Past-Chair Reflects on Changes in Climate for the Study of Asian Languages

Michael Shapiro

At the end of Spring Quarter, Michael Shapiro completes his five-year term as Chair of Asian L&L and returns to the faculty, where he will be teaching courses in South Asian languages and literature. In the following article, which was printed earlier this year in the East Asia Center’s newsletter, he reflects upon changes that have taken place during the forty years he has been at the UW concerning the teaching of Asian languages and literature.

The past year has been an exciting one for all of us here at the University of Washington’s Department of Asian Languages and Literature. The year has marked the centennial of its establishment in 1908 by the University’s Board of Regents of a Department of Oriental History, Literature, and Institutions, headed by the Rev. Herbert H. Gowen. That department is the forebear not only of our own Department, but also of the Jackson School of International Studies and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. The year has also marked the 40th anniversary of the existence of our Department in its current form, namely as an autonomous department in the Humanities division of the College of Arts and Sciences. In its present form, the Department has been the unit on campus most centrally involved with teaching and service with regard to representative languages and literatures of East, South, and Southeast Asia. It has been a fundamental aspect of the Department’s mission that it not only teach a broad range of courses to enable students to develop practical skills in particular languages, but also to treat Asian languages and literatures in a broad humanistic context, taking care to examine them with reference to the cultures and traditions within which they exist and have developed. During this past year there has been a wide-spread celebration on campus of the significance of the University’s accomplishments in Asian studies during the past century. The organization of a well-attended series of Centennial Lectures, sponsored by the UW’s Alumni Association, and the awarding to the UW’s Japan Studies Program of the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Award, in recognition of the UW’s long-standing contribution to Japanese studies, both bear witness to the important place that the study of Asian languages, cultures, and civilizations has had on the UW campus over the past century.

It should be no surprise that virtually everything about the study of Asian languages and cultures has changed since Rev. Gowen’s time. In the first year for which we have catalog records (1909-10) after the founding of the new Department, Rev. Gowen was listed as teaching two courses in each of the two semesters of the academic year. The four courses were (1) China, Japan and Korea, their history, literature and religious systems; (2) European conquests in Asia; (3) the literature of Persia; and (4) the primitive civilization of the Euphrates and Nile valleys, their history, religions, literatures, and monuments. By the next year, 1910-11, a totally different roster of courses was offered. Expanded now to three courses per semester, Rev. Gowen’s teaching load now comprised the classical literature of Japan, Buddhism as a philosophy and a religion; the classical literature of India, a history of Semitic archaeology, elementary Sanskrit, and elementary Hebrew. Clearly, Rev. Gowen’s purview was broad and extraordinary. But within a few decades after the establishment of the Department, such a one-man operation charged with providing instruction with regard to the languages, history, and institutions of all of Asia had become an impossibility. The range of languages expanded, the degree of specialization increased, and the level of linguistic proficiency expected of students was raised to ever higher levels. From relatively modest beginnings a century ago, the full infrastructure of a world-class operation in Asian studies (with the study of Asian languages and literature playing a leading role) emerged. The world of Language and Area Centers, FLAS Fellowships, “critical language” overseas summer language courses, multi-track degree programs in various Asian languages, and study-abroad programs could scarcely have been imagined by Rev. Gowen and the UW Board of Regents a century ago.

That things change greatly in a century is no big surprise. What may not be so apparent, however, is just how much has changed during the 40 years that our Department has existed as an independent academic year. I find it somewhat bracing to realize that I have now been a faculty member at the UW for 39 years, which covers the entire history of the “modern” Department except for its first two years of existence. When I conclude my term as chair at the end of June, I will have served (off and on) as department chair for eleven years. Things have changed markedly during my years as chair; and they have changed even more markedly since I received my graduate training in the late 1960s and began my teaching career in 1970. And although it is a cliché to say it, some of these changes have been for the better and some for the worse.

First the good news. The desire for instruction with regard to all aspects of the languages, literatures and cultures of Asia (and particularly East Asia) has increased spectacularly since the Department was established. This increase is a national, and not just a local UW phenomenon. Between 1960 and 2006, language enrollments for Japanese have increased nationally from 1,746 to over 66,000; those for Chinese have increased from 1,844 to over 51,000. Korean enrollments have gone from virtually zero to over 7,000. In the same period, enrollment for French has decreased from 228,000 to 206,000, for German from 146,000 to 94,000, and for Russian from 30,000 to just under 25,000. By way of comparison, it’s interesting to note that Spanish enrollments have surged from approximately 177,000 to almost an astounding 833,000. On the figures for the Asian languages, it’s noteworthy that a really sharp increase in Japanese enrollments took place between 1980 and 1990, a period coinciding with the boom years in the Japanese economy, years in which there was widespread apprehension in the US that the Japanese economy was engulfing the American economy. Based upon the experience of what happened with Japanese enrollments, it is not unreasonable to project that Chinese enrollments will witness a similar sharp increase in the coming decades. This is supported by the fact that of the twelve languages most widely taught at US post-secondary institutions, the two showing the largest percentage increases between 2002 and 2006 are Arabic (126.5 percent) and Chinese (51 percent).

