Disappearance of East Asian Studies at UofT

Posted: July 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

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Recently the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto learnt of a plan by the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, following the recommendation of the Strategic Planning Committee, to eliminate the department, thus denying the fact that the department is one of the strongest East Asian Studies programmes in North America and reinforcing the Eurocentric nature of the school. Concretely, this would entail an amalgamation of the East Asian Studies, German, Italian Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Spanish/Portuguese departments into one super-administrative unit known as the School of Languages and Literatures. Faculty members not specializing in literature or languages (the majority of the EAS faculty) would be transferred to other departments and the study of East Asia would be dispersed throughout the university, thus drastically weakening the capacity to promote in depth research and teaching on East Asia.

This amalgamation is unfortunately based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the department truly is about. We are against this proposed shift from students studying regions in great depth with a broad perspective (through a combination of history, political science, religion, anthropology, languages, etc) to forcing students to study a region through a singular lens within one discipline. We are also concerned for the status of literature within this school, as it appears that it will become primarily a tool in the study of language. The attack on our department’s unity would weaken the ability of faculty interested in the interdisciplinary study of East Asia to work close together in teaching and research.

Of course, undergraduate students would be hugely affected by these changes. The new proposed East Asian unit, with four lecturers in language and five professors of literature, could never support the 2000 students who take EAS courses each year. According to current enrolment figures, while our professors would consist of less than 20 percent of the faculty of the new school, EAS would supply half of its Majors, Minors and Specialists, approximately one thousand, as well as about 40 percent of its undergraduate enrolments. In reality, the five remaining professors could run a minor program at best and this only with a focus on literature. Those of us looking to specialize in Asian history would have to go to the History department where we would not be able to study East Asia in depth because of the small number of faculty. For those of us still here when the new school is intended to be in operation, next year, we are sure to suffer from transitional chaos and an educational experience less than that we were promised when we first came to U of T.

The Dean’s decision to high jack the recent efforts of the department’s faculty to reform the curriculum is deplorable, as is the destructive effect on key initiatives of the East Asian Studies Student Union (EASSU) in recent years. The faculty is in the process of implementing a restructuring of the undergraduate curriculum, after consultation with the undergraduate community. The results are classes that challenge concepts about Asia, its history and its historiography, and the opportunity to write theses. Recently EASSU have, for their part, strove to provide all students with opportunities often reserved for graduate students. We created an academic journal allowing those in the university with an interest in Asia to publish their best essays. We also organized an annual ON EAST Conference where undergraduate students were able to present their papers, get feedback from renowned scholars in the field, and, most importantly, to gain crucial experience in public presentations. All of this would disappear and be replaced by the inability to acquire in-depth knowledge of the discipline of East Asian Studies. This, in spite of the claim of the Dean that undergraduate research is important to him.

We cannot ignore the fact that Toronto is one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities and the university’s students originate from all parts of the world. We have to prevent merely finding or imposing our own views and structures upon other societies and cultures with the risk of simply reinforcing ethnocentrism. The critical study of East Asia helps us in this endeavour. As the East Asian Studies Students Union, we formally oppose this decision. Faculty and graduate and undergraduate students are already in the process of writing letters and signing a petition, but the help of people outside the university voicing their opposition to the decision would, we hope, strengthen all our voices. We must do this not only for all current students of the university but for those to come in the future as well. We are looking for letters from people who know about the importance of such departments within a school and, through their own experience, can illustrate the gravity of the Dean’s error.

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Comments
  1. Let me begin by saying I applaud the Dean’s decision.
    It is about time that anything beyond the fields of literature and language learning is dispersed to other disciplines independent of geographical focus. The Idea of the area specialist, and the institutions built to maintain the status quo of her expertise, are inherently eurocentric. Facing our colleagues from other disciplines, i.e. history, seems much more efficient in pointing towards cultural biases and improve the quality of our research across the board. The current practice of reifying East Asia goes against the challenges you advocate yourself. Challenge Asia by stop pretending it is an object suitable for a discipline in its own right.
    While independent questions of faculty position might require rethinking. The fact that experts on i.e. Chinese History are situated in a History Department, and not in an EAS environment is a strength of the U o T. I wish that more institutions would follow this example.

    • nikeltje says:

      Many institutions do, in fact, follow the languages and literatures model (community colleges, for example), but their programs aren’t nearly as complex or evolved as EAS at U of T.

      If you are against “reifying East Asia,” then why not form a massive Department of Literature in which Asia can be “challenged”? Literature is more than a prop for language acquisition. One of the most fundamental misconceptions of the EAS field is the idea that these “other disciplines” have nothing to do with the study of literature or language. Despite what the SPC thinks, language acquisition is not the “backbone” of our field, but rather a part of a broader humanistic inquiry that cannot be removed from the study of history, philosophy, anthropology, culture, etc. The beauty of our EAS department is that students are able to cross disciplinary and national boundaries. This is the direction that East Asian studies has been headed, and lumping EAS into an outdated languages and literatures model would be nothing short of an embarrassing step backwards for a university that fancies itself one of the top schools in North America.

      Dispersing our faculty to traditional departments such as History, Religion, etc. will not only deprive them of the support and attention they currently receive as an independent entity, but further marginalize them as “special interest” scholars. How is a Korea scholar going to compete for funding within a History department when he/she has to compete with specialists in American or European history? How would relegating our world-class EAS scholars to token Asianists in traditional (and, as you point out, inherently Eurocentric) departments “improve the quality of our research across the board,” exactly?

      The EAS department at U of T has evolved far beyond the cold war conception of area studies–this is what we are fighting to protect.

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