Norma Thompson

Recollections of SBCC

(From the perspective of one Foreign Language teacher)

It was in late June 1962 that I first visited SBCC.  The campus appeared to consist of a rectangular two-story Spanish style building housing administrative offices, the library, and a few classrooms.  However, unseen from the front, on the right side was a wing partially enclosing a cement courtyard where the Automotive Department performed repair work.  The second floor of that wing included a theater, a small room overlooking the courtyard, and the “tombs”.  The latter was a concrete-walled tunnel from which opened several doorless cave-like cubicles serving as faculty offices. The building’s underpinnings, plumbing, and heating ducts were fully displayed as in some futurist construction.

The President’s secretary, the efficient and unfailingly gracious Louise Thornton, led me to the Faculty Lounge — a small room on the second floor into which had been squeezed a small table with coffee maker and several cups, a sagging sofa, and a couple unmatched straight back chairs.  The two faculty members present (Marie Gressel and Bob Profant) welcomed me with a panegyric of the school’s scholastic excellence. “Harvard on the hill” they called it.  Their praise of its then Superintendent/ President, Joe Cosand, was effusive.

He had been delayed in a meeting so the Librarian (Ruth Little) was conscripted to conduct me on a campus tour.  Thus I discovered that, besides the Spanish style building, there were two groups (three each) of temporary classrooms and at the base of the hill, by the athletic field and across from Ledbetter Beach, a white frame house shared by an unlikely duo — the Music Department and Athletics.  Perched on a hill above the harbor, the college’s site was indeed imposing, but its facilities meager.  Despite this disappointment, I was encouraged by the friendliness of the faculty I had met so far and impressed by Ruth Little, a Radcliff graduate and an intelligent, elegant and energetic woman.

The tour completed, I was taken to the President’s office for what was to be my only interview.  Dr. Cosand was not the superman described to me, but a businesslike, yet cordial gentleman.  At once, I felt at ease for although his questions were probing, they were fair and never unkind.  His final one is typical, “You are very young. How do you propose to teach students older than yourself effectively?”  Apparently my answer satisfied him.

September arrived and the first day of classes. In my previous experience (university TA, junior high, high school, Alliance Française L.A.) course content was decided by committee and the teacher had only to follow an established lesson plan, always under close supervision.  The unexpected total freedom to create my own courses was exciting, but had its drawbacks.  I had had only six weeks since my official hiring to determine content, plan, and make lab recordings for four courses plus two independent study courses. My first class, six intermediate students, was held in the glass-sided cubicle overlooking the auto shop.  There we daily mustered on, communication frequently overpowered by pounding hammers and revving motors.

I shared an office that first year with Julia Bramlage, Spanish teacher and the Foreign Language Department Chair. She was a first rate educator, devoted to her students and always willing to share her techniques with a newcomer.  In her youth, she had studied two years in Peru, quite an accomplishment in those days for a woman.  Each year she hosted the city’s foreign language teachers at her home in Mission Canyon, a unifying tradition much enjoyed.

Sadly, Julia retired at the end of my first year and passed on not long thereafter. John Forsyth had been hired to teach German, and filled out his schedule with Spanish classes.  After Julia’s retirement John became the full-time Spanish teacher and assumed the chairmanship duties.  Besides Spanish and German, John was fluent in French.  He had landed with the second wave troops at Omaha Beach during WW II serving as a decoder.  He stayed on in Paris after the war perfecting his skills in the language.  Although multilingual, Spanish was his favorite since, as a child, he had seen a Spanish troupe perform a Calderon play.  Despite understanding not one word, the beauty of the language captivated him.  He majored in Spanish at Yale and went on to receive a PhD from the U. of New Mexico.  John loved politics almost as much as Spanish and he served a two-year term as Academic Senate president. He also loved giving parties and the yearly staff gathering at his home high in the Montecito hills was an event anticipated by all.   On sabbatical he toured South America from Panama to Terra del Fuego carrying $10,000 in cash rather than resort to the “nuisance” of traveler’s checks.  He was unique, a force of nature, and a valued colleague.

Enrollment in Spanish increased and a new instructor, Robert Gallun, was hired.  A graduate of Northwestern, he had just completed his Master’s at Stanford.  He took my desk when John took Julia’s and I moved into a cubicle with Suzanne Culler.  Suzanne was recruited from the Math Department to teach German.  Her family had fled Austria for New York during the Hitler years.  Her father, who had been a university professor in Vienna, was unable to secure a teaching post, so he moved the family to Los Angeles where he managed the affairs of a relative who had achieved success in the movie industry.  Suzanne was an honor student at Fairfax High and went on to receive her Master’s in math with a minor in German from UC Berkeley.  There she met and married Glen Culler who conceived of and initiated the Computer Science Department at UCSB and was a pioneer of the Internet. He received U.S. Presidential recognition for his contributions.  Suzanne was a “career mom” before that lifestyle became mainstream and she succeeded admirably in balancing home and career.  Her four children have all gone on to distinguished careers in teaching and the professions.

