submitted a proposal to the Executive Committee on Academic Programs (ECAP), which is comprised of the academic dean, the program chairs for the MDiv and MTS degrees, the registrar, and the dean of students. The proposal was vetted and approved for a trial period of three years. To quote from the proposal that Professor Hallisey wrote to the ECAP:

"This addition [of Pali to the SLP] would strengthen the new Pali language program at HDS, and it would also add to the limited existing opportunities to study Pali nationally in the United States, and thus could have some appeal to graduate students now studying at other universities.

"Pali is the language of the Buddhist canon of the Theravada traditions of Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, and Southeast Asia. It also has been a major vehicle for religious scholarship in the Theravada Buddhist world.  

"At HDS, Pali is a central language for the Buddhist Ministry Initiative, and HDS has developed a curriculum appropriate for our MDiv program. Someone who follows the course sequence in Pali at HDS will have the ability to read canonical Buddhist texts in Pali independently. HDS's offerings in Pali also strengthen the School's MTS offerings and make the general Buddhist Studies Program at Harvard stronger. An MTS student who follows the cycle of Pali courses will have a solid preparation for continuing study of Pali and Theravada Buddhism in further graduate studies."

We are delighted that Dr. Beatrice Chrystall, who taught Pali previously in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, is teaching the year-round Pali courses at HDS, including in the SLP. 

Given the short duration (eight weeks) and large scope of the material covered, are students able to learn the languages through the SLP just as successfully as they would in a full-semester course?

Grundler-Whitacre: Yes. We are actually covering two semesters of material in eight weeks. That is a lot, but everyone is completely focused, and the constant involvement in the target language and the intense immersion produce the desired results for our students, who then can seamlessly continue with their third-semester language courses in the fall.

by Jonathan Beasley