Saving Cantonese

Petition opposes Stanford's decision to eliminate its sole lecturer position in Cantonese. University founder Leland Stanford built his fortune on the labor of Cantonese-speaking railroad workers.

January 19, 2021
 
Courtesy of Sik Lee Dennig
Sik Lee Dennig, Stanford University's sole lecturer in Cantonese

More than 3,200 people have signed a petition opposing Stanford University’s decision to terminate the contract of the university’s only lecturer in Cantonese. The petition argues that Stanford should instead make further investments in the Cantonese language program not only for academic reasons but also in light of the university’s commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion and its historical debt to Cantonese-speaking Chinese migrant railroad workers whose labor contributed to university founder Leland Stanford’s fortune.

While Stanford has now publicly committed to offer two Cantonese courses per quarter in the 2021-22 academic year, to be taught by hourly lecturers, the petition argues that the termination of Sik Lee Dennig, a lecturer who has taught Cantonese continuously at Stanford since 2001, “effectively erases the program.”

Unlike Mandarin, which has long been promoted by China's government as the country's dominant language, Cantonese is not commonly taught in American universities. While more than 50,000 American students were enrolled in Chinese language classes in 2016, data from the Modern Language Association show that just 267 students were enrolled in Cantonese classes. Cantonese is spoken by tens of millions of people in parts of southern China and in Hong Kong and Macau.

“Ethnic minorities are facing language erasure all around the world,” said Jamie Tam, a 2010 graduate of Stanford and an assistant professor of public health at Yale University who helped write the petition opposing cuts to Stanford’s Cantonese program. “It’s not just Cantonese. Many languages are being threatened by monolingualism or by nation-states that are kind of pursuing policies that prioritize one language to the detriment of others.”

“If there’s something that Stanford or other institutions with power, if there’s something that they can do to protect ethnic minority languages, I think they should be doing this,” Tam said. “A lot of universities now are trying to confront issues around diversity, equity and inclusion during this period of racial reckoning in the U.S. I think for a university to really think about DE&I, it’s not just about announcing or launching a brand-new initiative. It requires these institutions to really look inward and look at their existing programs that are on campus and asking the question -- are these programs being supported enough?”

Joy Leighton, a spokeswoman for Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences, said the university’s Language Center has reduced course offerings and eliminated some lecturer positions for budgetary reasons. She said Stanford -- which is one of the nation's wealthiest universities, with an endowment valued at $28.9 billion as of Aug. 31 -- is not dropping Cantonese and will continue offering two, two-unit Cantonese conversation courses per quarter, to be taught by "hourly lecturers consistent with the number of students enrolled."

“Like many departments, the Language Center is managing a budget shortfall, which included not filling positions due to retirements, open positions, and in some cases, not renewing lecturer contracts,” Leighton said via email. “In addition, almost all languages had some reduction in course offerings. We understand that this is a hard time for everyone, but while many programs have been reduced none have been eliminated. In addition, all lecturers under contract when the pandemic hit (AY 2019-20) were continued through the present academic year (2020-21) so that anyone whose contract was not renewed could search for jobs on the academic market, if needed.”

Leighton declined to say how many lecturers’ contracts had not been renewed or share the criteria for cutting positions, saying the university does not discuss personnel matters. She also declined to provide enrollment data. The petition writers say the program has enjoyed steady enrollments averaging 31 students each fall quarter since 2001, a number confirmed by Dennig.

Dennig, who said she currently holds a three-quarters-time, benefits-eligible appointment, said Stanford has offered at least four two-credit Cantonese courses per quarter since fall 2004.

She described a lack of transparency surrounding the language program cuts. “We still don’t know what criteria was used to determine which language classes to cut,” she said.

“I understand there are situations in which administrators do not want to make certain information transparent,” said Dennig, a Stanford Ph.D. who taught Cantonese for the 1997-98 academic year and every year from 2001 onwards. “However, here we're talking about terminating the contract of a lecturer who has devoted 21 years to build up a four-course program that meets the needs of different groups of students. There was no discussion with me prior to the cut. Then I was given a vague promise of being invited back to teach a course a quarter if the budget situation allows it, etc.” (A Nov. 24 email from Language Center director Elizabeth Bernhardt-Kamil to Dennig said that if she were invited to teach one course per quarter in the future, the position would not be benefits-eligible and would require her to complete a time card, and that “the number of teaching hours and level of payment will be linked to the number of enrolled students.”)

“Is that how Stanford treats a long-term employee and an alum with a Stanford Ph.D.?” asked Dennig. “It's this lack of respect for the services of lecturers and the refusal to get them involved in very important decisions that have a significant impact on them that I find very unsettling.”

The petition includes testimonials from alumni of the Cantonese program, some of whom say they were attracted to Stanford in part because of the opportunity to study Cantonese. Alumni of the program include heritage speakers, as well as people who came to the program because of academic interests related to Hong Kong and southern China or diasporic communities.

"I believe that people signed this petition and wrote it for a variety of reasons," said Maciej Kurzynski, a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying East Asian languages and cultures at Stanford and one of the authors of the petition. "In my case, one would simply be my passion for language. I took in the past a number of language classes at Stanford: I took Persian, Japanese, now I’m taking Cantonese. I’m very worried that the wide variety of languages will not be offered anymore in the future.

"There's obvious preference for Mandarin Chinese at Stanford," added Kurzynski, who is studying modern Chinese literature since 1949. "We have a lot of different classes in so-called Modern Standard Chinese, but suddenly Stanford decides there’s not enough resources to support Cantonese. To me that seems strange within this context of linguistic struggle between Mandarin Chinese and other Chinese languages."

The petition asks Stanford to guarantee a Cantonese language program of at least four classes per quarter, to allow the courses to fulfill the language requirement by including reading and writing components, and to “invest in the long-term viability of the Cantonese program through a permanent full-time instructor position that is compensated with salary, benefits and protections.”

“When you have temporary positions available, those positions are often subject to high turnover and you don’t get the same institutional memory,” said Tam, one of the petition organizers. “It’s not that we want Cantonese to survive on campus. It’s that we want Cantonese to thrive on campus.”

Tam further raised the question of what Stanford owes the Cantonese-speaking community in light of Stanford’s own history and Leland Stanford’s reliance on railroad workers recruited from China’s Guangdong (also known as Canton) Province.

“I do find it very hurtful that someone who received her Ph.D. from Stanford, who spent two-plus decades at Stanford building up this program, supporting and investing in the Stanford community in this really unique and important way, is disposed of so carelessly,” Tam said of Dennig. “I think there’s a sick parallel here, because Leland Stanford has a history of treating Cantonese people like cheap labor. There needs to be some kind of respectful recognition of the role that Cantonese people have played in Stanford’s history, and also a recognition of the role that one Cantonese worker has played in Stanford’s present.”

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