29 July 2010

U of Toronto Centre for Comp. Lit. re-org is a terrible idea

“Who the hell cares?” is the reaction that 99% of the world would have to the reorganization of the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto—if they knew about it. Basically the administration have proposed subsuming the Centre into a new School of Languages and Literatures, along with a jumble of East Asian Studies, Italian, German, Slavic Languages, Spanish and Portuguese, but there are also more subtle, worrying changes. It’s part of a larger trend of universities thinking about the bottom line rather than about how to make good teaching and scholarship happen.

When the administrative framework of academic departments is changed, it rarely makes ripples outside the institution in question. My department at Columbia, formerly the Department for Middle East, South Asian and African Languages and Cultures (MEALAC, “me-lack”), has become the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS, “me-sass”). One confusing acronym took the place of another. The world still turns on its axis; people still have no idea what I actually study when I say my department’s name.

And yet, there is a difference. My department, via a subtle change, has declared that it has taken Africa into its non-Western bosom. (“Department of Everyone-Else Studies” and “Department of Brown People Studies” were both informally floated as alternate names.) It was a way of re-stating our commitment to drawing connections between the regions we study, and of course a way of getting rid of “Middle East” as an adjective, which it’s not (“Middle East” = n., “Middle Eastern” = adj.). More fundamentally, “South Asian” tips people off that if you call our office you won’t get people who speak Chinese or Korean, which the generic “Asian” in the old title implied. Not that anyone can agree on which countries are in South Asia (or “Southern Asia” as some people insist on calling it), but that’s not our problem.

The University of Toronto (U of T, for short) case is different, alarmingly different. The goal is not to clarify a department aim or fix a long-standing problem but to plug a budget gap potentially at the expense of the quality of teaching and scholarship. The Centre for Comparative Literature, founded by the critic-extraordinaire Northrup Frye in 1969, is a special place because it is structured to immerse students in critical theory while sending them to literature departments to get a solid grounding in particular literary traditions. The system allows a great deal of personalization in a student’s curriculum. (And I think Columbia’s own Institute for Comparative Literature and Society is based on the Toronto model.) This era is over.

The Centre will no longer award degrees (which is one of its most distinctive features) and will be lumped together with a lot of other departments, which are, as is obvious to everyone, basically the ones the administration considers not important or strong enough to stand on their own. The choices strike people as alarmingly arbitrary. Notably, the East Asian Studies faculty are unanimous in their opposition to the plan. They point out that far from being a small department, over a thousand students take part in their programmes, which is just slightly less than the English or History departments. Of course they have a lot to lose. And if East Asian Studies is clubbed into this new School of Languages and Literatures then why not Middle Eastern Studies or English for that matter? I haven’t seen anyone in favour of the proposals actually provide an answer.

But, once again, “who the hell cares?” Academics do a great job of talking in incomprehensible terms about how the structure of the university structures knowledge—that’s true of course for reasons that I won’t go into. But it’s not the epistemology (the “philosophy of how-we-know-what-we-know”) but the practicality that gets to me. Think of business, whose practices university administrators are often trying to emulate. We know that when you can create a department to perform a certain function in the organization, you need to think carefully about its structure and how it fits within the company. The success or failure of the department depends on how it was conceived. If, for example, the department responsible for producing the instruction manual for a company’s product doesn’t have the budget to hire copyeditors then there’s a problem. Academic departments are the same way: They either have structural flaws or they work tolerably well. In academia the results are often difficult to quantify but it’s obvious that goal is good scholarship and good teaching. That’s precisely what the School of Languages and Literatures would threaten.

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