The Word on the Street

Curious thing: I was talking a couple of months ago with a potential applicant to my university, who casually let drop, “Why were you removed from Comp Lit?” From what the student told me, a crowd of people (okay, maybe three or four) are speculating about what kind of crime I might have committed to see myself barred perpetually from the department that compares the literatures. Oh, please let it be sexual turpitude! But no. I’m sorry to throw cold water on the imaginings of those three or four people. I left Comp Lit in protest because of the way they had devised an admissions process that excluded certain faculty members and, not coincidentally, blocked all of the students who came from China or were interested in studying Chinese. Because the whole thing was disgusting and might cast opprobrium on my university, I kept the reasons for my departure within a small circle, but now I see that it would help to correct some misconceptions. I wasn’t pushed, I jumped, and for reasons of conscience. I think any person with an ounce of self-respect would have done the same. Here’s the text of my letter, which I believe was not shared even with members of my (former) department.

The University of Chicago
412 Wieboldt Hall
1050 East 59th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637

January 14, 2022

Dean Anne Robertson
Humanities Division
Walker Museum

Associate Provost Ingrid Gould
Office of the Provost
Levi Hall

Professor Mark Payne
Chair, Comparative Literature
Classics 116

            Dear Anne, Ingrid, and Mark:

            With this note I am notifying you of my decision to resign from the Comparative Literature department and make East Asian Languages and Civilizations my home department, with an additional appointment in the Committee on Social Thought. As University Professor I have this right, and I choose to exercise it. 

            For some time I have been uncomfortable with the way things are done in the Comparative Literature department, and I have finally given up. I came here in 2011 with the idea of teaching comparative literature as an investigation without national, linguistic, generic, disciplinary, chronological or thematic borders: an invitation to acquire skills and set curiosity free. The students I have trained have done innovative work precisely because they have had this freedom. Recent initiatives in the department go in the contrary direction. I have watched with dismay, and spoken up, as the will has set in to preselect the kinds of research graduate students will be admitted to do, to reduce the number of courses they may take in other departments, and to discourage them from taking outside advisors. Then, on arbitrary and potentially slanderous grounds, I was excluded from having a voice or a vote in a recent tenure decision—something I accepted in order to keep the peace. The proverbial last straw came when an Admissions Committee was named in secret—the faculty were neither consulted nor informed—and charged with extracting a shortlist from a field of over 100 applicants.[1]That’s enough favoritism, exclusion, and dissimulation for me. 

In the future I expect to divide my teaching effort evenly between East Asian Languages and Social Thought, and do my share of Core or CIV classes. As I am already appointed in those two departments, no additional process should be necessary, according to Associate Provost Gould. 

I am always happy to teach and advise students from Comparative Literature. The Associate Provost, moreover, has assured me that no student already working with me may be pressured to change advisors or alter their course of study, harassed, or disadvantaged. That reassurance matters a lot to me.

Yours very truly, etc. 


[1] Notice of this committee’s formation was given to the department only on January 5, 2022: we were told simply that “the admissions committee will circulate a short list of approximately 5-7 candidates for the faculty as a whole to review in preparation for our discussion” on January 18. Only two graduate spots are available. I had to go to Slate to learn the names of the committee members and the total number of applications. Other departments canvass broadly and include all their members in choosing which candidates are most suitable for admission—as this department always did in the past.