Globe and Mail: U of T plans to shut down Centre for Comparative Literature

By: Elizabeth Church

Globe and Mail, 13 July 2010

What began as a groundbreaking initiative more than four decades ago by Northrop Frye, one of the greatest literary theorists of the 20th century, is set to become the latest casualty of campus cost-cutting.

The Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, which the world-renowned scholar and author of The Great Code led as its founding director, will welcome its final class this fall under a plan now being considered by the university.

The centre, which began as a unique place in North America for the study of critical theory and literature across cultures, helped put U of T and Canada on the academic map for critical theory. Now it is slated to become part of a new School of Languages and Literatures along with five other departments, a move that all but guarantees the end of Prof. Frye’s vision, say opponents of the plan.

“It is Frye’s heritage,” said Linda Hutcheon, a professor at the centre for 20 years and its first graduate in 1975. “He very much believed in literature being of the world and that got translated into the centre.”

Prof. Hutcheon, who left graduate school at Cornell for the chance to study with Prof. Frye and others at the newly created centre, said it was unique at the time because it allowed students to study the literature of the Americas in a comparative context. “It is such a different thing than being locked into one culture,” she said. “We had Europeans coming from all over the place because it was the only place in the world that you could do it.”

While other schools followed, she said the centre continues to attract a large contingent of international students. It also has broadened the scope of its expertise to include other parts of the world such as Africa and East Asia, although it still is the only place at U of T where students can study Canadian literature in English and French together, or in an indigenous language, Prof. Hutcheon said.

The end of the centre, and other changes that are quietly being unveiled by the Faculty of Arts and Science, are part of a strategic review aimed at trimming a growing debt of $55-million from the country’s largest faculty. It represents yet another symptom of the financial squeeze in higher education that is leaving students across the country with fewer options.

Also included in the planned changes are the closing of the university’s Centre for Ethics, the newly created Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, and the Centre for International Studies, which will have its research folded into the new Munk School of Global Affairs. Five departments – Italian, German, East Asian Studies, Slavic languages and Spanish and Portuguese – will be combined with the Centre for Comparative Literature in the proposed school. The university will no longer grant graduate degrees in comparative literature under the proposal and faculty will no longer be appointed to the discipline.

Far from erasing Prof. Frye’s legacy, the closing of the centre is an acknowledgment of how widely scholarship in this area has progressed in the past 40 years, said arts and science dean Meric Gertler, who led the review, the results of which will be made public later this week. “The centre has been so successful that it has seeded interest in literary theory and comparative studies across humanities departments,” he said. “In our judgment it is no longer necessary.”

Prof. Frye’s contribution to the university is still marked by a building that carries his name, as well as a centre that supports research in the humanities. It is unclear, Prof. Hutcheon said, what will happen to the Northrop Frye Chair in Literary Theory, an endowment that has attracted international scholars in the field as visiting professors.

Neil ten Kortenaar, director of the centre, declined to be interviewed, but in a letter to Prof. Gertler, he expressed his shock at plans to close the program, the only comparative-literature program in Canada with an international reputation. “Comparative literature is the meaning of the University of Toronto in many literary circles,” he wrote. Graduates of the program have gone on to take up posts at campuses in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, as well as Canada.

The centre’s current graduate students, who are circulating petitions and have begun a Facebook campaign to save the centre, say the proposal was made without consultation or a full understanding of their discipline.

“Students like me just won’t be applying to U of T,” said PhD student Ryan Culpepper, who turned down offers from prominent U.S. schools to come to Toronto. An American who this year won a prestigious Vanier Scholarship from Ottawa, designed to attract top graduate students to Canada, Mr. Culpepper said proposals by the university to allow students to study comparative literature in collaboration with other programs are unworkable in their current form. “The fact is, this is a thriving discipline in Europe and the United States. Why would anyone come here for a half-baked collaborative program?”

Prof. Gertler said all current students – including those arriving in September – will be allowed to finish their degrees. All professors at the centre are cross-appointed to other faculties, so no jobs will be lost, he said. Between $900,000 and $1.5-million in administrative costs will be saved by combining the centre with the five faculties, he estimated, money that can be used in the classroom and to save courses with low enrolments that would otherwise be lost.

With 33 PhD and nine masters students, and no undergraduate courses, he described the Comparative Literature Centre as one of the university’s smaller programs. Combining it with other language departments, will prevent the kinds of cuts to programs experienced at other universities, he said.

All proposed changes will be considered by a working group this fall and require the approval of the university’s governing council. The plan, which also includes the funding of 61 academic appointments in arts and science and other initiatives to improve students’ experience on campus, is set to be implemented this time next year.

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One Response to Globe and Mail: U of T plans to shut down Centre for Comparative Literature

  1. Robert Denham says:

    The discussion about the fate of comparative literature at the U of T might gain some measure of clarity from what Northrop Frye always emphasized, that cultural movements flourish when they are decentralized, unlike political and economic movements, which tend to centralize. When the study of culture is centralized, such as will occur if comparative literature is amalgamated into a unite and conquer proposal that brings the study of all languages and literatures together under one administrative umbrella. While the centralizing tendency may work in such social sciences as, say, Geography & Planning, it never works in the humanities. The centralizing movement erases identity. Dean Gertler has written about how the centralizing movement we call globalization should not trump the decentralized nation¬ state, which remains a key space for organized labor (“Labour in “Lean” Times: Geography, Scale, and National Trajectories of Workplace Change”). While the parallels between internationalism and an amorphous department of languages and literature, on the one hand, and local autonomy and a separate identity of comparative literature, on the other, are not exact, to pay tribute to the former in what Gertler calls “lean” economic times is surely short sighted.

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