The upswing in interest in instruction in Asian languages is by no means only a phenomenon of post-secondary education. Interest has increased in Asian languages in the K-12 schools, where language immersion programs, international baccalaureate degrees, and AP courses in Japanese and Chinese are increasingly popular. When I went to high school in the early 1960s, the readily available language class options were Spanish, French, German, and in some schools, Latin. Today, Japanese is taught at approximately 25 percent of Washington’s high schools, which have responded to an ongoing statewide survey of high school language offerings. Schools are gearing up for an anticipated surge of interest in Chinese. It is not inconceivable that the old trio of French, Spanish, and German may, at least locally, be giving way to a new trio of Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish. And this is only part of the picture. Interest in pre-school language programs is on the increase. I might mention, by way of illustration, that my one year old granddaughter, whose parents live in Austin, Texas, was enrolled prenatally at a day-care center featuring a Chinese- language immersion program. The majority of the students in this program is not of Chinese ethnicity. This would have been unimaginable 40 years ago, not to mention in Rev. Gowen’s era.

There is more good news. As compared with a generation or so ago, our Department is offering a wider spectrum of courses, targeted to a broader constituency of students, in a larger number of languages. Total student enrollments in our courses now add up to approximately 4,000 per year. They include not only own undergraduate majors and minors, our graduate students, but a broad swatch of undergraduate and graduate students from across campus. Fully 95 percent of the student credit hours generated by our undergraduate course offerings come from students not majoring in Asian Language and Literature. Double and triple majors are on the rise and it has become a commonplace for students to combine a major in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Hindi with one in bioengineering, computer science, mathematics, or business. Our faculty members have training and research specializations in a wide variety of areas that would not have been the case earlier. Today our Department has faculty who are active researchers in linguistics, literature and literary theory, language pedagogy, religious studies, epigraphy and paleography, film studies, and cultural studies. Our majors, both undergraduate and graduate, find employment, not just as teachers and scholars of Asian languages, but in a wide range of professions, include the health sciences, law, IT, government services, the military, and business. And, I think it’s fair to say, they enter these professions with a higher degree of spoken language proficiency than would have been possible earlier.

Now for some negatives (or, in the newsletter speak of our time, “challenges’). It should be no surprise that some of them have to do with money, or the lack thereof. The explosive rise in interest in the languages and cultures of Asia simply has not been matched with a commensurate rise in funding for departments such as our own. There are historical reasons why this might be the case. The organizational structure of academic units at the UW is in many ways a relic of the 1960s. We have separate departments for Slavic, Scandinavian, German, Classics, and Romance languages (divided into divisions for Spanish/Portuguese and French Italian), but only one for all the languages of Asia, whose speakers comprise approximately 40 percent of the world’s population. Our Department actually has fewer tenure-track faculty members than it did in the early 1980s. Then there were 20 tenure-track faculty members. That number is down to 14. Of course we have many more lecturers and TAs, who do exceptionally good work under less than optimal conditions. Teaching loads are high, salaries low, and (at least for lecturers) terms of employment short. The budget cuts of the past year have only made this situation worse. TA positions have been cut, section size increased, and some course tracks (for example, the heritage track of first-year Korean) eliminated for the time being. This makes little sense at a time when students are clamoring for instruction in Asian languages, when a Confucius Institute is being established in our state, and when Chinese and Japanese are making substantial inroads into curricula of the K-12 school systems. We should be increasing capacity, building stronger connections to the K-12 system, improving our curriculum, expanding opportunities for overseas study, rebuilding faculty strength in our traditional areas of excellence, and laying the groundwork for an institutional framework for the study of Asian languages, literatures and cultures that will meet the long-term needs of our constituency in the years to come.

I believe it is very important to place some emphasis on the phrase “long-term.” I do so out of the belief that the very best language and literature programs plan for the long-haul. They build curricula in which the teaching of languages at the elementary level is linked organically to what happens at the advanced levels, where language work goes on in conjunction with work in literature, history, and culture, and in which a community of teachers and scholars possess different research interests and teaching skills. This requires a kind of expertise that is built up over decades and in which there is continuity in course content, faculty, and funding. For decades we have had this kind of continuity at the University. But this community is put at risk when too many courses are taught by faculty on short-term contracts, languages are added or subtracted from the curriculum based upon the exigencies of annual budgets, or when programs get stretched to do too many things with too few resources.

I don’t wish to end this article on a negative note. That financial exigencies are upon us is something we have to deal with, to be sure. But it is also important to bear in mind that in the century since the appointment of Rev. Gowen to the UW faculty, the University has grown into one of the elite institutions in the world for the study of the languages, peoples, cultures and civilizations of Asia. The various units in which the centennial is currently being celebrated, including our Department of Asian Languages and Literature, have a justifiably good reason to be proud. The accomplishments of our unit during the past decades have been substantial. But the continued success of Asian studies at the University of Washington depends upon the continued strength of the institution’s offerings in Asian languages and literatures. I don’t hide the fact that I am an unabashed proponent of the centrality of language and literature to area studies in general. We have at the UW a world-class operation in Asian languages and literatures. And with the resources to do our job properly, I am fully confident that we will remain a premier institution in the decades to come.

Back to Asia Notes 2010

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