For nearly 15 years, Associate Professor Chris Conway has been teaching and researching at The University of Texas at Arlington, amassing academic credit and accolades along the way. This year, Conway begins a new chapter as chair of the Department of Modern Languages.
COLA Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Conway to talk about his plans for the department and the future of languages at UTA.
Q: Apart from a short stint at Brown University (2000-2004), you’ve spent your entire career at UTA. What motivated you to tackle this new role as department chair?
A: This department hired me out of graduate school. I’ve always felt like UTA was family. When I was starting out, I felt like I got tremendous friendship and tremendous support from the office staff and my colleagues, so I’ve always felt a deep connection to this department. I’ve always thought that if it came my turn to serve the department, that I would do so, and do so gladly. Much of what I’ve accomplished as a research and a teacher ties to my experiences here in the 1990s.
Q: How has the department changed over the past two decades?
A: When I first came, the department was primarily wonderful old-timers – and I don’t mean that negatively — who were ending their careers as teachers. There were a few young guns who were allowed in. Some of those young guns were Kimberly van Noort (Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and Director of University College) and Toni Sol (Associate Professor and outgoing department chair); they were in their second year when I arrived. The department was beginning to transition, like much of UTA, into a more research-intensive format. There was slow, but noticeable changing of the guard. Now, the newbies from the ‘90s have inherited the department. The department is much younger, and much more research oriented.
Q: You have earned recognition as a professor here, joining the Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 2011 and receiving the UT System Regent’s Outstanding Teaching Award in 2012. But your own research has seen some significant changes since you started. What’s different?
A: I started out as a literary critic of 19th-century Latin American literature. Over the years, I’ve grown into the field of cultural history. Most of my research publications in the last few years have been historical and interdisciplinary. The culmination of that work is a forthcoming book, “19th Century Latin America: A Culture History.” I examine theatre, literature, music, city life, art — everything that’s associated with culture in Latin America during that time period.
Q: While your research interests have grown, there has also been growth in the number of critical languages like Chinese, Arabic and Russian that is now offered by the department. Do you see that trend continuing?
A: I think there will be more growth in that area than any other part of the department. We’ve been growing steadily the last few years and will continue to do so. To a great degree, our future is in Arabic and Chinese. That doesn’t mean the other languages don’t matter, but simply it reflects the ways we’re growing and adapting to include lesser taught, critical languages.
You have to know which languages are important to global politics. After the Cold War ended, enrollment in Russian went down. There was a sense that knowing Russian was less relevant to national security. But recent events remind us Russia is one of the most important geo-political rivals the U.S. has in Europe and people have talked about the Cold War starting again. It’s a great lesson that languages do matter and you can’t predict what’s going to be important tomorrow.
Given the current conflict in the world, I imagine new students are thinking about Chinese, Russian and Arabic as possible languages to learn. They could master one of those languages and immediately go work for our government through international relations. The world would open up to them.
Q: That’s a great selling point for undergraduates considering options for majors. Do you think you can make a case for earning a language degree when so many jobs seem geared toward business or technology?
A: Universities prepared people for life in the real world. And in a multicultural world, language is vital. We’re true to the mission of the liberal arts and civic dimensions of education. We prepare our students to be able to interact with those from other cultures. I see the diversity of languages in this department as a reflection of where we are in the U.S. right now.
Q: What goals do you have for the department as you prepare to serve as chair for the next four years?
A: There are general objectives: increasing enrollment, increasing graduation rates, creating a strong department culture for faculty, staff and students. Increasing the number of faculty would be valuable. But I’m less focused on four-year goals than I am on short-term goals. I plan to approach this job by setting yearly, concrete, do-able goals. I would like to incorporate SharePoint into our department to help us work more efficiently. I want to survey the undergraduate students in all language programs so we can better understand who they are and where they are coming from. This will enable us to make better plans and programs instead of relying on ideologies and gut feelings. I also want to set up and enact strategies for graduate recruitment.