We, the students of the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto, oppose the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC)’s recent proposal to dissolve our department and disperse our faculty across the university. 

1. The decision to house East Asian Studies within a larger School of Languages and Literatures rests on a fundamental misconception of the field.

–      The scope of East Asian Studies goes beyond the teaching of language and literature. While the study of language is an important component of the undergraduate program, and fluency in an East Asian language is a prerequisite of the graduate program, the acquisition of language proficiency is not the raison d’être of East Asian Studies. Language is certainly an important facet of the field, but it cannot be separated from the study of histories, philosophies, cultures, etc. that form the broad critical humanistic inquiry focused on the East Asian region.

–      While several members of the department’s faculty are scholars of East Asian literatures, fully half of the department consists of historians, anthropologists, and specialists in religion and philosophy.

–      This breadth is also reflected in the composition of participants to the annual conference organized by the department’s graduate students. The 10th annual conference, held in March 2010, included panels not only in literature, but also in philosophy, history, visual culture, cinema studies, and gender studies. Similarly, the areas of study of the keynote speakers invited reflect this range; these include important scholars like Harry Harootunian (intellectual history, NYU), Thomas LaMarre (media studies, McGill), Dorothy Ko (history, Columbia), and Toshiya Ueno (cultural studies, Wako University).

–      The department also promotes interdisciplinary, cross-regional research through the East Asia Forum, a refereed multi-disciplinary journal published since 1992.  With contributions from graduate students the world over, the EAF enjoys a reputation for producing original graduate-level research that is at the forefront of the field of East Asian Studies.

–      To lodge the department in a school of language would be to tie our programs to an outmoded Cold War conception of the discipline. East Asian Studies programs across the continent have moved away from a philological conception of the field in which language study is the core with and exploration of other aspects of East Asian culture a secondary pursuit. Within this framework, literary study will be reduced to a tool in the service of language acquisition rather than a nodal point for critical intellectual inquiry.

2.  The East Asian Studies program at the University of Toronto does not suffer from any of the problems (declining enrollments, lack of critical mass of faculty, etc.) that serve as the rationale for the formation of a unified School of Languages and Literatures. Its performance in teaching and research is not in question.

–      With nearly 1000 majors, minors, and specialists, the U of T’s EAS program is one of the largest of its kind in North America.

–      In addition to receiving SSHRC, SSHRC-CGS, OGS awards, graduate students in the Department of East Asian Studies are regularly able to secure fellowships from agencies such as the Japan Foundation, the Japanese Ministry of Education, the Korea Foundation, and others to facilitate their research projects. Our graduate students have also been invited to participate in conferences across North America, including those organized by the Association for Asian Studies, Asian Studies Conference Japan, Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast, and the Harvard East Asia Society Graduate Student Conference.

–      Several faculty members in the department are in receipt of SSHRC grants in support of their research projects.

–      The aforementioned graduate student conference, which has been held continuously for the past ten years, has become internationally recognized and draws participants from all over North America, Europe, and Asia, putting it alongside universities with similar conferences, such as Columbia and Harvard.

–      The department has also organized and hosted international workshops (funded by SSHRC and/or the Japan Foundation) that have brought important scholars from universities across North America and beyond to Toronto, most recently “Senses and the City,” “En/titled,” and “The City, the Body, and the Text.”

–      The enthusiasm and motivation of our undergraduate students reflects the nurturing and support of young scholars by EAS faculty.  EASSU, the undergraduate student union, produces ON EAST, an academic conference and journal publication now in its second year.  Showcasing promising undergraduate talent, ON EAST provides students with a forum to be taken seriously as scholars and become more involved with the academic community.

3.  The proposed reorganization of East Asian Studies will effectively mean the dissolution of its programs

–      Despite claims by the administration to the contrary, this so-called “restructuring” will have a radical impact on the study of East Asian humanities in the University of Toronto. In fact, it will effectively mean the end of East Asian Studies as a coherent academic program at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. With many of the faculty members dispersed to various discipline-based departments (history, religion, anthropology, etc.), the remaining five or six of the present faculty members to be transferred to the proposed school will be hard-pressed to provide courses for the close to 1000 EAS undergraduate students, much less a graduate program with any kind of breadth.

