Dear Dean Gertler,
On behalf of the graduate students of the East Asian Studies (EAS) department, we write to you to express our unwavering opposition to the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC)’s recent decision to dissolve our department and disperse our faculty across the university. We feel that the SPC’s proposal stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the teaching and research that goes on in our department. We thus respectfully request that you as well as each member of the SPC come to our department to meet with the graduate student body, where we can engage in a much needed dialogue concerning this matter. We must reiterate, however, our firm belief that to dissolve EAS at U of T would be a major step backwards for the intellectual quality and international reputation of the university. It amounts to nothing less than a betrayal of the university’s commitment to fostering critical humanistic inquiry of the world beyond Canada’s shores.
As a department we are devoted to the study of the East Asian humanities in all of their myriad complexity. Our interdisciplinary, transnational model allows scholars to combine the study of aesthetic production, political economy, social history, and cultural theory to produce ground breaking research on the most foundational problems of East Asia’s past and present. To claim, as the SPC planning document does, that our efforts to produce such research run counter to “the language instruction that forms the backbone of education and research” in our department is puzzling. For while our department values linguistic study at the graduate level, this is not the “backbone” of what we do. Our “backbone” lies in using our linguistic fluency in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to analyze the cultural dilemmas, contradictions, and dynamics that have defined East Asia as a world region. Fluency in at least one East Asian language is required for admission to the graduate program. Our program thus begins with, rather than sets as its goal, linguistic competency. To suggest that we could be reduced to an instrumental language department is thus to fundamentally misinterpret the nature of our intellectual goals and standards.
As we have continually striven to produce a critical awareness in Canadian society of the complexity of East Asia’s past and present, we have amassed a record of accomplishment that speaks for itself. Our department’s graduate students have been recipients of a plethora of prestigious awards, including SSHRC, SSHRC-CGS, OGS, Korea and Japan Foundation grants, Dr. David Chu awards in Asia-Pacific studies, Korean-Canadian Scholarship Foundation awards, and Wenner-Gren Foundation awards. Our graduate students have participated in important conferences on East Asia 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. Our graduate students organize our own annual conference, now in its tenth year, that regularly attracts top students and scholars from North America, Europe, and Asia. Finally, our graduate students publish an annual, peer-reviewed journal that has provided a forum for many junior scholars to begin their careers as published researchers.
To eliminate our department would effectively destroy the institutional base upon which such vital graduate work is done at U of T. Indeed, under the new scheme, it is difficult to understand why any self-respecting graduate student looking for a future faculty position in the EAS field would ever consider coming to U of T to do their training. The intellectual exchange, support, and collaboration that is the base upon which a critical East Asian humanities rests- and that is facilitated by having scholars of East Asia together in one autonomous department- would certainly cease. The five faculty members who would be consolidated into the new School of Languages and Literatures will simply not have the manpower or intellectual breadth to offer comprehensive training in the field. They will be a tiny minority in what will be a vast, centralized department. Whether East Asian literatures- to say nothing of other areas of interest such as film, art, etc.- will receive anything but the most scant institutional commitment by a department in which the majority of the professors have research interests that lay outside of Asia altogether is a dubious notion at best.
Our department currently receives generous funding from a number of private organizations outside the university who see us as a leading center for the study of East Asian humanities in Canada. If the SPC’s proposal goes through, such outside funding will most certainly cease, thus preventing future generations of graduate students to acquire the funding they need to produce thorough, well-rounded research. It is unclear why the Korea Foundation, to take but one example, would ever consider donating money to support research on the Korean humanities again, given that the university will have eliminated the very department within which such research is fostered and promoted. What is clear is that, with this move, the university risks being seen as not only abandoning the study of the East Asian humanities, but as reverting back to a debilitating Eurocentrism that smacks of the most egregious errors of our intellectual past.
It is simply astonishing to us that the university would risk the intellectual bankruptcy and international embarrassment that would come from such a move. Simply put, to study the East Asian humanities requires an institutional home within which scholars can come together- in independence and collaboration- to reach across disciplinary, linguistic, and national boundaries. It is this intellectual and institutional home that is the absolute pre-requisite for attracting future students, top professors, and outside funding. It is this home that is under direct attack by the SPC’s proposal.
We firmly believe that once the administration recognizes the true nature of EAS at U of T they will come to see how indefensible and misguided the SPC’s proposal truly is. There is still time to rescue the university from a move that would tarnish its reputation as a standard bearer for the production of knowledge that can meet the demands of a multicultural world. We look forward to working with the administration to chart a path that will not only reverse this decision, but strengthen EAS at U of T for years to come.
The Graduate Student Union of the East Asian Studies department