Wednesday, April 11, 2007

(Dysfunctional) departments, brief update

The old post about language departments (see also the various follow-ups) seems to continue generating discussion, in person and by email. Last night, a student posted a long new comment on that original post, in fact. If you care about this issue — the fate of humanities departments or of the University of Wisconsin or even of higher ed generally — you should read that comment.

One notable point is that this student confirms the effectiveness of the non-literature-centered program in German, though it sounds like the traditional lit program is dying on the vine. If you've read the comment, you probably expect the next point to be about the Francophone lit student (writing about 'people without a real language' — hint: they don't mean Genie). You might even expect the old "we linguists have to do a better job of educating non-linguists" argument. But, alas, many of those who do "literary and cultural studies" are not simply folks who haven't been enlightened. I don't think I know the faculty in question here, but the norm in such programs is open and often vehement dismissal of linguistics and other fields. I've had many discussions with such people from universities across the U.S., who revel in their wilful ignorance of what other fields know. The sad result, in this case, is a student who's going to produce worthless material, a paper or more based on fundamental misunderstandings about things that people have worked out pretty carefully. That attitude alone is enough reason to kill such programs. And like Comp Lit here, some are being killed, but the zombie faculty still roam the halls.

What the non-lit-centered program in German brings to the table is precisely the possibility of teaching students in a more crosscutting way. Joe tells me that a major key to their success is that the core linguists in the department are allied in various ways with a group of non-linguists who don't wear tight blinders — they cooperate in Netherlandic, medieval, and German-American studies, pedagogy, and so on — and I know that they and their students are plugged in around campus.

But there's a sobering point in there for linguistics departments too: There are enough linguists who do the same as these literary navel-gazers, assuming that their little frameworks are self-contained, safely insulated worlds. Look around at the best departments in the field and the worst departments in the field and you get pretty good correlations: Good ones are strongly allied with other fields (lots of them); weak ones aren't (some are hostile to related departments). Many of the best ones include a range of approaches and specializations; many of the worst ones have mostly true believers.

Can we fight off the zombies?


Anonymous said...

I also think that a more integrated approach lends itself to outreach programs that interest the community at large. If you look at the work done by the linguists in the German dept., it includes much more than just language-related articles. The issues range from abstract linguist analyses to demographic studies to (in some cases) a re-writing of history (and much more). They also integrate cultural topics into their research like music, poetry, plays, even comedians (see Joe's Wisconsin Englishes podcast). In the end, their research is interesting to a wide range of people outside the university. In fact, the linguists in the German dept. do a lot of outreach talks, which are usually well attended. Their work serves a purpose off-campus, helping make the Wisconsin Idea a reality. This is the direction we should be taking the university, which despite what many people think, can and does serve an important role in the community.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks for the comment. Tons of people out there DO value the university, and it's the grassroots work of faculty and students they value, like the outreach you're talking about.

Forget the corporate ass-kissing of the admin and the blustering of the lit zombies — stick to what's real. It's what the Ridger says so well on Greenbelt: "Most of all, I like living in the reality-based community." That makes life way simpler.

Anonymous said...

We need to be cautious not to throw out babies and bath waters together. Graduating with an English degree, I can’t help but be a little saddened by the reported demise of lit folk because it appears to weaken the value of lit, or at least the demise could be construed this way by folk who are engineering the direction of universities like Univ WI. I remember being brainwashed early on in my lit studies to think that lit provides a way of seeing and explaining the world through word pictures. (I promise to refrain from mangling Horace and various authors on teaching and delighting, balancing history, philosophy and science.) The question that comes to mind is whether there are no research questions lit folk are uniquely qualified to answer, say distinct from linguists, philosophers, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, etc. Or more importantly, is lit itself part of the reality-based community or not? If not, then there can be no one who can use it as evidence in such a community. If it is, then who is qualified to use it as evidence, and what research questions can be asked of it?

(Full disclosure, I'm a fan of Roman Jakobson who raised and addressed research questions as both formal linguist and literary critic.)

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, you are right, anonymous. I definitely see a role for literary scholars, but what's troubling is that I know of precious few such people who are playing a vital role. The field needs to get righted somehow. That is, I don't think the problem is inherent in literary studies, but rather in how it's being practiced in many circles. Work on identity among speakers of French-related contact languages has potential interest for lots of us, to keep to the earlier example.

And yes, it's an extremely dangerous time to be in that kind of disarray.