From where I sit - Whither the vision of yesteryear?

November 11, 2010

I've been looking for a way to describe the mood of my department this term, which is in the throes of implementing a much-contested revision to our curriculum, arrived at after three long years of struggle. The heated meetings that marked those times have yielded to something less confrontational but still troubling: a kind of melancholy among many colleagues who lapse into "ubi sunt..." laments whenever the new curriculum is mentioned. You see, our undergraduate studies committee has persuaded the department to do a heinous thing: we have moved the chronological survey of literature in English from first year to second year. And from that has followed the end of civilisation as we know it.

The closest I've been able to come to a phrase that captures what I see is post-traumatic change disorder. Not the catastrophic and debilitating force of the genuine affliction known as post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather a pale reflection of it. To those outside the department, the move from a first-year course structured around major periods with attention to genre, to a course structured around genre with attention to historical range seems trivial; to those inside the department, however, it signals a radical revision to the programme's identity.

Ours has always been a department that prides itself on historical coverage and distribution, while offering courses that reflect contemporary shifts within the discipline. And up until now, we've been fortunate to offer essentially a "both/and" programme. Now it has changed to something closer to an "either/or" curriculum.

What I'm seeing at the departmental level extends to the broader university level as well. Until the late 1990s, it felt as though we were part of an infinitely expanding academic universe: new programmes were steadily being added, first in women's studies and then gender studies; postcolonial literatures and histories took their places; Arabic augmented the language offerings. Somehow it seemed that the university was capacious enough to sustain its traditional strengths while embracing changing disciplinary contours. Now, in the wake of a global financial crisis, it feels like the academic universe is contracting.

Our curriculum revisions arose more from this contraction than from a conscious shift in vision. In better economic times, a substantial group of adjunct instructors increasingly supported the required period courses, while the few but steady tenure-track appointments were divided among core British, American and Canadian literature areas and emerging transnational and transhistorical fields, including gender studies and ecocriticism.

However, as tenure lines began to diminish and retirements were drawn largely from senior faculty who identified as period scholars, this curriculum simply became unsustainable given the specialties of the regular faculty available to teach. Either the university needed to invest in more professors or the programme had to change.

The post-traumatic change narratives I hear from colleagues focus on the loss of a rigorously distributed historical core, but the real "ubi sunt..." lament should be broader and deeper.

"Whither has gone the soft money that funded extra courses? Whither the adjuncts who taught them? Whither the tenure lines that sustained our vision? Gone, all gone...".

Like some academic comitatus, we have lost our administrative gold-friend, and we can only hope that our tribe will not vanish altogether.

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