Saturday, 30 June 2012

Cutting off Limbs to Gain Better Balance: On Gothenburg University's Decision to Cancel Italian

June has been a month full of weird waves at the Faculty of Arts at Gothenburg University. The Head of the Faculty and her upper management proposed to close down teaching in Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Russian and Italian, and move Chinese, Arabic and the non-fiction translator programme to other Departments and even other Faculties, in an attempt to cut down costs (which the upper regime of the University itself demands of the Faculty). It should be added that similar purges had already been performed (e.g. on Dutch and  Slavonic languages) and the sentiment that arose at the Department of Languages and Literatures  in response to this latest attack brought an old poem by German pastor Martin Niemöller to mind: 

First they came for the communists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. 

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

While no lives hangs in the immediate balance in the current situation (at least not in the sense of literal executions hanging in the air), Niemöller's poem does seem appropriate in the sense that silent acceptance always seems be a dangerous path in matters like these.

In this case, however, the codes of silence have been broken and voices have spoken out loud and been heard (and with at the very least some effect) – I will link a number of relevant articles and documents in Swedish below, for anyone interested in some of the particulars. The Faculty Board held off on axing three of the endangered languages, but Italian became a seemingly inevitable casualty. The problem remains: one language down, three seemingly still do go in this round, and the idea of moving things to "other research environments" is maintained if not yet practically executed.

Now, the Humanities have long been in dire straits on a global level, as has been discussed by many thinkers (notably including Martha Nussbaum). In that sense, there is nothing new here. What is increasingly frightening, however, is the willingness, nay even eagerness, with which the Head of the Faculty and her cohorts go about trimming off sibling disciplines. Especially when these sibling disciplines are at the front and centre of what the Humanities are all about.

The prevailing image here is one of an entity devouring itself from within, rather than fighting external hostile conditions and debating for its own survival. The Faculty appears as a wounded giant, desperately hewing and hacking off limbs to gain better balance, while standing ever less firmly positioned on the ground.

The current affairs, not yet fully settled of course, seem to suggest a Faculty Management hostile towards language education and research. And yes, let us add further indication of this: the Faculty was recently offered to host a new Language Institute – and turned it down. It now looks like said institute will be established at the Faculty of Education instead, and I hope you will forgive a dystopian mind for thinking that whatever languages eventually remain at the Faculty of Arts may well be asked to move to the institute once it is up and running.

If that bleak vision actually holds true (and believe me when I say that I hope not), I wonder how long it will take for the Faculty of Arts to crumble. Because if any of the subjects within the Humanities can justify themselves somewhat more easily with regards to the general public, I would say that it would be the languages. And the need to chip away at the Humanities themselves will hardly go away with the loss of languages.

But, if you will pardon a paraphrase of Niemöller, the Head of the Faculty may find that when they come for her and hers, there are no languages left to speak out with.

Assorted links (in Swedish):

The assembled professors at the Department of Languages and Literature on the matter.

The response from the Head of the Faculty.

The Head of the Language Faculty in Uppsala weighs in

An interesting comment by Doctor of German and journalist, Magnus Pettersson Ängsal.

The Students' Union at Gothenburg University makes the students' voices heard. 

Psychologist Gabriela Koszyk's comment is worth reading.

The Faculty Board minutes, featuring the decision to cancel Italian and give at least a brief respite to the other languages.