No Failure To Communicate - KFLC continues its legacy as a premier center of foreign language study

by Jessica Fisher

photos by Mark Cornelison

For the past 62 years, the University of Kentucky has hosted the internationally recognized Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC). Following two horrific world wars, its inception in 1948, was in line with national trends that “marked a resurgence of foreign language study as a way of furthering intercultural comprehension, what we now call global competence, and a desire to increase understanding that would avoid future wars,” according to Executive Director of the KFLC and Latin American Studies professor, Susan Carvalho

“The same thing happened with the Middle Eastern languages after 9/11. The United States government declared that our inability to communicate jeopardized our world position,” transforming language comprehension from an academic requirement in college to a national security issue. The University of Kentucky, however, and its prestigious Department of Hispanic Studies have never taken the importance of foreign language study for granted, during times of war or times of peace.

Carvalho echoes similar sentiments, noting there were a quite a few conferences of this type following the war, and that many conferences have as much longevity as KFLC, but “they move from institution to institution…they are not identified with one institution every year in the way KFLC is. It does take a level of sustained commitment from an institution to be able to maintain a conference for 62 years.” 

The conference, which boasts more than 700 participants from around the world, is generously supported by the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, in addition to the fees that the participants pay. Registration fees cover the operational expenses, but the keynote speakers are sponsored by UK dollars, “and they bring the eyes of the profession to the University of Kentucky,” said Carvalho.

Carvalho’s first conference as a faculty member at UK was in 1990. She had already known about it from her own faculty in graduate school and her many colleagues who had come to the KFLC to give papers. “Most faculty in the country, in the fields of language and literature and cultural studies, know about the University of Kentucky because of the conference,” said Carvalho.

As might be expected, the conference plays a large role in recruitment for the Department of Hispanic Studies. The sessions at the conference devoted to Spanish and Spanish American studies comprise 50 percent of the conference submissions (participants must submit abstracts before they are selected for participation).  The dominant Hispanic language presence at the conference, Carvalho explained, “is a reflection of the distribution of our language specialties as a whole. Spanish dominates the areas of second language study (numerically) in the US.”  

The Department of Hispanic Studies emphasizes to its potential graduate students the important professionalization benefits of the KFLC.  “In addition to the direct contact with the critical and professional world, our graduate students serve as hosts, moderators, discussants and or organizers of sessions; taking charge of communication with the participants helps them learn the norms of collegial conversation. They listen to speakers whose work they have read in their classes and that brings the critical work to life for the graduate students at UK,” said Carvalho. 

Assistant Director of the KFLC Michelle Dumais, a Hispanic Studies Ph.D. candidate, has a very involved role in the conference, more so than the average graduate student. From maintaining the conference Web page, to answering some 150 e-mails a day from conference participants during peak times, to building and editing a 100-page program, Dumais’s many hats are unmatched. 

After nine months of planning and preparing for one of the longest running and most esteemed foreign language conferences, she is counting on “one of those 700 conference participants, whose credit cards I promptly and efficiently refunded (when needed), whose session I managed to reschedule to accommodate their brother’s wedding, or for whom I secured an extra data projector after the deadline for AV equipment requests had passed, to find a job for me somewhere.”

Dumais’s light-hearted humor is just one of her many attributes that is sure to complement an impressive academic record. Originally from Boston she graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, and with departmental distinction in Hispanic Languages and Literature. She went on to obtain her master’s degree in Spanish from Middlebury College School Abroad in Madrid, Spain.

Though the KFLC wasn’t the deciding factor for her decision to come to UK, it was definitely a perk, and was denoted by a huge plus sign on her large Excel spread sheet she used when deciding what school she would attend. 

“I am very analytical. In fact, I made my big Excel spread sheet and decided that I would weigh each factor and give it a numerical value.” Luckily for the Department of Hispanic Studies, UK came out on top. 

“After a really great campus visit, sitting in some classes and meeting a lot of good people it felt like I place I fit. I didn’t have an objective reason, it was definitely more of a feeling,” said Dumais.

And for Dumais, her gut feeling was confirmed by the faculty. “The professors are really good, I mean objectively they are very good, they publish a lot, but they are also very caring.” She mentioned times when she had been sick, and her worried professors and faculty would e-mail her to make sure she was OK. “They notice you,” said Dumais. She adds, “I have probably been to every single professor’s house at some point during my three years here for dinner or something; and many of them have been to my house.” 

Dumais’s dissertation focuses on narrative representations of mass tourism in popular novels from Spain in the 1960s and 1970s. Her research looks at how the representations in these novels of tourism, which was booming during this time, introduced counter-ideological images of culture, gender, religion, etc, into the dominant ideology under Franco.

With her dissertation well underway, meaningful relationships forged throughout the department, and two Kentucky Foreign Language Conferences under her belt, she feels that UK has adequately prepared her for entering academia, even in the current economy.

Carvalho couldn’t have put it better: “For the rest of their careers these students will keep running into people who will say I have been to Kentucky. I gave my first paper there or I have always loved the KFLC. They will be associated with this conference for the rest of their lives. And it is such an awesome honor for a faculty member to know that you have the power to invite any scholar, any colleague and they will say yes because it is the KFLC. It is truly a wonderful gift to students.”


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