–      Neither of the core first year sequence of courses (EAS 103 and 105), which are courses in history, will survive. The required second-year course (EAS209), which deals with the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the field, will become superfluous, as there will be no field in the first place. Even the remaining courses centered around literary study will have questionable viability. Courses offered by the department on, for example, aesthetics and politics, colonialism and modernism, orientalism and literary representation, or urban space and literature, and others, will become more difficult to teach without the preparation offered by linkages with surrounding courses in history or cultural theory.

–      The effective downsizing of the undergraduate program will furthermore have a significant impact for the availability of teaching assistantships in terms of both numbers and types of courses. This will have consequences for the funding packages of PhD students, which will not only affect support levels for current graduate students in East Asian Studies, but may potentially lead to a drastic reduction in the size of the graduate program in the longer term.

–      Students wishing to study East Asia beyond a narrowly construed languages and literatures model will be forced to shop around for courses across various departments. A thematically coherent program wherein knowledge accumulates across courses cannot emerge from within such a structure. In its place will be little more than a set of disconnected offerings without any core curriculum.

–      Rather than facilitating the growth of the East Asian Studies program, the SPC proposal will have the effect of radically downsizing it. The growth of the East Asian Studies program at the University of Toronto over the last decade (from 100 to 500 majors, 20 to 200 minors, and 70 to 290 minors) closely tracks the department’s reforms to move away from a narrowly construed language study centered conception of the program. A likely consequence of the SPC proposals that would dismantle the Department of East Asian Studies and fragment its program is to alienate the faculty and impair the program’s ability to attract students (both undergraduate and graduate), potentially leading to an enrolment profile characterized by strong enrollments in lower-level language and culture courses, but with few majors, and an attending problem in sustaining more advanced offerings. In effect, this move to house East Asian Studies in a School of Languages and Literatures will produce the very problems they are ostensibly meant to solve.

4.  No major research university in North America is without an autonomous department focused on the study of East Asian humanities.

–      Should this dissolution of the Department of East Asian Studies take place, the University of Toronto will have the dubious honor of being alone among major universities in North America without an autonomous department devoted to teaching and research in the East Asian humanities.

–      The dissolution of the department will be seen by our peers as a major retreat from the field, bespeaking a worrying Eurocentrism given the importance of East Asia in the world, and for that matter, the prominence of East Asian communities in Toronto and the University.

–      The embarrassment of this disestablishment of East Asian Studies will only become more pronounced with the Association of Asian Studies set to hold its 2012 annual meeting in Toronto. When the largest gathering of Asian Studies scholars comes to Toronto, they will arrive in a city whose flagship university will have demonstrated a lack of commitment to supporting the rigorous study of East Asian cultures, histories, and societies.

5.  The move to disestablish the Department of East Asian Studies and disperse the members of its faculty betrays a callous disregard for the value of the languages, histories, and cultures of East Asia

–      Whether in discipline-based departments or in the proposed School of Languages and Literatures, each of the dispersed members of the East Asian Studies faculty will become a small minority within their respective departments with little influence and access to resources.

–      Given a history of Eurocentrism that continues to the present in discipline-based departments in North America and a concurrent tendency for the “non-West” to be marginalized if represented at all in these disciplines, the study of East Asian cultures, histories, and traditions may very well be reduced to special interests within otherwise Eurocentric programs.

–      Despite the university’s claims that it is “Engaged in the Global Community” or that diversity is a source of its strength in its public relations materials, the disestablishment of the Department of East Asian Studies communicates that this diversity is only desired when it can be contained and tokenized.

–      Excluded from amalgamation into the proposed School of Languages and Literatures are the departments of English and French in recognition of their special status as national languages. While this is certainly true, it is nevertheless blind to the contemporary reality of the university and the city of Toronto, wherein over 13% of the population identify as having East Asian heritage and over 450000 claim an East Asian language (in contrast to 72590 for French) as a first language. By this logic, in disestablishing an autonomous department focused on the study of East Asian languages, histories, and cultures and the restructuring of its language programs into a school of foreign languages, the University of Toronto will be seen as perpetuating orientalist perceptions of East Asia as fundamentally foreign and not a part of the cultural milieu of the university and the city of Toronto. It will be perceived as implicitly sending the reactionary message that it does not consider Asian-Canadians to be fully Canadian.

The departmental autonomy of East Asian Studies is crucial to maintain a strong academic commitment to the study of East Asian humanities, culture, and tradition, without which the University of Toronto cannot claim to be truly global in outlook, to be “Canada’s Answer to the World’s Questions.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s