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How comparative literature was saved at U of T: The role of student activism

The past several weeks have seen jubilation throughout University of Toronto humanities departments in the wake of some very exciting news: the Centre for Comparative Literature, slated for "disestablishment" last June in a recommendation by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will remain open. The language departments originally set to be consolidated in a "School of Languages and Literatures" (Spanish and Portuguese, Slavic Studies, East Asian Studies, German and Italian) will retain their autonomy. The Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies will also survive and the Centre for Ethics will be guaranteed five more years of funding.

"The Academic Planning Process is still very much under way. Since we released recommendations in July, we've had intensive discussions, negotiations, and consultations," stated Arts and Sciences Dean Meric Gertler. "The discussions have gone well, and we're looking for alternatives that don't involve radical restructuring."

He added that he was impressed with students' involvement in discussing the plan and its implications. "Students had a lot of anger and legitimate concerns, as well as positive, constructive discussion about alternatives. I found the spirit of engagement to be positive, and I have to say that it has been a worthwhile experience for me."

For students, this news has been met with elation after four months of a hard fight and a close collaboration with faculty and students from across the arts and sciences. "When we first got the news back in July that the Centre for Comparative Literature was going to be disestablished, a lot of us thought we had nothing more than a 10 per cent chance of surviving," says Rachel Freedman Stapleton, a third-year PhD student whose research focuses on letters of petition in early modern England and Spain.

However, Stapleton took action as soon as the news broke out and designed a website in support of the campaign. "This was my main contribution to the students' movement," she says. "It meant that from the moment when we started to organize, we had a place to direct people. Nowadays if you want to mobilize people and draw attention to your cause, you have to go online."

Students also collaborated with faculty members, who immediately launched an "Academic Plan Dialogue" network and began organizing meetings to discuss the implications of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences planning process. "Ironically, the academic plan has united all of the departments in new and interesting ways," Freedman comments. "It's been a strange networking event in which we have met people in other departments and found common ground, even if that commonality has unfortunately been in opposition to the university administration."

Some key components of the students' and faculty's campaigns included petitions, letter-writing campaigns, protests and discussions at town hall meetings with the Dean. As time went on, the chances of the programs' survival gradually increased.

"I think that one of the first key moments in our fight was when our story was reported on [the front page of The Globe and Mail], Stapleton says. "That was the first moment when it became clear people outside of the university cared about this situation -- to see any issue on the front page really gives support to what we're doing."

Another essential component of the fight was the petition to save comparative literature, initiated by comp. lit. graduate coordinator Jill Ross and signed by over 6,000 writers, academics, students and concerned citizens from all over the world. "It was amazing to see how quickly academics -- not the most proactive of groups -- came to the defence of the Centre, because within a few hours we had 1,000 signatures," states Jonathan Allan, a fourth-year PhD student who is completing his dissertation on representations of virginity in popular romance fiction.

"For me, one pivotal moment, if not magical moment, was when Margaret Atwood signed the petition and then sent a letter in support of the Centre," Allan adds. "Atwood was, of course, a student of Northrop Frye, and she came through for us like a gallant knight."

Julianne Kelso, an undergraduate studying Korean anthropology and history in the department of East Asian Studies, adds that it was the solidarity of faculty and students that turned the tide in their favour. "It seemed throughout the entire process that there were very few people who really believed that the Dean's plan to establish a new School of Languages and Literatures had any intellectual or financial rationale. As people continually pointed out the flaws in the plan, the support for it seemed to decrease enormously until eventually it lost all credibility."

However, as the initial euphoria begins to wear off, students are realizing that they still have reasons for concern. The Academic Planning Process is far from over, and according to Dean Gertler, the affected departments will still be expected to collaborate and increase efficiency.

"We have been focusing on other ways to achieve our goals, such as a new set of collaborative working relationships or shared teaching in areas of common interests, sharing best practices around graduate admissions and helping students to succeed in obtaining external scholarships."

While departments are preparing to work toward these goals, some faculty and students have expressed concern. Paula Karger, who is president of the Centre for Comparative Literature's graduate students' union, comments that the war is far from over. "I don't really trust the plan's cancellation. Dean Gertler has simply softened his statements. Reading between the lines of his latest statements and updates, it's easy to see that he is seeking the same goals under different names. The arguments behind the restructuring keep changing, as do our roles in that restructuring. In the summer, we were told what was going to happen. Now, we're being told to do something without being told what our goals are. I think that, until we get some honest recognition of what happened and what is happening, and until we get some clear, consistent statements from Dean Gertler, I will remain suspicious," she says.

Another worry has to do with administration. According to Dean Gertler, the Faculty is still considering administrative restructuring in several departments. "Our main goal is optimizing quality -- if we can pool some resources, it might enable us to introduce more specification of tasks that we have in larger departments," Gertler stated.

This discussion of "pooling resources" is worrying to students as well as to administrators themselves. "Our administrators work very hard; they are very vulnerable and as far as I understand could be 'repositioned' in other parts of the university," says Rebecca Janzen, a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese working on representations of religion in twentieth century Latin American literature. "The Dean's office should look at its own explosion in hires in recent years."

Aphrodite Gardner, who has worked as Ousiness officer at the Centre for Comparative Literature for twenty years, is also concerned. "The original document called for a restructuring of administrative staff, but there was no clear plan as to how they were going to do so. They speak of optimizing quality, but we have already done this," she says. "Our daily tasks -- graphic design, technological support, dealing with student evaluations, arranging TA-ships, human resources, accounting, assisting with the graduate students' colloquium and maintaining a smile through it all is quite a feat. But this is what we do here."

Another major concern on the part of faculty and students has to do with the questions of the overall legitimacy of the Faculty of Arts and Science planning process. "We clearly need a better system by which to make faculty-wide decisions, and there hasn't been much talk about changing that process," states Paula Karger. "That would, of course, require an acknowledgment that the past process was faulty, which no one in the Decanal Office wants to make."

"I firmly believe that it was only the mass opposition to the plan that stopped it from being put into place, and therefore if another plan is proposed in the future and the affected parties do not manage to mobilise such a large resistance, the administration could easily put their plans in place without the requirement of any democratic decision-making process," adds Julianne Kelso.

Finally, students are concerned about the state of public higher education and the humanities in general. "Most of the interdisciplinary programs that were originally set to be closed at U of T were in the humanities," comments Rachel Stapleton. "Given that this happened when SUNY [State University of New York] is cutting its language programs, when terrifying reports of arts cuts in the U.K. are coming out, there's a worrying movement toward corporatization of higher education that's taking place. We've managed to protect public education at U of T -- for now -- but in other universities that's not the case."

Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at The University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.

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