FEATURE: Taiwanese Literature Studies on the Brink

FEATURE: Taiwanese Literature Studies on the Brink
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What you need to know

As another university closes its department of Taiwanese literature, academics and students disagree on the reasons for its demise.

In a June 6 article, the Chinese-language United Daily News discussed the many challenges confronting Taiwanese literature and noted that the Department of Taiwanese Languages at Chung Shan Medical University (CSMU) will be closed after its current students graduate this month.

The real reason for the closure remains murky; some say courses lack popularity and practicality, while others fear the study of local culture and literature is being marginalized by profit-seeking universities and career-focused students across Taiwan.

Lin Shi-chieh (林士傑), who majored in Taiwanese languages and graduated from the CSMU in 2015, is now a student at the Graduate School of Taiwanese Literature of the National Taipei University of Education (NTUE). During Lin’s freshman year, 2012, the department announced it would not recruit any students for the following year due to its low enrolment rate and a high number of students already transferring out of the department.

An investigation by The New Lens International (TNLI) reveals that of the final round of students recruited in 2012, six out of a total of 48 transferred their major from Taiwanese languages to other departments, including applied foreign languages, public health, medical sociology and social work.

Lin told TNLI that while people regard Taiwanese literature as an "impractical" major, many students still want to study Taiwanese literature and are interested in it, including himself.

“Professors at CSMU are all very zealous and enjoy teaching the students. It’s quite a pity that their enthusiasm cannot be turned into real practice in the end,” says Lin.

A post on the PTT bulletin board says the department was closed down not because of a low enrollment rate but rather unsupportive school policies. The author of the post observes that, as a private college, CSMU needs funds and earns less from the humanities. The school has allocated greater resources to its more popular departments and subsequently stopped offering a major in Taiwanese literature.

Huang Mei-er (黃美娥), professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Taiwan University (NTU), was a member of the committee that evaluated the performance of CSMU's department of Taiwanese literature. She told TNLI that professors at CSMU are "remarkable" at teaching and researching and that the enrollment rate was strong.

Huang says there are many reasons behind university departments closing. School policies and how the public sees future career prospects in a particular field, both play a role.

“We’ve seen many humanities departments facing the similar problem. This trend is not exclusive to the department of Taiwanese literature,” Huang says.

A “stepping stone” department?

Some Taiwanese believe that since Taiwanese literature studies is unpopular among high school students, it serves as a stepping stone into certain universities; by enrolling in Taiwanese literature students are able to gain entry to their dream college with a lower entrance score, and then later transfer to a preferred department.

In 2015, a total of 18 students from the department of Taiwanese literature at NCKU changed their majors — the highest number of students transferring among all departments. A student at the department told TNLI that out of 40 students in her class, 10 transferred to other departments during their sophomore year.

However, statistics also show that 16 students quit the Department of Urban Planning and 10 students left the Department of History during the same period.

Yeh Wan-hua (葉宛樺), president of the Taiwanese Literature student union at Providence University, said that very few students in her class have transferred to other departments.

Providence University Professor Peng Rui-jin (彭瑞金) told TNLI that almost all the spots available in the class were filled and that less than 10 students had transferred to other departments.

At National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), the Department of Taiwanese Literature has seen the highest number of students changing majors among the university departments.

Chen Pin-chun (陳品均), a student at NTNU majoring in Taiwanese literature, told TNLI that more than half of her classmates contemplated transferring or applying for a double major during their freshman year. Chen herself also has a double major.

“No more than 10% of the students in my class find Taiwanese literature intriguing at the beginning,” Chen says.

However, more than half of the people TNLI interviewed believe studying Taiwanese literature changes how students understand and think about local Taiwanese culture. Many remain interested in Taiwanese literature and enroll in related courses.

Limited future career?

Some Taiwanese have little knowledge about Taiwanese literature and doubt its impact in helping their career prospects.

Chan Ya-chi (詹雅淇), a student majoring in Taiwanese literature at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), told TNLI she is often asked questions like, “What can you do based on your major?” and, “Are there really jobs for Taiwanese literature students?”

Tigris Tsai (蔡敏秀), who majored in English literature for her bachelor degree and Taiwanese literature for master degree at NTNU, said she has seen very few students who majored in Taiwanese literature at college continue on an academic path after graduation.

“Also, very few Taiwanese literature students continue to earn a living based on their abilities that relate directly to their major, such as teaching Taiwanese,” Tsai said.

Chan said she sometimes finds it hard to apply for a job, because some of the job vacancies are limited to students with majors in Chinese or English.

However, both Chen and Chan agree that if one can cultivate other abilities while discovering the beauty of Taiwanese literature, they will find themselves caring strongly for the local culture, an experience they cherish.

