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Fall Update

At SPS this fall, all courses, other than pre-established online courses, will be offered face-to-face in our New York City classrooms. Some of these face-to-face courses will be offered in the HyFlex format to ensure that all of our students can make progress toward their degree requirements, if faced with delays due to student visas or vaccination effectiveness wait times.
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Former Program Director Dr. David Quinn Reflects on His 40 Year ALP Career

Dr. David Quinn has been a member of Columbia University’s American Language Program since 1981, and served as Director from 1999 to 2015. He is active in the area of language program best practices through ongoing work with CEA, the federally-chartered Commission on English Language Program Accreditation. His special teaching interest is in advanced academic writing. 

In celebration of his retirement, we discussed Columbia’s long history of offering English-language classes for international students, the successes and challenges he found while running the program, and the ALP’s unique, critical-thinking approach.  

How has the American Language Program evolved since you joined? 

I joined the ALP in 1981, forty years ago this month. However, my time at the ALP represents a fraction of the time that Columbia has been offering English-language classes for international students—the first documented courses were offered in the spring semester of 1912. A few years following J.W. Fulbright’s advancement of international student exchange in 1946, the ALP became one of the first programs in the US to be allowed to sponsor student visas for full-time English study. That, in 1954, set the model for the in-person cultural-immersion ALP we have known, and still do, even since March of 2020. During the past few decades, too, Columbia  has become more and more welcoming to, even dependent on international degree candidates. The ALP increasingly serves those students as well with classes at levels of language proficiency well beyond those offered at other institutions. It will be interesting to see how these two ALPs, the cultural-immersion one, and the degree candidate service ALP, grow in the coming years. 

What makes the ALP program unique from other English language programs?   

The ALP is one of many high-quality university-based English programs across the U.S., doing its part for international peace through our own brand of “citizen diplomacy.” Our particular quality claims are based on our achievement of the highest level of national accreditation by CEA, the U.S. Department of Education-chartered accreditation body for the field of post-secondary English-language education. The excellence of our faculty and curricula, particularly our emphasis on critical thinking, were called out as especially exemplary. 

The best parts of teaching at Columbia have been the creativity and dedication of my colleagues, and the liberty granted us to create our own curricula. Then, there are the students who give their best efforts to find their voices in English, to advance their careers, and who go on to make the world a more just, peaceful, and sustainable place. 

What has been your favorite part of teaching at Columbia? 

The best parts of teaching at Columbia have been the creativity and dedication of my colleagues, and the liberty granted us to create our own curricula. Then, there are the students who give their best efforts to find their voices in English, to advance their careers, and who go on to make the world a more just, peaceful, and sustainable place.

What were some of the challenges of directing the program? 

Inertia of motion and inertia of rest both present challenges to any institution. Sometimes trends in the higher ed market, and in international student mobility, simply seem to demand change. Now. Similarly, trends and improvements in pedagogy and technology require new ways of doing things. Not all change may be worth it, however; new is not necessarily better.

Resistance to change, though, can be just as dangerous. People and institutions can become too comfortable and unimaginative. 

Running an educational enterprise where people’s futures and even their self-worth are at stake requires frequent repetition of a version of Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”—the part about having the wisdom to know the difference between accepting the things you can’t change, or perhaps shouldn’t, and changing the things you can, and perhaps really, really should. 

What are you most proud of accomplishing while at the program’s helm? 

Bringing the ALP into the good-practices mainstream of English-language programs through the achievement of Programmatic Accreditation by CEA. Beginning in 2011, at the urging of Dean Kristine Billmyer, we took a long, hard, productive look at everything we do, from mission, to faculty, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and student services. Everyone involved worked very hard to achieve the level of approbation we now have—the maximum possible 10-year accreditation. Significantly, too, continuous improvement has now become a regular part of everything we do. 

What are you looking forward to in your retirement? 

Continuing to be an accreditation site evaluator for CEA, studying at the New York Botanical Garden, travel (soon, I hope), and uninstalling Zoom for at least a few months.