Prof Keirstead’s letter to Dean Gertler

Letter from Prof Thomas Keirstead to Dean Gertler

Dear Dean Gertler,

I am writing with the unanimous support of the faculty of the Department of East Asian Studies to ask that you reconsider the inclusion of the Department in the proposed School of Languages and Literatures. We believe that such a move has no compelling intellectual or programmatic rationale, that it would, in fact, adversely affect the study of East Asia in the Faculty of Arts and Science. Far from enhancing the reputation of Faculty as a place for scholarship on East Asia, the move would make it more difficult to recruit and retain faculty, attract graduate students, and maintain strong undergraduate interest.

From your comments at the meeting last Wednesday, I understand that the SPC sees the formation of the school as solving a number of “challenges” faced by the five departments involved. EAS, in fact, is beset by none of these issues:

• we have strong enrolments in our undergraduate courses, roughly the equivalent of the other four departments combined; on a per capita basis, we are not far behind such behemoths as English and History;

• with nearly 1000 majors, minors, and specialists (again equalling the other four departments together), we may well be the largest EAS program in North America—comparable programs, even at institutions with much larger undergraduate numbers, such as Indiana or Michigan, typically have 100-300 majors;

• we offer a full range of courses in English, from beginning to advanced, and we are not dependent on lower-level language courses to sustain enrolments; our faculty are able to teach specialized courses that meet the needs of advanced students; and

• we have no difficulty whatsoever forming the committees needed for the smooth functioning of our graduate program or for reviewing colleagues for promotion and tenure; while with greater resources we could do more, we certainly do not even at present lack “critical mass.”

The SPC also expects that the proposed school would allow “intellectual synergies to emerge,” and that there are “overlapping themes” that could be developed if the departments were gathered under one roof. On an individual level this is surely true—a few of us might well find unexpected intellectual companions among the members of the other departments. But we do not believe that the case can be made that the synergies and overlaps between EAS and German, Slavic, Italian, and Spanish & Portuguese are stronger or more compelling than those that exist between our department and, for example, History or Religious Studies or Philosophy or the Asia Institute or Comparative Literature.

The idea that a natural overlap exists rests on a fundamental misconception of what the Department of East Asian Studies is and does. We are most emphatically not a language and literature department. We offer language courses, but none of our professorial stream faculty specializes in languages, unlike the other four departments. Some of our faculty are scholars of East Asian literatures, but fully half of the department consists of historians, anthropologists, and specialists in religion and philosophy. And those members of the department who do study literature were attracted here precisely because in this department their teaching and research can readily link with other aspects of East Asia other than language.

To lodge the department in a school of language would be to tie our programs to an outmoded conception of the discipline, in which language study is the core and exploration of other aspects of East Asian culture a secondary pursuit. EAS departments across North America have moved away from this model, expanding their programs to include anthropology, history, religion, film, and popular culture and hiring scholars who are well grounded in a particular discipline. EAS at Toronto has been at the forefront of this trend. The department has worked to transform itself from a language-centred curriculum to one that emphasizes critical, disciplinary approaches to East Asia. For example, six or seven years ago, we decided to end the separate undergraduate programs in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean and replace them with a single East Asian studies program to emphasize the interdisciplinary and interregional approach of the department. The growth of our program tracks the department’s reforms. As noted in our strategic planning submission, we have seen our number of majors quintuple—to about 500—over the last decade, while growth in minors and specialists has been equally remarkable, increasing from 20 to nearly 200 and from 70 to 290, respectively.

Relocating the department to a School of Languages and Literatures would derail and even reverse the progress we have made, alienating our faculty and impairing our ability to attract students (both undergraduate and graduate), who come to us to study East Asia from a broader perspective—including history, cinema, philosophy, religion, anthropology as well as language and literature. The move would, we believe, result in the East-Asia program having the kind of enrolment profile typical of many language and literature departments: strong enrolments in lower-level language and culture courses, few majors, and an attending problem in sustaining more advanced offerings.
We are especially worried about the effect that the proposal would have on our ability to attract and retain faculty. We are, it should be noted, a very different department than we used to be; the faculty whose training centred on language and for whom the teaching and study of languages formed the core of East Asian studies have retired. All of the current faculty share a conception of how to study and teach East Asia that is very different from that which once defined the department. We have been successful in recruiting and retaining faculty—in the face of competing offers from better-endowed and larger East Asia programs, including Michigan, UCLA, NYU, Duke, and Tokyo—precisely because we are not a language department.

We realize that the current climate makes it imperative that the Faculty find ways of consolidating programs, and we are more than willing to assist in finding intellectually promising ways of reconfiguring the department and its place in the Faculty. One possibility for consolidation might be to create a Department of Asian Studies, uniting EAS with the programs in Asia-Pacific Studies and South Asian studies, as well as NMC perhaps. The absorption of EAS in a School of Languages and Literatures, however, would only serve to drastically diminish the profile of the University of Toronto as a institution capable of producing excellent research and teaching about one of the world’s major cultural spheres.

Finally, I would add on a personal note that I am very reluctant to serve as interim chair of an interim department.
Sincerely yours,

Thomas Keirstead
Interim Chair designate


As an addendum, I’d like to call to your attention an imbalance built into the structure of the proposed school. As the last few years of data for enrolments and PoSts reveal, East Asian Studies, with perhaps 20-25% of the faculty of the new school, will supply half of its Majors, Minors, and Specialists and about 40% of its undergraduate enrolments. It seems unlikely that the resources of the school could be apportioned in a way that reflects this imbalance.

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