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Smith boasts strong Portuguese and Brazilian Studies Program

Spanish Department March 8 14 055

Smith’s Spanish department faculty, in March 2014.

The Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Smith College includes the innovative Portuguese and Brazilian Studies Program. A discussion with the program’s leaders, Professors Marguerite Harrison and Malcolm McNee, and professor emeritus Charles Cutler provided insight into the history of the program and its inner workings.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smith offered Spanish and Portuguese to students thanks to the pioneering efforts of a few Spanish faculty members, including Alice Clemente. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Portuguese and Brazilian Studies program formed and students could major or minor in Portuguese. In the beginning, Smith College was one of few places that offered Portuguese. Today mainly large universities offer Portuguese but many still don’t have a Portuguese major, and only recently have other liberal arts colleges established a Portuguese language curriculum.

In the most recent decennial review, Smith’s Portuguese and Brazilian Studies Program was called the “jewel in the crown” of the department, and other schools have begun to model their Portuguese curriculum off of Smith’s. The program’s success was not immediate though; the depth and range of the curriculum was built over time to where it stands today—offering comprehensive language courses and a range of interdisciplinary topics courses to students.

Professor Harrison commented on the program’s focus on “transnational topics,” involving Brazil, Portugal, and African nations including Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Additionally, an increase in students’ interest in Portuguese was observed in the last decade due to Brazil’s prominence in the world and Portuguese, Brazilian, and Cape Verdean immigration to Massachusetts and other parts of the U.S. More and more students are beginning their Portuguese learning at Smith in their first year, and with that bringing energy and a sense of continuity to the program.

Professor McNee notes an increasing number of Latino and international students in his classes along with a growing number of Portuguese heritage speakers. Professor Harrison observes that “many students come to Portuguese through other disciplines,” and many are double majoring as well, so the program’s courses have shifted to a more “interdisciplinary focus.” Examples of this approach include “Brazil in the News: Media, Society and Popular Culture,” designed by Simone Gugliotta, who is a part-time lecturer in the program, and “The Brazilian Body: Representations of Women in Brazilian Literature and Culture,” taught by Professor Harrison. Professor McNee agrees that it’s challenging to “make courses work for everyone’s disciplinary interests” and so the aim is to “bring students together around a central topic” by creating “a learning community around these issues.”

Professor McNee’s most recent seminar focused on the environment and Brazilian culture. Students could explore the topic from various vantage points, including examining Brazilian plants in the Botanic Garden collection from the perspectives of botanical science, social and economic history, and artistic representation. These interdisciplinary topics courses allow students the flexibility to develop their own projects and interests while deepening their knowledge of Portuguese language and culture, providing a very unique, rewarding experience.

Professor Cutler developed an innovative course on translating poetry which connects both sectors of the department, Spanish and Portuguese, in one course and dialogues with North American poet/translators as well. From that experience the other professors were inspired to create a “learning community.” Professor Cutler stated that when he first started teaching at Smith the student body was largely homogenous whereas the students today come from more diverse backgrounds, each bringing a different expertise. He added that with teaching comes the need to be “excited and open about limitations with your expertise—you don’t need to be an expert about everything necessarily.” And with that, he and the other professors have been repeatedly amazed by Smith students expanding their own knowledge base.

Most students in the program decide to study abroad. There are many options, with five locations in Brazil and an additional program in Portugal. From their education shaped by the professors of the Portuguese and Brazilian Studies program, Smith students go off in the world to study further and work in many fields like geography, public policy, urban planning, Latin American studies, translation, bilingual education and more. The program is looking to restart the Luso-Brazilian Club and to enhance their courses through support of the college via curriculum enhancement grants.

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