Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What happens to dysfunctional departments?

Having just posted on Wisconsin's storied German Department, I was surprised to open tonight's Cap Times (our progressive afternoon daily — we still have one), and find this on Comparative Literature. The punch line:
there are no plans to close the 90-year-old department at this time, but [Dean Gary Sandefur] added that no new money will be invested in it. After current faculty members leave or retire, the department will come to an end.
Now, our contributor from German has been sweating profusely since that earlier commentary on his department, but he hasn't been lynched, not unless somebody else has been sending stuff from his account. In the end, this blog is read by linguists and language fans — a gratifying number of them — not by people who do 'literary studies' or whatever the kids call it these days.

Really, this article bears out precisely what I was arguing: Even without a convicted once-tenured felon in your department (I wish that was a joke), CompLit departments are the traditional self-parody when it comes to studied irrelevance and self-important, self-absorbed scholarship.

The brutal part is that UW isn't killing CompLit, they've announced to the local paper that they are going to let it die. Talk about twisting in the wind … and it's a televised, slow-mo public non-execution. Eventually (and it won't be that long really), any faculty in that department who don't/can't flee will be moved into other departments, because there won't be critical mass for administrative purposes. (At UW, that means a minimum number for a department executive committee.) Burn. It doesn't really save much money, but it sends a praise-the-lord-and-pass-the-ammunition signal.

Birders say that when a raptor dives in and takes a bird in some area where tons of song birds were feeding and chirping, away everything gets very, very quiet for a long time. The deans are surely sending that kind of message to the dysfunctional, the irrelevant, the just-plain-stupid: Take care of business or die a very public death. But no quick if botched hanging, or snap of your neck by a sparrow hawk. You have to walk around the halls for decades with everybody thinking 'oh, HE's still here?' and looking away.

Linguistics isn't just an exciting field of study; it matters, in about a million ways. We all know that and we all argue that every day. And, boy, am I glad that's the case.

PS: The spectacular image on this post is from here.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that the Cap Times article notes "36 undergraduates and 25 graduates" in this sad and troubled department (in 04-05) and then points out Chancellor Wiley's comment about consolidating depts with fewer than 10 or 15 members. I know of another department, occasionally wont to dysfunction, with fewer than 10 faculty and fewer than 25 grad students.


Mr. Verb said...

That department should be in a cold panic, I think. I disagree with this position on small departments -- the only serious cost savings is the ability to eliminate more faculty positions, since you can now have, say, two comp lit specialists on campus instead of some critical mass.

But there may be a higher chance of very small departments being seriously dysfuntional, since one or two troubled personalities can wreak more havoc there than in a bigger department, where they are more easily marginalized.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree: Comp Lit was especially vulnerable, given the convicted felon, weak record, and as the poster child for irrelevance. But Wisconsin has really avoided closing departments under even dire circumstances. This could be the dam breaking.

What's much worse, and deeply troubling to many across campus, is that 10-15 faculty gets or gets close to a LOT of departments, including many that are very big for the standards of their fields.