Saturday, March 10, 2007

The future of language departments

Most linguists, and large numbers of academics generally, hold the Modern Language Association in pretty low regard, and many have come to see it as the embodiment of everything wrong with "humanities scholarship" — disconnected theorizing that many maintain is nothing more than 'mental masturbation'. And it's easy to argue that they have fiddled away while language departments have burned. (Some believe they've taken breaks only to pour fuel on the fires.)

Somewhat different winds may be blowing at the MLA, as laid out in this Inside Higher Ed piece, which got passed to me a few days ago. The MLA panel discussed there focuses on the restructuring of language departments as "area studies", and "ending the ‘literature-centered’ Ph.D." Michael Geisler of Middlebury says (and the article continues):
“Why do we insist on specializing” in literature, Geisler asked, when there are so many “urgent tasks” for language Ph.D.’s? He portrayed the ideal mission of these programs as providing new professors (or other professionals) with a deep understanding of culture and current societies that goes far beyond the literary tradition. “Narrative isn’t an end in itself,” he said. …

Specifically, he said that the Ph.D. students who will be future professors (and through retraining, some current professors) need to understand both the “linguistic and metalinguistic” stories of their departments’ countries and regions. Every graduate program should include a course in applied linguistics, he said, focusing on the latest advances in understanding of cognition, identity, bilingualism, and other topics.
Whatever 'metalinguistic stories' means here, this is surely a vastly saner path for language departments than they have recently been on. Geisler and his panel are to be thanked for their work.

What's interesting here is that some top departments have already made this very transition in practice. The University of Wisconsin's Department of German (where our contributor Joe currently works), for example, has more graduate students doing German linguistics than literature (many of them doing expressly sociolinguistic and socio-historical work, dealing with the kinds of cultural issues Geisler seems to argue for), an absolutely outstanding second language acquisition program (and I imagine every student takes at least a course or more in that area), one of the best Dutch language/culture programs in the country, and a remarkably active program of teaching and research in understanding German-speaking immigration to North America in its historical, cultural and linguistic aspects. They don't have a course on 'cognition', but they cover the rest of what Geisler seems to want in even more depth than he seems to ask for.

Classes in these areas are heavily enrolled, at the undergraduate and graduate level, faculty and students are doing outreach, getting grants inside and outside the university (Title IX to support Dutch, I think, and funding enough to support a long string of project assistants in all these areas), and research by faculty and students is pouring forth — much of it in outlets beyond the narrow world of Germanistik. (Joe reminds me that the linguists in the department all publish in places like the Journal of Pragmatics, Linguistic Inquiry, Transactions of the Philological Society, Theoretical Linguistics, Phonology; Diachronica is edited there and the Journal of Germanic Linguistics was for a number of years.) And I've met some of their linguistics grad students — they are a presence at all kinds of conferences, not just around here, but nationally and internationally — and they are smart and engaged, excited about what they're doing.

From what I can see, the only real problem is that this change hasn't yet registered with the literature faculty, nor has it been understood by the deans and others in the College of Letters & Science yet. All the programs noted above (linguistics, SLA, Dutch, German-American studies) are carried by only six faculty (one of whom also teaches undergrad lit). All but one of these people have serious administrative duties — department chair, associate dean, two center directors, and running a large language program/supervising a bevy of teaching assistants.

In sharp contrast, the staff directory lists almost twice as many faculty who do only German literature (aside from basic language teaching), where they offer relatively few courses and with often weak enrollments. Few, if any, are carrying significant administrative roles. In looking through their on-line descriptions and web pages, most of them aren't actively publishing and those who are seem limited to very traditional German-bound stuff and they don't seem to publish in refereed places much, mostly just edited collections (like Peter Lang) and encyclopedias and such. (The main exception is one young colleague, whose work speaks to issues of identity, immigration and other issues relevant to today's world and the proposed new direction, but one senior person does seem professionally active in film studies and other areas.) What's more, if you can get access to the salary numbers (in the Redbook, traditionally freely available to the world but now limited to UW campus computers), many of these literature faculty are earning tens of thousands of dollars a year more than their more productive and active colleagues who aren't in literature. I gather that department-internal resources go almost exclusively to literature-oriented activities.

So, in terms of activity and impact, this department has turned Geisler's corner: It has an absolutely thriving operation that exemplifies how language departments can succeed and be relevant. But that group is burdened with a largely aged, unproductive cadre (in Merriam-Webster's sense 3: "a cell of indoctrinated leaders") soaking up most of the available resources. Surely, no dean in their right mind will replace a retiring literature person in that department for years to come, but an additional hire in any of the active areas would be a sound investment in a highly innovative operation: The non-literature-centered parts of this department look like a model of how language departments can do what the MLA panel argues they should be doing.

The question for people like Geisler and the rest of the panel is how resources can be redirected into the vital parts of a department like this, instead of being squandered on an extravagant early retirement program for the rest.


Joe said...

So, you're arguing that this report (or whatever it is) could form the basis of an argument for additional resources for the non-lit parts of the department, not just because these parts are successful, but especially because they are a model for language departments nationally? Interesting.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the report you mention as I am also part of the German Dept. at UW and can see first-hand how successful it is. It's hard to recruit any lit. students in the dept. due to lack of funding and a fading lit. staff, but people interesting in linguistics flock to the dept. despite the funding issues (that seem to be worsening at the UW). This in and of itself speaks volumes for the efficacy of this approach.

It's also interesting how much we know as linguists about some of the more cutting-edge topics in lit. studies right now. I was talking to a colleague in the French dept. that works with Francophone, which often deals with languages created in contact situations that resulted from colonization. This person had recently written a long paper on identity issues faced by people that seem to have "no real language", i.e. it's not French and it's not the original native language either. Before the person could explain their thesis, I blurted out that this "hybrid" language isn't a half-language, but a real language (which a contact linguist has probably already discussed) and that their identity to a large degree rests on this fact. Therefore, there's no reason to view this language as somehow "inferior" to any other language and it's perfectly fine for writers to establish a written language and publish original works in their language. In this way, they can embrace their identity (which many linguists will tell you is centered on the language they speak). The person was absolutely floored that I knew so much about it already and that I had already guessed their thesis. I just laughed and said, "Yeah, linguists have been talking about language contact for awhile now." This goes to show how much insight can be gained through linguist research that bears on hot topics only coming to the fore in lit. studies now.

Mr. Verb said...

Well said. See the new post from April 11 on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Right on to the anonymous comment above!