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Dear RLL Alumni,

It’s been a long time! As has been the case for all departments at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the pedagogical and research mission of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures has been impacted considerably by the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write these lines, I find myself in the last weeks of my time as chair having come on board in July 2019, and it humbles me to think back to the ways in which since March 2020 colleagues across all ranks and languages in our department embraced three different teaching modalities (in-person, different forms of hybrid, and fully remote), often with very limited time for planning. 

Changing circumstances led to extensive course syllabus redesign and to shifting forms of delivery according to needs on the ground, thereby creating a general sense of disruption in the normal development of our teaching, and of our students’ learning, of course, to a large extent because undergraduate students’ plans for study abroad were so deeply impacted by the international realities of the pandemic. We have all received a crash course in the ways in which teaching in non-English target languages creates challenges that the English-speaking classroom simply does not have. 

Research has also been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty research in our department is highly international and multilingual by nature. Like our study abroad offerings, research travel was almost entirely suspended, and this resulted in lost time for the advancement of faculty research projects. Without doubt, community exchange and collective conversations have been impacted by the pandemic, and the possibilities for intellectual exchange and social connectedness in and beyond the department have been diminished. 

Having said that, now is the time for a RLL bounce back. After all, our department still stands for exceptional undergraduate and graduate teaching and scholarship in the humanities. We still provide an unparalleled opportunity for Michigan undergraduate students to explore the ramifications of non-US-centered diversity, equity, and inclusion on a local, regional, national, transnational, hemispheric, and trans-hemispheric scale, both past and present, via linguistic and cultural traditions other than English. RLL still offers undergraduate and graduate students a truly unique international studies experience grounded in rigorous study, the development of profoundly comparative cultural perspectives, the attainment of thorough multilingual proficiency, and the fundamental cross-cultural competencies that come from advanced communication, understanding, and preparation for a good part of the non-English speaking world both in the U.S. and beyond. 

It is with our department’s uniqueness in mind that I would like to take this opportunity to outline just some of the positive forms of recognition that our department’s teaching and research mission has received in recent years. Since 2019 RLL colleagues have been the honored recipients of a named Distinguished University Professorship (Peggy McCracken, Professor of French, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Comparative Literature), a named Collegiate Professorship (Cristina Moreiras-Menor, Professor of Spanish and Women’s and Gender Studies), and a Collegiate Lectureship (María Dorantes, Lecturer IV of Spanish). RLL colleagues have also been the honored recipients of competitive teaching awards in the College of LS&A, such as the Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award (Associate Professor of Spanish, Lorenzo García-Amaya), and the Matthews Underclass Teaching Award (Lecturer IV of French, Sabine Gabaron; Lecturer IV of Spanish, Stephanie Goetz). Colleagues have also been acknowledged in the College of LS&A for their outstanding contributions to undergraduate education, such as Professor of Spanish Teresa Satterfield, who has been the honored recipient of the Individual Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education in Race & Ethnicity Instruction, and Associate Professor of Spanish Lorenzo García-Amaya, who received the Individual Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education. This is only part of the picture, however, and I can only lament that due to limitations of space I cannot honor the myriad research-related and teaching honors that my RLL colleagues have received in recent years. For more, please see the Faculty News section of this newsletter. Without doubt RLL is a place of longstanding and sustained pedagogical and research-related excellence across all languages.

Associate Chair Nick Henriksen Speaks at the 2022 Commencement Ceremony

RLL’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives has expanded and deepened in recent years. In Fall 2020 the DEI Committee, which had been formed originally in 2015, was restructured and streamlined in such a way as to address DEI-related issues and themes more transparently, programmatically, and efficiently, highlighting the relation between the department, the University, and the broader social sphere. As a result, the RLL DEI Committee has embraced an abolitionist commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, has redefined commitments, implemented new action items, and has provided orientation for discussions and initiatives for further development. The department is committed to the development of anti-racist pedagogy in the Elementary Language Program (and has implemented new programs of study in, for example, Spanish 231 and Spanish 232), as well as in gateway courses to the majors and minors such as Spanish 277 and French 235. For more on the work of the RLL DEI Committee, please see their website

RLL’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion has also been supplemented by the work of the department’s recently founded Gender Diversity Committee. When I became chair in fall 2019, Associate Professor of Spanish Nick Henriksen (RLL Associate Chair) and I began conversations about the ways in which an increasing number of our undergraduate students were expressing discomfort about the binary (he/she) morphological options available to them for self-identification, and for the identification of others, in the Romance languages. These legitimate concerns mirror fundamental political and cultural debates that are also occurring throughout the Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese-speaking world. We decided it was paramount to address this sense of discomfort directly, productively, and affirmatively since the world of textbooks and classroom materials is sadly lacking in its representation of diversity and inclusivity and will probably not change much over the course of the next decade. The idea was to address the effects and potential pedagogical outcomes of a generational shift among our undergraduate students regarding second language acquisition in an inclusive environment no longer circumscribed by binary (masculine/feminine) understandings of gender and sexuality. In the process, this area of pedagogical engagement would place the department at the forefront of innovation in the fields of gender and sexuality inclusivity in the Romance languages in the United States. Since those initial conversations in 2019-20 Professor Henriksen has spearheaded a collaborative initiative that has been awarded a significant New Initiatives/New Instruction (NINI) Grant, which has the potential to transform the pedagogical practices of the Romance speaking traditions in the U.S. university system. It certainly has the potential to greatly improve the experience of the 9,000+ LS&A undergraduate students who receive instruction in our department on a yearly basis. For more on the work of the RLL Gender Diversity Committee, please visit their website.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major challenge, but it remains our conviction that the students of the coming decade will not be able to speak of issues such as the history and structures of cultural difference, domination, democracy, racism, sexism, rights, poverty, war, social conflict, environmental degradation, or the limits of the political, in the absence of rigorous multilingual training in our department and an appreciation of the global structures and histories that produce and condition these phenomena today. In RLL pedagogical rigor and innovative research characterize every level of our curriculum and sustain our departmental mission from the Elementary Language Program (100-200 level courses) and the Upper-Levels (200-400 level courses) to the Graduate Program (500-900 level courses). 

University DEI initiatives are grounded invariably in U.S. national histories and realities, and in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures students can certainly learn about U.S. realities. However, they can do so by exploring the profoundly diverse internationalism—the multivalent forms of cultural and social foreignness—that underlies all discourses of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the national level. In our department undergraduate students in the Upper-Level can gain in-depth knowledge of the languages, literatures, cultural production, linguistic systems, social histories, religions, politics, belief systems and knowledges that encompass a truly vast spatial, linguistic, and human geography that includes Europe and the Greater Mediterranean, the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific. Students in RLL can therefore acquire in-depth knowledge pertaining not only to France, Spain, and Italy from the medieval period to the present, but also to the Mediterranean at large, to the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking colonial and postcolonial Americas; to French-speaking colonial and post-colonial Africa and the Pacific Islands, and to the Spanish, French and Creole speaking Caribbean and its diasporas, including those of the United States.

Our ability to do all that is, we believe, no mean feat.  And we hope you agree.


Sincerely yours,

Gareth Williams

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