Dispatches from the present
On the evening of Thursday, August 10, 2023, the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics (WLLL) at West Virginia University, where I teach Russian, learned that the self-study we were required to complete as part of the “academic transformation” review process initiated by the administration hadn’t saved us. Our arguments, research and emotional appeals to the core values at the heart of higher education or our mission to educate the students of West Virginia and beyond—none of it mattered. Neither had the testimonials from current and former students outlining the difference WLLL had made in their lives, their careers and the world around them. We were told that none of that material was relevant, as irrelevant as the masses of data we marshaled to our cause (data that contradicted the numbers used to cut us). WVU has recommended closing World Languages and “zeroing out”—that is, firing—all the faculty in the unit.
I drove to my mother’s nearby farm, crying as I called to tell her the news. I grew up in Morgantown. I’m a WVU alumna. My dad was a professor at the WVU School of Medicine, and he died of mesothelioma that came from working in the steel mills in Weirton, WV, to put himself through med school. Some of the money we got from the class-action asbestos lawsuit went to the WVU medical school to establish a fund in his name. My dad loved West Virginia, he loved WVU, and he loved his students. Among the first words my mother said to me when we let each other out of a weepy hug were, “Your dad would be heartbroken right now. I wish we could take back the money we gave them.”
But the cuts are still just “recommended,” and the new school year is beginning. So the next morning, our department started the orientation sessions for new graduate teaching assistants, and we, language program coordinators for Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and TESoL, faced them for the first time since the revelations. Few of us had slept much, if at all. We hugged, we cried, and several of us simultaneously hugged, cried and swore hard enough to send sailors running out of the bar, as my grandpa used to say. One of my colleagues, here on a green card, is a divorced mother currently paying to put her two children through college at the very place now planning to eliminate her position. Another has yet to achieve tenure and is still overwhelmed by the debt he took on to pay for his doctoral training. We were all in shock. But we looked at those new, young TAs, many of whom had only recently arrived in the U.S., and for a moment we were taken out of our own personal grief and saw the students’ uncertainty and fear.
I don’t think anyone is ever really prepared to lose their job, no matter where they work, but academics might be even less prepared than most. And I honestly thought I was safe. I coordinate the Russian Studies program here—sure, it’s small, but there’s a war going on in Europe right now that deserves some attention; I teach big, general-education classes with popular themes; a lot of young people from West Virginia and elsewhere love studying in our department. Consider two of my students, both coincidentally named Taylor. One is a young woman who took my course on the Holocaust in Eastern European literature and film. She had never studied the Holocaust in school back in Wyoming County, and at first felt uncomfortable speaking in class because of her southern West Virginia accent, but she quickly showed herself to be a brilliant writer and sensitive reader of our difficult texts and films. Or a different Taylor, a young man from Lincoln County, who came out as gay in college and traveled with me on his first plane ride ever, to Romania, where he didn’t like the food but marveled at how the landscape of the Carpathians resembled that of his Appalachian home. These students were given a chance to see the world and develop their own capacities; future students will find that chance “zeroed out,” if WVU succeeds in shuttering World Languages.
Now, instead of learning the languages, literatures and cultures of the world from professional teachers and scholars at their university, these young people will be told to download an app, or to register for an online language course at another Big XII university. For a university that serves a state with a high percentage of first-generation students and a low cultural competency, it feels like a betrayal.
And betrayal is what most of my colleagues are feeling right now. We understand that WVU is in a deep budget hole ($45 million)—but we see that our department generates more revenue than it costs to operate (annual profits of around $800,000). We look at one another and see dedicated teachers who answer emails at all hours, advise language and culture clubs, lead study-abroad trips, organize cooking nights and spend their weekends grading assignments and essays. We look at one another and see committed scholars, people who publish books and articles, who get grants from the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. We look at one another and see friends, the people we gather with for meals and picnics, for wine or coffee, for Halloween parties. We have created a community, one that can’t be replaced by an app or replicated through other institutions’ online offerings. If we get “zeroed out,” we won’t just lose all those young people in our classes; we’ll be losing one another.