Open Letter from Alexander Beecroft, Classics & Comparative Literature, University of South Carolina (BA, UAlberta, 1995)


Note from Alexander Beecroft, 22 August 2013:

Thanks to all of the support and concern shown by the scholarly community generally, and by the classics community in particular, over the recent proposal to shut down the Classical Languages major at the University of Alberta. It should be emphasized that this does not represent the elimination of the Classics major (which demands significantly less study of ancient languages), still less the elimination of the Classics program itself. The elimination of the Classical Languages major raises questions about the longer-term viability of the advanced study of Greek and Latin at the university, and thus about the opportunities future U of A students will have to pursue graduate study in Classics, and/or allied fields. These questions are, I believe, of significant concern to the larger intellectual community, in spite of the continued existence and vitality of the Classics program, which is not in doubt at this time.

OPEN LETTER of 18 August 2013

Dear Dean Cormack, President Samarasekera, and Minister Lukaszuk,

I am writing today with sadness and grave concern, in my roles both as a scholar and as an alumnus of the University of Alberta. I received my Honours BA in Classics from the University in 1995, and was privileged to win the Dr. John Macdonald Gold Medal in Arts that year. The skills I learned during my undergraduate days in Alberta have made possible my subsequent career — earning a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard, and teaching in Comparative Literature at Yale, before moving to my present position as an Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina. As I read today of the Faculty of Arts’ plans to close down twenty undergraduate programs, including the one from which I graduated, I am truly saddened to think that future U of A undergraduates will face a radically narrowed and impoverished range of educational opportunities, and that the career path which the U of A facilitated for me, and for many others, will no longer be available to undergraduates of the future.

Particularly troubling to me are the rationales presented for these cuts. The Dean’s memo of August 16 states that “student demand for programs should be the principal resource allocation determinant.” This language, while claiming to put the interests and tastes of students first, actively disempowers undergraduates, by using the decisions of previous undergraduates artificially to narrow the options available to tomorrow’s students. I know that I and my peers in humanities majors at the U of A benefited enormously from the opportunity to explore the tremendously wide range of majors and subjects available to us, and that many of us (myself included) pursued directions we knew little of as incoming first-year students. Part of the joy and the value of an undergraduate education in the humanities lies in the new horizons of intellectual inquiry that open up for students as they explore new subjects. To the extent that the elimination of these twenty undergraduate programs or concentrations narrow the options available to students, those students’ intellectual vision will become narrower and more rigid, shaped by a smaller range of intellectual disciplines and less capable of moving across disciplinary lines in the ways increasingly required of us all.

The emphasis on student demand to the exclusion of other concerns also has grave implications, I fear, for my alma mater’s ability to grow and thrive as one of Canada’s leading research universities. A reduced emphasis on Greek and Latin teaching, for example, narrows options for undergraduate and graduate students interested in any aspect of European culture or society before 1800, whether they are students of English, French, foreign languages, Comparative Literature, History, Philosophy, Religious Studies, or a number of other disciplines. Moreover, research in those areas at the University will be impaired if, in the longer term, the reduction of undergraduate study in Classics (and in the other fields affected) leads to a reduction in the number faculty conducting research in those areas. As critical expertise is lost, undergraduate and graduate education will become narrower in scope, and the opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary research will become fewer.

I also find troubling the emphasis, in the Dean’s memo, on the number of undergraduate majors as the sole measure of student demand. The memo itself suggests other possible metrics, such as the number of majors per faculty member, or the ratio between the number of students in courses associated with a program, and the number of faculty in that program, but objects that these latter two measures are subject to more uncertainty, given the difficulties in some cases in linking faculty members and/or courses to specific programs. It would be a great pity indeed if entire undergraduate programs were to be shut down, and educational opportunities denied to the undergraduates of today and tomorrow, because of a difficulty in gathering reliable statistics.

Moreover, if the goal of this exercise is (as the memo states) to redistribute resources in order to treat students equitably across programs, then surely some measure of the resources associated with each major is essential. A major such as French and Italian, for example, may have few undergraduates, but may also operate at virtually zero marginal cost beyond the resources already allocated to the existing French and Italian majors, while (as the memo hints), Classics faculty may in fact teach large numbers of undergraduates in mythology, culture, and literature-in-translation courses, leaving them as a strong value-for-money proposition even in spite of small numbers of majors.

By insisting on the number of undergraduate majors as the sole metric of undergraduate student demand, this memo may fall wide of the mark in matching the marginal costs and marginal utilities of different programs. In addition, a further consequence of this move will be to reduce the opportunities for interdisciplinary majors, from Classics to Latin American Studies, which provide vital opportunities for students and faculty to create new paradigms by working across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Surely, in these times, it cannot be wise to increase in this way the institutional rigidities hindering interdisciplinary inquiry.

I understand that the University of Alberta, like many other research universities, faces difficult decisions about how to allocate scarce resources in these challenging times, but it is my profound hope, as a scholar and an alumnus, that these proposals will be given the critical scrutiny that they deserve, and that a way will be found to preserve the broad range of undergraduate humanities programs that made me proud to be a graduate of the university.

Alexander Beecroft (BA ’95)

This entry was posted in alberta budget 2013, faculties of arts canada and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Open Letter from Alexander Beecroft, Classics & Comparative Literature, University of South Carolina (BA, UAlberta, 1995)

  1. Sara Norquay says:

    Thank you for articulating the value of a Humanities education. While driving along 149th Street in Edmonton yesterday I saw a sign which read: Some things that can be counted, don’t count and some things that count, can’t be counted. For once, a platitude I can agree with.

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