University of Toronto plan decimates languages, humanities programs

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A radical consolidation proposal has been announced at the University of Toronto -- programs to be disbanded, minimalized or merged. One casualty is the comparative literature centre founded by Canadian icon Northrop Frye. Photo: szasukephotography/Flickr

The University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts and Sciences has unveiled a sweeping plan to merge several academic departments and eliminate others, including the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies and the Centre for Ethics. Simultaneously, the Centre for Comparative Literature is to be reduced to a collaborative program unable to grant degrees.

According to the recommendation, announced on June 28, the current departments of East Asian Studies, Italian Studies, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Spanish and Portuguese are to be amalgamated under a proposed "School of Languages and Literatures" which proponents say promises to "strengthen the profile of teaching and research in languages and literary traditions in the faculty."

This recommendation is to be voted on in January 2011; if passed, the school will be set up next July.

"This school will show the world how much expertise we have, showcase our strengths, attract more excellent students to our undergraduate and graduate programs, and also attract donors," said Arts and Sciences Dean Meric Gertler. "We want the school to be a fundraising priority for the next campaign."

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences plans to cut administrative costs by consolidating departments in a single building under a single director who would be responsible for all language and literature programs. This immediately raises the concern of fairness -- who is to ensure that all included languages will be represented equally?

"We would want to assure that the director would work collaboratively with the program coordinators to assure the quality of all programs," Gertler says. He also asserts that, by cutting administrative costs, the new school would allow for the continuation of the teaching of smaller languages (such as Macedonian, Finnish and Portuguese) currently taught in the individual departments.

When asked why the Departments of English, French, and Near and Middle Eastern Studies were not included in this plan, Gertler stated that English and French are large departments which "have a special place as the national languages of Canada" and "could swamp other units." However, he mentioned that the directors of both programs have expressed interest in joining the school. As for Near and Middle Eastern Studies, "It is already so broad and diverse in its concerns that it was hard to imagine it inside the School, but we are considering the possibility of moving some or all of it into the School in the future."

This diversity immediately raises the question of East Asian Studies, which focuses on the links between East Asian languages, literature, philosophy, history politics, fine arts and religion. Under the proposed plan, the linguistics and literary aspects of EAS will be housed within the School, while the scholars who focus on all other aspects will be returned to their home departments. Such fragmentation is worrying to many students.

James Poborsa, a doctoral candidate focusing on contemporary Chinese political art, says that the plan "would eliminate the university's commitment to the study of East Asian humanities, leaving only the Asian Institute at the Munk Centre, which conducts research in the social sciences. With this focus on language and policy-oriented social science research, the consolidation would take our department back into an outdated model of area studies."

Sean Callaghan, who studies modern Japanese literature and thought, agrees. "I believe this would mark a dangerous turn in Asian studies within Canada. The humanities, by its very name, should focus on the larger problems concerning the figure of the human and its place within the larger world of ideas. To do otherwise would threaten to reproduce the kinds of racisms and orientalisms the field has spent the last 30 years trying to excise."

Dean Gertler admits that the place of cultural studies in the new school is still to be determined. Eva-Lynn Jagoe, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese as well as the Centre for Comparative Literature, considers this a major oversight.

"I think it shows a profound lack of intellectual vision and coherence about the importance of literature and culture," she says.

"This proposed school stands to function as a service department that will provide language instruction for public policy and international relations students. It ignores the fact that humanities departments fund the more showy sciences, and demonstrates a short-sightedness about the future of the university as well as the future of the country that will be creating a generation of technocrats with little understanding of cultural formations."

This situation is especially tragic for the Centre for Comparative Literature, which is to be restructured as a "collaborative program" within the School, essentially a minor in literary theory. Founded in 1969 by the eminent critic Northrop Frye, this MA and PhD program is committed to crossing cultural, linguistic and disciplinary boundaries.

While Dean Gertler expects the new School to create "new synergies" from different linguistic departments, students and faculty argue that such opportunities for exchange are already provided by the Centre. A discipline in its own right, comp lit allows for innovative teaching and research that are not possible in other departments.

"It's not just about multiplying the number of different disciplines you can juggle -- it's about experimenting with different frames of reference," says Rebecca Comay, a professor in philosophy at the Centre for Comparative Literature.

"The current proposal completely reverses the movement of intellectual thought over the past two decades. It points to a narrowing of disciplinary boundaries, a return to older models for the organization of intellectual fields, and an instrumental approach to academic inquiry. If this goes through, U of T will lose all credibility as a center for progressive work in the humanities."

The interdisciplinary nature of comp lit also allows students to pursue dissertation topics that could not be completed elsewhere, such as 2009 graduate and current University of Alberta professor Keavy Martin's work on Inuit literature and culture, which was one of three U of T dissertations chosen for the 2010 Governor General's Gold Medal, or current student Paula Karger's work on cultural links between medieval Europe and early colonial Latin America.

"I intend to analyse the popularity of a story which was transmitted from Muslim Andalusia to Spain, France, Brazil, and the Mayan Chilam Balam, focussing on cultural difference, gender, religion, and race," she says.

"I chose the Centre due to its unique approach toward theory and literature. I have seen theory be employed by national departments, but never in as flexible nor as effective a manner as in comparative literature, which treats theory as a living, flexible subject which must be questioned and analysed as much as literature itself."

All currently enrolled students MA and PhD students will be allowed to finish their degrees (though new MAs will not be able to continue to the PhD). However, many are concerned about the effects of this decision on their professional future.

Adleen Crapo, who turned down multiple offers to move to Canada and study at the centre, comments, "The university's decision, if not overturned, will hold back all those who attempt to find academic work with their U of T comp lit degrees. The administration has essentially devalued all of our degrees while demonstrating its contempt for the comparative perspective behind them."

Finally, students and faculty have noted that the closure of such programs as the Centre for Comparative Literature and the Centre for Ethics, an internationally renowned interdisciplinary research institute on ethical issues, can only bring harm to the university's international reputation as well as to the teaching and learning of the humanities as a whole.

"U of T will be a poorer and less interesting place without this program," says doctoral fellow Alex Livingston. "For a school that claims to be one of the best research institutions in the world, this kind of decision is sure to generate a reputation of self-satisfied mediocrity."

To find a petition against the closures please click here.

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

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