A classroom in University College, at the University of Toronto. Photo by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.
Last Monday, as the University of Toronto re-opened in the wake of the G20, departments and centres across its Faculty of Arts and Science returned to the bureaucratic version of the relationship death knell “we need to talk.” They learned that if a recommendation being made by the faculty’s Strategic Planning Committee went through, departments across the humanities would be dissolved within the year, with a lucky few to be resurrected, franken-style, under the monolithic umbrella of a single “School of Languages and Literatures.”
The proposed School of L&L would amalgamate the current departments of East Asian Studies, Italian Studies, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Spanish and Portuguese. The Centre of Comparative Literature, which currently offers MA and PhD programs, would be embedded in the school and redefined as a collaborative program, unable to grant degrees independently. The Centre for Ethics and The Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, a research centre and graduate collaborative program respectively, would be abandoned entirely.
None of this is a done deal, though it is being presented that way by those who have brought the recommendation forward. In September, the Faculty of Arts and Science plans to hold a series of town hall meetings, consulting with faculty, students, and other stakeholders. Then, according to the faculty’s timeline, the departments affected will figure out how to dissolve and amalgamate themselves by December so that their proposal can be hustled up the U of T bureaucratic ladder by July 2011.
We spoke with Meric Gertler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. “A number of units in the faculty are quite small and difficult to sustain in their current form,” Gertler explained. “We wanted to create an organized structure that would preserve scholarship and reduce the overhead costs associated with managing these programs.”
But some are not being preserved at all. The Centre for Comparative Literature arguably stands to suffer the most from this proposal, losing its degree programs entirely. The centre, established over forty years ago by Northrop Frye, offers a unique program that “enables the kind of research that is genuinely comparative or interdisciplinary, research that does not fit neatly into any of the traditional disciplines,” says Neil ten Kortenaar, the centre’s chair. Comp lit students and faculty are adamant that a collaborative degree—like a minor, but at the graduate level—is an empty, conciliatory gesture on the Strategic Planning Committee’s part.
Linda Hutcheon is a recently retired member of the Comparative Literature and English departments and the 2010 winner of the prestigious, fifty-thousand-dollar Molson Prize. She was also one of the first graduates of U of T’s PhD program in comp lit. She says that “the so-called ‘collaborative program’ in comparative literature proposed is nothing of the sort—without faculty and courses, there can be no program in comparative literature, which is a discipline in its own right (something that seems to have been missed).” Hutcheon is featured in a U of T ad campaign, in a video in which she praises the university’s commitment to the unique interdisciplinary research she pursues.
Gertler says the trouble facing the Centre for Comparative Literature is that it has no undergraduate department to act as its financial foundation. “The Centre for Comparative Literature was a stand-alone centre—I’m sorry, is a stand-alone centre,” he corrects himself. He explains that as the committee surveyed plans submitted by individual units last December, they found that the critical study of literature was present in programs across the faculty. “In that regard, the Centre for Comparative Literature succeeded beyond its wildest dreams to generate serious scholarly interest in the work that they have championed.”
It’s a success he believes signals the centre’s obsolescence: “The conditions that were necessary for the centre’s formation are now changed. At the time, it was not possible to do literary criticism of a particular kind any place but in the centre. Now, it is widespread across the humanities units. The closure of the centre represents a significant moment in the evolution of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science.” Gertler assures us that the Centre for Comparative Literature will be “a jewel in the crown of the School of Languages and Literatures.” One of those jewels in absentia, we guess.
The dean is quick to clarify that students currently enrolled in the MA and PhD programs in comp lit will be “grandfathered in,” allowing them to complete the degrees they were offered. This, though, may be little consolation to those PhD students who will still be there several years from now, working on research without a program or, potentially, faculty to support them, nor does it address the concerns of students entering an MA program that is now a dead end.
Samuel Caldwell, part of the cohort of incoming comparative literature students for this fall, says: “My acceptance letter to the masters program included promising mention of later work at the PhD level at University of Toronto. This was of course a factor in my decision to attend.” Caldwell is coming to the University of Toronto—it is too late to change tack—from the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University Chicago; in order to attend U of T, he declined offers from MA and PhD programs elsewhere. Ryan Culpepper, a PhD student in the comp lit program, is sympathetic. “These students had other offers,” he says. “People make real life choices, and for the university to withhold information crucial to making those choices is really disingenuous.”
Gertler makes a valiant effort to sell the creation of the School of Languages and Literatures as a positive move, designed with the aim of fostering real scholarship, not saving pennies. He describes a space that will “create new synergies and new possibilities for creative interaction between scholars and students.” This sounds like empty jargon, and the truth is that the proposal is mostly about money. The new school will be a fundraising priority, one that Gertler says he hopes will attract a lot of attention and, presumably, a lot of dough. Departments not included in the amalgamation have already contacted him looking for ways to be involved, he says. “When department chairs hear ‘fundraising,’ they naturally want a piece.”
But if the School of Languages and Literatures is such an appealing pie of cash and collaboration, then it seems strange that members of the Strategic Planning Committee would not recommend their own departments for inclusion. English, French, Medieval Studies, and Near and Middle Eastern Studies are four departments whose work seemingly should have made them eligible for the Languages and Literatures amalgam, but they were left off the list. The Strategic Planning Committee included representatives from the French and Medieval Studies departments, but none from any of the departments or centres that made it to the chopping block.
English and French are large departments, and as Canada’s national languages, they were recognized as having a special status, Gertler explains. Medieval Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Studies were preserved because of their size and because “they are very broad, what they do goes beyond the study of languages and literature in that region.” This, of course, makes them in no way different from many of those programs that were included, notably the interdisciplinary department of East Asian Studies, home to nearly one thousand students.
Oversights like these are illogical at best. Many students whose departments are being incorporated worry that the School of Languages and Literatures intends to focus on language to the exclusion of literature, that this is part of an overall movement away from critical and theoretical thinking in favour of more pragmatic interests within the humanities. Some are concerned that the School of L&L is being created as a place to groom diplomatic, internationally relevant skills such as translation rather than as one for cutting-edge scholarship.
Gertler says this is “completely false. It is far too premature to judge what the school will focus on.”
Still, the fact remains that the proposed School of Languages and Literatures—coupled with the outright axing of the Centre for Ethics and the Centre for Diaspora Studies—will have a profound effect on the study of humanities at the University of Toronto. Far from promoting diversity, the School of L&L risks homogenizing the way that languages and literature are studied, making it difficult for students and faculty alike to meaningfully pursue scholarship that falls outside very narrowly defined categories.
Universities attract good students and good faculty with two things: funding and unique research opportunities. The University of Toronto is cash-strapped, and in response, they are sacrificing the kinds of research they offer that makes them unique, all the while championing their choices as forward-thinking. U of T sees and sells itself as a world class institution, and for a long time, it has had good reason to. But as it systematically removes the grounds upon which its reputation has been founded, it risks becoming something second rate. As PhD student Myra Bloom says, “If they create these kinds of generic programs, they are going to attract generic students.” Meanwhile, critical thinking and interdisciplinary research will not stop happening; the people who do it will simply go elsewhere.
For more information from the students and faculty protesting the School of Languages and Literatures, see here. For information about the closure of the Centre for Ethics, see here. There are also Facebook groups here, here, here, and here.