Expansion could revive Yale literature, languages

President Levin’s recent statement on the expansion of Yale College (“Levin backs expansion” 2/18), which calls for “an increase in non-ladder teaching faculty” in “programs such as writing and foreign languages,” finally shed light on a process that had been a mystery to me for some months.

That mystery took shape when I thumbed through the pages of the Yale College Programs of Study: 1990-91. The world of Yale language and literature departments in 1990-91 seemed decidedly brighter than the one I knew. Offending my optimistic belief in progress, course offerings back then looked more diverse: there was a subject designation like Scandinavian and an interested student had her pick of Slavic linguistics courses. Most importantly, back in August 1990, there seemed to be significantly more professors, researching, teaching, and advising in those fields than there are now.

It took my own copy of the 2007-08 Blue Book to confirm the suspicion: the number of assistant, associate, and full professors on faculty at the language and literature departments has declined by more than a quarter since 1990. But between the two Blue Books lay a further discovery: over the past seventeen years, the ranks of casual faculty in those departments (variously called lecturer, lector, post-doc or, simply, adjunct) have more than doubled to the point of constituting a clear majority of language and literature faculty.

The extent of this transformation seemed too statistically significant to attribute to hiring fluctuations or my own difficulty with counting. Having been at the forefront of their fields over much of the twentieth century, Yale’s language and literature professoriate is slowly transforming into a casualized workforce off the tenure-track, with insecure, short-term contracts, curtailed research opportunities, and generally, a second-class citizenship status within the university.

Most of these adjunct teachers hold PhD degrees, have publication records, and teach literature in addition to language. In a few years, my generation of graduate students seems poised to join their ranks, at Yale or elsewhere. And it is distinctly demoralizing to realize that what you came here to learn — how to be a professor — is becoming an increasingly less realistic option. As my brother, himself a post-doc at Berkeley, puts it, “There are few real jobs left out there.”

What has so far been missing from my account was the process and logic behind this transformation. And here came President Levin’s statement on Yale’s expansion that proposes to meet projected student enrolment increases in language and literature departments by further increasing the already swollen ranks of their non-ladder faculty. And while such an announcement helped me understand the process whereby good academic jobs become replaced with cheap and temporary ones, the rationale behind it still escapes me: given its financial health, Yale is under no pressure to economize on its ostensibly most precious resources — its faculty and quality of education.

Such an educational economy will send a clear signal to undergraduates deciding on majors where languages and literatures lie in the University administration’s priorities. The thinness of undergraduate course offerings in those departments has already become a significant deterrent to prospective majors. Neither could a Yale undergraduate be blamed for deciding against a less commonly taught language, knowing that the contract of the lecturer teaching it could be discontinued next year.

The current university administration has responded to that situation by making a vicious circle out of it: low undergraduate enrolments in literature departments are cited as a reason for leaving professorial slots unfilled, further shrinking graduate student morale (as well as job prospects), and ultimately shortchanging undergraduates on their education. Yet the roots of the problem hardly lie in undergraduate lack of interest in foreign cultures, as the current University administration implies. At issue here is the extent to which that administration values subjects that generate neither money, nor power. There was, after all, a time when Yale was known for its commitment to its humanities.

I picked up the 1990-91 Blue Book as a random reference point in the past and a good existentialist like myself has no business dreaming escapist fantasies about it. Thinking of the transformation in Yale’s languages and literatures since then, however, helps bring into relief the choices facing the University on the eve of its expansion.

The addition of 600 undergraduates could become an opportunity both to fill the generic and chronological gaps that have accumulated in those departments over the years and to place them at the forefront of new and exciting fields of literary studies: both to restore the Scandinavian course designation and to bring to campus the sorely needed professor of modern Arabic literature. But by proposing to make the University even more reliant on casual faculty positions, President Levin’s statement not only misses that opportunity but offers instead a sure recipe for exacerbating the problems Yale’s languages and literatures face.

After all, these fields cannot live on a past reputation alone; they need good jobs to fulfill their educational mission.

Rossen Djagalov is a fourth-year graduate student and teaching fellow in comparative literature. He is a member of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO).