While it seems clear that “historical continuities…resist innovation,” as argued by Rothblatt (1997: 247), it is also worth our while to note that such lethargy on the part of these continuities, including academic traditions, is not necessarily only negative in character. Specifically, it appears that the sluggishness exhibited by many forms of academic as well as non-academic culture may also serve the distinctly positive function of filtering out at least some emergent developments which might not prove all that felicitous in the end while allowing other, more appropriate changes to establish themselves properly in the course of time. A good case in point is the current state of translation studies in the Finnish academia.
That universities wish to appear as “dynamic” or “attractive” research centres and places of study is hardly surprising, given that “the research university is critically dependent upon outside support,” as also argued by Rothblatt (p. 259). Since government funding alone can no longer guarantee that universities can provide all the teaching and research facilities they need to, the obvious way out of the dilemma is to change the university profile in ways which will (hopefully) make the academic milieu more interesting in the eyes of the general public. To this end, universities typically seek to emit various types of signals which they hope will make people interested in their programmes apply for admission. A good way of achieving this goal – in the opinion of surprisingly many academic administrators, it seems – is to make sure that the university is constantly engaged in some sort of change or “development”. (I insist on the quotation marks here.) The absence of stability which accompanies such constant change coupled with impatience and the ensuing lack of willingness to wait for the results of previous changes may, however, produce a state of affairs where it is no longer possible for anyone to tell which change caused which effects. While it may take more than just a modicum of historical continuity to resist such an unwarranted fear of almost any kind of stasis, I do not think that the situation in present-day academia is hopeless.
Consider the case of the discipline of translation studies in Finland. Up until the early 1980s translator and interpreter training in Finland was provided by four language institutes, which were non-academic institutions. In 1981, however, the four institutes were all made university departments and amalgamated with their respective universities. There were many people who more or less publicly opposed the change. This resistance or the desire to keep the universities involved “as they had always been” (especially with regard to the status of their language departments) resulted in a number of meetings and discussions which nevertheless ultimately resulted in the emergence of four academic translation studies departments.
This change in turn brought about another change: while the previous language institutes had concentrated on the practical aspects of translation and interpreting, the new academic departments assumed a different role and started producing research-based knowledge to an extent which would not have been possible in the old system and which, in a span of some two decades, made Finnish scholars in the field widely recognised experts not only in Europe but also worldwide. Thus a well-argued, persistent response to criticism from the establishment resulted in what most if not all of those involved in translation studies now consider a happy end.
That the situation has recently changed again, mostly because of cuts in university spending, is another, different story altogether.
Rothblatt, Sheldon (1997), “The ‘Plce’ of Knowledge in the American Academic Profession,” Daedalus 126 (4): 245 – 264.