In 1968 I took a two-year leave to complete my PhD and Claire Hoffner was hired as my replacement.   Born in Tacoma, Washington, she held an undergraduate degree from the U. of Puget Sound with a double major in French and music.  During her tenure at UCSB, while studying for the Master’s in French, she supervised the teaching assistants.  Claire had a fine soprano voice and was an accomplished pianist, the latter talent enabling her to teach both French and piano at SBCC.  She was also active in community affairs and was instrumental in obtaining for the college the land that was later developed as the West Campus.

Spanish Department enrollments increased and in 1968 Alfonso Hernandez was welcomed to the department.  He replaced Wayne Thompson who had come a year earlier, but resigned in order to accept a position abroad.  Originally from Texas, Alfonso had recently completed his Master’s at UCLA.  His arrival coincided with the burgeoning Chicano student population.  The department now included instructors fluent in Castillan Spanish as well as the new world variants.  He became active in Chicano affairs and in the creation of La Casa de la Raza.

The college continued to expand and new permanent structures replaced the temporaries.  Margaret Hohenberg was hired in 1970 to teach German, Suzanne preferring to return to her original discipline, math.  Margaret was a native German whose family, after being briefly deceived by Hitler’s rhetoric, had taken refuge in Switzerland during the war years.  After the war she studied in Italy and then immigrated to New York to teach at the Steiner School.  There she married and her daughter, Julia, was born.  After her husband’s passing she moved to California and accepted a position at UCSB working on speech recognition with the noted phonetician Pierre Delattre.  Besides English and her native German, Margaret spoke Italian and French, thus enabling the college to offer pronunciation courses for musicians in German, Italian and French.  Her dramatic personality and wide ranging life experience made her classes lively and exciting.

As a department we failed to develop the coherency so evident in other disciplines.  No doubt this was due to our separation from each other, both in office assignments and classrooms.  In all, I had offices in the “tombs”, in the Administration Building with the business instructors, in a temporary building sharing with a business teacher, in the Life Science Building sharing with two different science teachers.  My colleagues experienced similar odysseys.  Classrooms ranged from the Administration Building and various temporaries, to the waterfront Naval Armory and the second floor of the newly constructed Library.

In the late 70s the California universities eliminated the language requirement for the BA degree resulting in a dramatic drop in enrollment. Spanish, however, suffered only moderate decline due to the abundance of native (Chicano) speakers in the area.  It was at this time that the department split into separate disciplines.  German and French were overstaffed and it was only by inventiveness, flexibility, and hard work that we survived the next few years.  Innovations included courses in literature in translation, conversation, and courses designed for travelers.

Foreign language is not a moneymaker since small classes are requisite for adequate instruction.   In the early years this fact was understood and respected by presidents and deans alike.  However, as time passed and administrators were hired who possessed managerial rather than academic backgrounds, the philosophy changed.  Budgetary concerns rather than instructional quality became paramount and French and German were frequently required to justify their existence.  During one budget crisis, the dean recommended elimination of both departments and they were saved only by unexpected revenue.  Funding being based on enrollment, class sizes gradually increased. Second year classes had always been small, but early administrations, far from questioning their existence, actually encouraged their offering. Furthermore, the public and private high schools had active language programs and their students arrived at SBCC with considerable previous study.  To accommodate them, advanced courses (third year college equivalent) could be arranged on demand as independent study.  In later years small classes were increasingly frowned upon and ultimately eliminated. Independent study became a relic of the past. Multiple overloaded sections of first semester language (initial enrollment of 50-75 students each) became the norm.  Second semester courses of fewer than 20 students could be cancelled forcing students to “sit out” a semester before continuing study. (A class like my first in 1962 with only six students became unthinkable.) As a result, the overall program suffered from lack of coherence, a serious flaw since language learning is sequential.

The Humanities Building completed, the foreign language departments were at last housed together in a row of offices along the third floor hallway and classrooms were provided in the same building.  In addition, funds became available for a state of the art Language Lab.  In 1962 the lab was the rear half of one of the temporary buildings.  It consisted of three tape decks (one for each language) and a row of desks provided with earphones.  (The lab couldn’t be used if a class was in session and students played the tapes themselves.)  Tape decks malfunctioned and tapes and equipment “disappeared” regularly so in 1968 a technician was hired to supervise its operations.  Dick Clemons came from the aeronautics industry with a background in technical writing and photography.  He immediately set to work repairing the equipment, organizing the meager tape library, recording additional materials, and devising a daily use schedule.  Eventually he converted the entire room into a mini lab with half a dozen listening carrels and a console.  When we moved into the Humanities Building, Dick exhaustively researched available equipment, installed it, kept it in repair, built a wall-mounted tape library, and trained students to handle the routine operations thus freeing him to record high quality materials for our use — in multiple languages (by then, including beginning Italian, Russian, and Chinese).

As I reflect on those early years at SBCC, I am amazed by (and proud of!) what we accomplished with rudimentary facilities, minimal teaching aids, and more often than not, difficult working conditions.  The ancient recipe for elements needed to stage a play, “a plank, two people, and a passion” comes to mind.  It provides an apt description of our “no frills” beginnings.  Teaching was paramount.  We had a passion for our subject and for communicating it to the students.   The rest was mere detail.