| The cultural conglomerate

Joseph Henry reports on the proposed merger of four language and culture departments

Acting on enduring motivations, the Faculty of Arts has recently embarked on a process of amalgamating four language and culture departments: German, Hispanic, Italian, and Slavic and Russian Studies. The plans are currently being deliberated by a confidential working group led by Associate Dean Suzanne Morton, and while many are excited about more interdisciplinarity, several faculty members and students have raised serious opposition to the plan.

The new focus on a possible merger breaks a long-running attitude of “benign neglect” on the part of the administration, as Morton put it.

“What’s happened over the past few years is departments lost positions,” offered German Studies chair Karin Bauer. “[People retired], left, and they were not replaced. So now we have some very small departments.” The department of Russian and Slavic Studies presently has two permanent faculty members, Italian Studies three, German Studies four, and Hispanic Studies six. According to the chair of Italian Studies Lucienne Kroha, the current situation is one “the administration has helped to create.”

Yet according to Morton, “[It] doesn’t make sense to have a department of three. Is that really serving students’ interests? Are there ways in which [we] can actually think about doing things differently or cooperatively? I think it’s an attempt to bring vitality and an opportunity to add resources.”

Differing perspectives
Some voices are optimistic toward potential benefits. “German Studies was the department that from the start really felt positive about the possibilities that merger might offer,” Bauer said. “The exciting part of a merger is to think of new programs for students, to develop new opportunities, new ways of teaching, new ways of research.”

Menemsha MacBain, an undergraduate representative to Morton’s working group, noted that a possibility “in which [she’s] particularly interested” is the opportunity for “interdepartmental” team-taught courses.

However, not everyone shares similar outlooks. The Hispanic Studies department in particular has presented the most unified departmental opposition to the merger, citing budgetary failures and an incompatibility between the other departments and research in Latin American culture studies – a popular area of study in the department.

As Hispanic Studies graduate Sophie Bégin described, amalgamation would constitute a regressive move. The department serves as a reference point for hispanic studies in Canada, Bégin explained. “Bringing down this department for [pragmatic] issues would bring down hispanic studies in Canada.”

Cuts to funding have also contributed to Hispanic Studies’ decision to refuse the amalgamation plan. “The proposal was too underfunded to accept in its form,” explained Amanda Holmes, the department’s chair.

Students across departments have also noticed the risks of such consolidation. “If it leads to a department that is productive in its active criticism of studying countries based on nationalism, that would be cool,” offered German and East Asian Studies undergraduate student Carol Fraser. “However, if it leads to a diminishing of specialty and a dilution of language-learning, that would be a huge loss for McGill.”

Alessandro Giardino, the graduate representative to the working group and Italian Studies language instructor, echoed a similar sentiment: “We are afraid that the merger might be an attempt to cut out a certain specificity that comes with the language and the culture.”

Common ground
Despite their different attitudes, all four departments are concerned about ramifications the proposed merger could have on language instruction funding, a problem already aggravated in previous years.

“The cuts to our language teaching had a significant impact on our ability to respond to student demand,” Bauer said. Kroha identified “a significant reduction in language instruction” within the administration’s proposal for amalgamation. Holmes noted that with the plan’s cuts, “we wouldn’t have the same language teaching capacity.”

The effects of decreased language instruction seem to create their own cyclical consequences. Kroha noted that a reduction in language instruction leads to a reduction in potential program students, and thus smaller departments in general. A number of spots in language courses must then be reserved for Arts students who could potentially become majors.

Also, as Bauer noted, some Management and Music programs require German language instruction. “They will not be able to graduate if they can’t take German courses,” she said.

Some have also found the administration’s lack of sufficient support for language antithetical to McGill’s concern with its international reputation. “For a university that wants to be international, that wants to be research-intensive, that wants to [do] cutting-edge research, it’s somehow unthinkable [that] you can’t study the language you need to fulfill your program requirements, or to do your research,” explained Bauer.

Graduate students
Decreases in language instruction would also mean fewer graduate students teaching among the four departments, a demographic perhaps most at odds with the merger.

According to Kroha, less teaching opportunities (and the wages that go along with them) would mean a lack of competitive edge in an institution that already gives graduate students low funding opportunities. In a drafted statement, German graduate student Nina Gerschack wrote “compromising our ability to teach seriously affects our ability to effectively secure teaching positions once we finish our degrees.”

Morton again located the lack of graduate support in a wider context: “We would all like more resources to get the very best graduate students. So I don’t think in any way that’s unique to language.”

But the current proposal would also add four new tenure-track positions for the combined department and potentially faculty lecturers for language instruction. Bauer noted that the interdisciplinary possibilities of new tenure-track faculty “can help make this unit more coherent in the sense that you can hire people who already maybe cross some boundaries.”

“We haven’t decided,” Morton said, “but the belief [is] that perhaps that is a way to actually improve the quality of language teaching,” suggesting an improvement over graduate student instruction.

Speaking about German Studies, MacBain said that, “We love our grad students dearly, but I’ve asked around about this, and the phrases I most often hear used to describe their teaching skills are ‘mixed bag’ and ‘hit or miss.’”

In contrast, Gerschack cited the “demand for additional sections” and “feedback from undergraduates” as evidence to the contrary. Similarly, Holmes mentioned the positive feedback from course evaluations in Spanish graduate instruction.

Local issue, global pattern
The merging or abolition of small departments has become widespread among institutions around the world. “We are not being terribly innovative in this; we are really following the pattern,” Morton said.

Middlesex University in London intends to close their philosophy department, as part of the United Kingdom’s enormous cuts in teaching expenses. Similarly, several language, theatre, and classics programs at the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany may be cancelled.

Closer to McGill, over the course of the summer, the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts And Science aimed to conglomerate East Asian Studies, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Italian Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Spanish and Portuguese, and the Centre for Comparative Literature into a new “School of Languages and Literatures.” Thomas Keirstead, chair of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, identified a global trend towards viewing such departmental amalgamations into such “economies of scale.”

The faculty’s plan was met with a rapidly mobilized academic response from professors and students, including the creation of town hall meetings, a website archiving all information related to the merger, and a plan for outreach across the university. Ultimately, the faculty reversed its decision and retained the departments.

In comparison, McGill’s move toward amalgamation has been unadvertised, save in emails on certain listservs to find student representatives for the working group. As Fraser wrote in a petition to Dean of Arts Christopher P. Manfredi she circulated in German classes, “…to my current knowledge there has been no explicit notification to students in my department, either by emails, announcements, or postering.”

However, there is still ample time for discussion. According to Morton, a report will be sent to the Dean by November 30. The Arts chair meeting will happen after, “at which point it will eventually be brought to Faculty. At that point there’s some public discussion,” Morton said.

As Keirstad said, “There’s something to be said that elite institutions devote themselves to fields whether they’re popular fields of inquiry or not. …Part of being a world-class institutions is supporting minority fields of inquiry.”