“While there aren’t many jobs directly related to Taiwanese literature, some occupations that require multiple abilities still suit our students,” said Chan.

Thomas Chang-Yao Tsao (曹昌堯), vice principal of CSMU, said too many students chose literature-related majors, leading to an excessive number of students in the field. Tsao said that as students may risk future unemployment, the school should encourage more people to enroll in more "practical" majors.

Meanwhile, some students at CSMU say it is harder to improve recognition for local literature in Taiwan than abroad. Some students say studying at the Department of Taiwanese Languages helps in learning to speak Taiwanese, which is important for medical students to communicate with older patients. Many also believe this to be the original intention behind the creation of the department.

What exactly do students learn in Taiwanese literature departments?

Jesse Tseng, editor at The News Lens, says different subjects are taught at the Taiwanese Literature Department at NCKU. He points out that Taiwanese literature is not limited to works about Taiwan and that many works of contemporary literature and authors related to Taiwan are included in the education system. Aside from linguistics and literature theory, which are both required courses, students can also select various courses such as Taiwanese history and several different languages. Taiwanese, Hakka and Vietnamese are all included in the course.

Chen Li-shin (陳立欣), president of the Taiwanese Literature student union at NCKU, told TNLI that the future prospects of Taiwanese literature major students are much broader than most people imagine.

Chen said her school provides courses related to communication for students with different talents. “Some of my classmates plan to work in media while some are fond of theater performance. These are all possible jobs for students,” said Chen.

Chen herself studies documentary production, integrating her knowledge of Taiwanese culture and film-making. “My major gives me more than I expected,” Chen says. “Since our education in high school mainly focuses on Chinese culture, these courses in college totally changed my previous impression about Taiwan. Now I know more about this island, its history and the importance of local culture.”

After graduation, Chen hopes to find a job based on her care for Taiwanese culture, which is also a key focus of the department.

Professor Yu Sheng-kuan (游勝冠), professor at the department of Taiwanese Literature of NCKU, said the department is working very hard to strike a balance between literature education and students’ career plans.

“I think we are not doing badly. Students give feedback to us saying the courses have an impact on their job-seeking process,” says Yu.

Peng Rui-jin of Providence University said the school's department of Taiwanese literature allows students to enroll in communication degrees with a lower entrance grade and also gives students a shorter timeframe to complete the double major.

Students can get two degrees in four years, with a major in Taiwanese literature and another in mass communication. Communication and marketing courses help students combine their knowledge of Taiwanese culture with another application.

Yeh Wan-hua says courses at Providence University include culture and creative industries, which motivates the students to participate in class. “Many of our students work as interns in organizations related to Taiwanese culture and community reform. Some will even be employed by media or design companies.”

'All people care about is Chinese and English'

Some educators are calling for the government to take a role in addressing the issues faced by Taiwanese literature studies.

Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung (蔣為文), professor at the department of Taiwanese Literature at NCKU, said the language education system in Taiwan is dominated by Chinese. Teaching of Taiwanese is limited to elementary schools, meaning students end up having very small room for improvement after graduation.

“At high school, all people care about is Chinese and English,” Chiung says.

Professor Peng also says that very few students go on to become teachers in the department at Providence University. Most students turn to media, marketing and design companies after graduation.

Another problem lies in the curriculum taught in schools.

Professor Huang believes that officials should take Taiwanese literature into consideration when selecting articles in textbooks. “A guaranteed ratio should be set up to include different languages in textbooks,” she says, otherwise there will always be too much Chinese content rather than Taiwanese and literature works from other countries.

Huang also calls for officials to employ students majoring in Taiwanese literature.

“If we want to introduce Taiwan to the globe, we should definitely use those who have a strong understanding of Taiwanese culture.”

Are they forgetting the essence of Taiwanese literature?

Wen Tsung-han (溫宗翰), a research assistant in the Taiwan Studies Center at Providence University, told TNLI he does not favor combining Taiwanese literature with communication studies. He believes schools should focus on teaching the essence of Taiwanese literature.

Wen says that language and works related to Taiwan are also part of Taiwanese literature. The original intention the department of Taiwanese literature was to include such works in the education system. This coincided with calls by activists in the 1990s, who argued that greater attention should be given to Taiwanese literature.

"These activists, including writers and poets, cared very much for Taiwanese culture and participated in social activities," says Wen. However, after the departments were established, professors became ignorant of society and very few created literary works themselves.

Moreover, students nowadays only have very bare knowledge of Taiwanese literature, he says.

"In my experience, many of them cannot even name the most prestigious Taiwanese writers," Wen says, adding that while students still need practical training, the spirit of Taiwanese literature should not be forgotten.

Sources:

UDN
BuzzOrange
Hakka TV (Original source video: PNN)
China Times