A piece appeared on the THE blog recently setting out proposals to secure the future of Modern Languages at UK universities: ‘Modern languages: four reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline’. It’s a shortened version of something published earlier under a slightly different title on a University of Manchester website: ‘Modern Linguists must craft their own reforms to reclaim the future of their discipline’.

The change in publication forum is not insignificant. It moves the piece out of a particular institutional context and onto a prominent platform for information and debate in the sector as a whole. The THE version has, indeed, been circulating quite widely on Twitter. That is how I came across it, and partly why I was concerned when I read it. I want to explain why in this blogpost.

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If you haven’t done so, I would suggest reading not only the version published by THE but also the original text. It is readily, if obliquely, apparent from the opening sentence of the latter that the piece was written against the background of threatened cuts to Modern Languages at the University of Manchester. This has been anonymised into ‘a number of UK universities’ in the THE blog version, so it is perhaps worth reminding oneself of this context – and pointing it out to, say, international readers who may not be so familiar with recent developments at a particular UK university.

The subtext of appealing against them would certainly explain the management-speak in references to ‘reform’, ‘a globalised world’, and ‘economies on staff resource’, as well as the aspiration to ‘an alignment of modern languages curricula’ with those of fields concerned with ‘diversity management and global outreach’.

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Whether our response to the current threats should be to slip into the discourse of the administrative apparatus behind them, to accept that we need to legitimize ourselves with reference to matters such as ‘planning’ and ‘population health’ – is a question on which it is worth reflecting.

Here, however, I want to focus on a different problem that results from the loss of context in the THE version: the one-sided image of Modern Languages as a discipline without a historical dimension, and the way this contrasts with the richness, diversity, and value of the field in its current form.

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Specifically, a lay reader would be unaware that medieval and early modern literature have any place in Modern Languages now or in the future. As a medievalist and comparative philologist, this impression worries me, and I want to address it in what follows.

I focus on the two ‘reforms’ where specific ideas for the future are mentioned. I discuss their selective nature, and in the process point out some of the ways in which medievalists could contribute to the future of Modern Languages under such a model.

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‘Any reform should begin with a rejection of the prevailing compartmentalised, nation-state based approach to the organisation of modern languages units and curricula. This could be addressed by strengthening offerings in Chinese, Arabic and Japanese, and introducing the likes of Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi or Polish’.

Moving away from a system anchored in national philologies and national languages sounds great. Certainly, one way of doing this is to focus on languages outside Europe, as the examples suggest – with a rather obvious nod toward current trends relating to comparative and world literature.

But there are other ways of thinking outside the nation-state paradigm too. One of them is to ‘strengthen’ (which, let’s face it, means create jobs and hire in) scholarship on periods when nation states did not yet exist. The more ‘traditional’ European languages, moreover, could then get a mention as well, together with the questions scholars in them have been asking. What does it mean to think of a European literary space without national borders? How do nations turn to the Middle Ages in constructing roots for their identity and their literary traditions? And such like.

What’s more, adopting this long view makes it possible to build new connections that embrace world literature as well. I am thinking here of the work that has been done recently comparing Latin and the European vernaculars with Sanskrit and other Asian languages, for example. In other words: including premodern periods would allow us to achieve this ‘reform’ without treating languages from certain areas as more worthy of mention and support than others.

‘Thirdly, much can be gained from working across the boundaries of individual language disciplines to create modules with a strong comparative or transnational dimension.’

Again, this is great!  However: although it is acknowledged that the possibilities are ‘almost infinite’ in principle, the examples given are clustered very close to one end – the contemporary end – of the time span covered by our discipline. As examples of such modules, the THE text mentions ‘New Media and Political Protest in Authoritarian Societies’ and ‘Remembering Communism in Eastern Europe’; alongside them, the Manchester website version also cites ‘The Films and Cinematic Legacy of Luis Buñuel’ and ‘The 19th Century Romantic Novel’, plus a token early example that would appear to have more to do with a different discipline: ‘Renaissance Art’.

There isn’t scope here to go into transnationalism, but I hope we can agree that comparativity at least is possible where premodern literature is concerned. And the potential there is enormous. Think of comparing language boundaries and zones of cultural and literary transition in the ‘British Isles’, Jutland, and eastern Europe. Or comparing the forms in which the past was represented and identity created around the shores of the Baltic. Those are just two examples. They’re not random ones but drawn from my day-to-day work and conversations with colleagues – and it is no accident that they have an obvious relevance when it comes to thinking about more immediately contemporary issues as well.

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Now: I do not doubt that the authors of these proposals are aware of the value of teaching and research across all historical periods. The aspects of the field singled out for attention are in all likelihood nothing more than a reflection of the immediate context in which the original piece was written.

But that context is no longer there on the THE blog. It is implicit for those in the know – if they read to the end and see the statement of the authors’ affiliation, maybe even clicking through to the original blogpost – but not everyone will read that far, and not all of those that do will follow the link, or have the background knowledge of recent events needed to put two and two together, or both.

What we have got instead is a text headlined as ‘reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline’. That is about as universal as it comes. The rhetoric, likewise, is that of a collective: ‘we’, the ‘modern languages community’, ‘our future’. This means that the dynamic between what is included and what is left out presents – whether it is intended or not – a certain image of the field as a whole. In this case, that image is one in which Modern Languages does not exist before the ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ age.

Why is this a problem? Because the more a text like this circulates via a platform such as the THE blog, the more likely it is to be read by people who may not be familiar with the true diversity of Modern Languages as a discipline: managers looking to cut supposedly irrelevant fields, journalists seeking ‘value’ for public money, and potential students thinking about which course to choose, for instance. I hope that the examples I have given above go some way to presenting such readers with a more balanced picture of what an inclusive future could look like.

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At base, this is no more than a piece of writing that has been adapted without fully taking account of its new context and readership. Would I have reacted to it so strongly half a dozen years ago? Probably not.

The trouble is that, in the current climate, any discussion of this kind is a loaded one. Singling out particular languages, particular periods, and particular themes as examples of ‘the future’ has implications – not least when it is couched in the managerial rhetoric I identified earlier. This kind of thinking is what leads new posts to be created in some languages while professorial chairs in others are left vacant. It is what leads to very narrow and specific specialisms being sought when a post is advertised. It might also, although this is merely a supposition, have something to do with the shortage of institutional support for medieval and, especially, early modern studies in my own particular language.

The fact that certain periods are passed over in a piece such as this, in other words, matters. It is still, for the next two months at least, my discipline too, and I cannot just stand by and watch its future change in the way it is being changed anymore.