Sunday, April 05, 2009

The logical structure of language departments and the value of the humanities

Next year will be the "Year of the Humanities" here at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, so there's suddenly a lot of talk about how the humanities can continue to engage with the world and how they contribute to the preparation of the next generation of human beings to inhabit the world. (Those formulations echo actual questions floating through humanities programs on campus now.)

Mr. Verb has long wrestled with these questions on this blog (just search 'humanities') and occasionally even how they relate to language departments. As a theoretical linguist in a language department, deeply involved in outreach and in research with practical applications and even matters bearing on current issues in our society, these are welcome questions for me, ones that have fairly straightforward answers.

For prototypical 'humanities faculty', though, these questions seem to be perceived differently. I've sat through a set of recent discussions and heard only one person take the Stanley Fish position (basically, 'I can't explain this and don't owe you an explanation; explaining my value is not what I'm about''), but I get the clear impression that many faculty haven't thought about these questions and don't have ready answers, to put it mildly. That's not my problem, but it does suggest how deep the divide is. Let's just assume that literary scholarship and cultural studies have value. Still, it's profoundly different from the value of what I do and I seem to have no fundamental commonalities with those folks. That suggests that having academic departments arranged in terms of national languages like 'German', 'French', 'Spanish' is nonsensical.* It's counterproductive in practice and makes it much harder for us to be of value to society and for outsiders to see that value.

Academic units are generally arranged around some fundamental area of inquiry … life forms, numbers, or the human mind. Biologists may focus on evolutionary or micro issues, but they have a common base of knowledge and object of study at a certain level of abstraction. Language departments lack a common area of inquiry in that sense, and instead cover areas that lack any connection in terms of methods, theories, or even object of study. The traditional heart of language departments and a core justification for their existence is language teaching. The history of German studies tends to highlight this as does Victor Lange, who writes that "language learning and language teaching … provide the chief motivation for those ... who elect to make use of our services" ("The History of German Studies in America", in Teaching German in America, ed. by Benseler et al.). But in academia, 'service' = death for many, and Lange ultimately argues that literature is really where the action is. And the field of second language acquisition (even broadly, to include pedagogy), i.e. people who know about language learning/teaching, usually involves very few faculty.

And very few students in German programs are there for any interest in literary texts. Yet the big majority of faculty in language departments today are literary scholars, with no expertise and often no interest in language learning, and certainly none in the method and theory of acquisition. (A few admirable souls were trained in literary studies and have gone out and figured out this stuff.) Mr. Verb has devoted some time to the MLA report (e.g. here) and its aim of broadening German studies to include more 'culture', history, etc. But Germanists mostly trained specifically in literature, not folklore, anthropology or history, and real specialists in those fields tend to regard literary scholars' incursions into their territory as amateurish. That is, if you want to do as the MLA suggests, you need to hire actual historians, folklorists, linguists, etc. who are proficient in German for your German Department. But that creates an even more incoherent department. If I want a history course, I go to the History Department.

What these groups have in common may be that their disparate data are associated somehow with something that can be traced back to one standard language — you might be teaching people to speak German or studying literary texts in German or studying dialects of 'German' (often distinct languages). Many linguists in German departments don't work on modern standard German material, though, so that the connection is even more tenuous — is Old Saxon morphology about 'German'? Closer to English, I'd say. (A small fraction of my research is concerned with Standard German.) Or maybe the common ground is ultimately that everybody speaks German. Well, not even that: 'German' departments include people who work on Dutch, Yiddish, often Scandinavian languages.

Putting second language specialists, linguists and literary scholars and cultural studies people into a department on this basis is not quite like dividing the Psychology Department according to the colors of shirts the subjects they're working with are wearing. But it's close.

Building a wall isn't the best solution, probably. In practice, we all move in various circles, just as all people identify themselves in multiple ways socially (in some contexts you identify yourself more or less by your gender or profession or religion). As a linguist in a language department, I don't object to having some affiliation with other people who study things that get thrown into the garbage can of 'German studies'. But that's a garbage can, not a principle to organize this part of academia around.

* I say 'national languages' because people in them still overwhelmingly think and act in terms of the biggest nation-states where those languages are the official or quasi-official language: German departments are tied to Germany. Spanish is somewhat different, for obvious reasons, but they often seem riven by the Peninsular vs. Latin American rift. Even French, where francophonie should be a huge rallying cry to internationalism, seems to follow this.


Anonymous said...

I'm in the same basic situation you describe. If academic departments are a practical necessity, I need to be with other linguists, people who go to the same conferences, use the same theories and technical terms and, yes, have the same object of study as I do.

Anonymous said...

Yep I agree, it's important for linguists to work with other linguists. The situation at my uni is worse, in my opinion. Linguistics was merged with Literature last year, and now surprise surprise, Lit has been put first and a brilliant linguistics dept is being shut down so funding can go to Lit. What is so important about lit studies anyway?!

Anonymous said...

It's just stunning. The value of linguistics is on constant display -- how many positive linguistics stories have been in major media in the last six months? -- and literary studies flails in a pool of its own filth (see the equal number of stories about lit/cultural studies wandering in the desert, or read Fish). Yet in the UK and elsewhere, Ling is taking hits while Lit is getting precious resources. What is going on here?

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, all, for the comments -- and for the post. Anon #2 sounds like it might be somebody from Sussex, and this is a chance to remind people to support their efforts to keep that department alive. It's got a set of very solid folks in it, including up-and-coming notables.