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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Language Tables return to Redfield Proctor after 18 months on Zoom

“Hi, everyone, and welcome to Language Tables,” a cheery voice called from the top of the stairs in Redfield Proctor. “We are back for the first time since March 10, 2020.”

The voice belonged to Amanda Coccia ’22, one of the co-managers of Language Tables. On Monday, September 27, she was excited to greet students in person again after nearly a year-and-a-half of hosting Language Tables on Zoom. Just like during pre-Covid-19 times, a line of eager students snaked down the stairs and around toward the front door. The only noticeable difference was that students in the line were masked.

Coccia, who is in her third year as a manager of Language Tables, recalled the day that students received the email that they would be sent home due to Covid-19.

“As a manager that day, I was called to every table. The TAs were asking me ‘what’s going on and what do we do’ and I didn’t have any answers myself,” she said.

After such a rocky last day over a year-and-a-half ago, the first day back seemed to go seamlessly. Coccia, along with head waiter Christina Chen ’23, checked in students, asking for their names and which table they wanted to attend. Each round table was labeled with a sign marking the language and the Teaching Assistants (TAs) were seated at their designated tables. The Chinese, French and Spanish tables filled up quickly while the German and Russian TAs were both left sitting at empty tables. The Russian TA, Anastasiia Kozhukhova, surmised that the Russian classes had not yet been informed about attending Language Tables. 

As students took their seats, waiters and kitchen staff rushed around near the kitchen. In past years, Language Tables were staffed by both student workers and a few employees from Proctor dining hall. This year, due to a staff shortage, student workers have had to fill all of these positions.

Jennie Bob Bizal-Clark ’22, the other co-manager of Language Tables, explained that while they hired many of their employees over the summer, their staff fluctuates on a day-to-day basis. Some days there are still positions that are left unfilled. She told me that on that first day, Coccia had to stay at Language Tables for forty minutes after the designated end time. 

“I think that was a combination of things. On the first day, no one really knows what they’re doing, especially since we have a lot of people who have never worked in-person. They only know the language component,” Bizal-Clark explained. 

For students who knew Language Tables prior to the pandemic, it resembled its former state, but for many students who began attending on Zoom last year, this was uncharted territory. French waiter Daphne Halley ’22.5 explained that two years of students — the current first years and sophomores — don’t know how Language Tables typically operate as they have never attended in-person before. 

“Food was put in front of them and they didn’t know to eat it,” she said. After transitioning from Zoom to in-person, students simply didn’t know what to expect. 

Portuguese student Damaris Neaves ’24 has attended Language Tables twice so far this semester. She started taking Advanced Portuguese this semester with Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Mario Higa, and she is required to attend at least once a week. 

“We were all sort of getting acclimated,” she said. “I didn’t know there was going to be a waiter because my first year, Language Tables were on Zoom, and you would just call in and eat with food you had already picked up.”

She described her first in-person experience as “intimate,” with only the TA and a handful of students at the table. “It was really cool seeing the translation of all the ingredients and learning how to place an order,” Neaves said. 

Liam Ferry ’24, a student of Chinese, French and Spanish, is now a waiter for Chinese tables and a TA for the French table. Last year, he went to Language Tables a few times on Zoom. 

“It’s a tricky experience eating with people you don’t know in a language you don’t really speak at a formal restaurant that serves Proctor food, so it can be awkward at times,” Ferry said.

Nevertheless, Ferry prefers being in-person. 

Another pandemic-related challenge is the absence of professors at the tables. Professors used to attend the tables as a way to interact more informally with students in their target language, but with the college’s current Covid-19 policies, professors are not permitted to dine indoors with students. In response to this policy, the Italian department has decided to relocate their Language Tables to the Italian house. Department Chair Professor of Italian Tom Van Order described their location switch as the only way they were able to include professors — by hosting them at outdoor tables beside the house while weather permits.

In an email to The Campus, Associate Professor of Arabic Samuel Liebhaber applauded the dedication of the waiters and explained that the success of the language table program depends on the attitude of the students who attend them, rather than on whether or not their professor is in attendance.

In the Arabic department, there are enough upper-level Arabic students to TA the tables that the official TA herself, Maryait Khader, is not required to attend. Instead, she hosts daily events in the Arabic house, which have had high turnout. 

From Redfield Proctor to Zoom and back again, Language Tables persist as a part of all language students' Middlebury experience.