SFU’s Institute for the Humanities: 30 Years of Public Engagement and Counting
A pop-rock indie band, a priest, some activists
and several academics walk into a bar…
Sounds like the beginning of a joke that could end in very poor taste. However, in reality, this past November, 2013, such a group coalesced at the Railway Club in downtown Vancouver to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Humanities. The Institute, one of the first of its kind in Canada, established its home at SFU in 1983 as a hub where interdisciplinary humanities research meets public programming. For over thirty years, it has carried out a mandate to support humanities research by building audiences in the public sphere and connecting researchers with artists, activists, and community groups at a local, national and international level.
The Institute’s Director, Dr. Samir Gandesha, and Program Assistant Sandra Zink report that the 30th Anniversary celebration was a success: the musical acts included Vancouver-based, SFU Alumni Movieland, Shawn Mrazek, and Humanities Associate and political activist, Joe Keithly (also known as “Joey Shithead” of seminal punk-band D.O.A). The approximately 70-80 people in attendance included former Director and SFU Humanities Department Professor Emeritus Dr. Jerry Zaslove, DOXA Documentary Film Festival’s Programing and Education Coordinator, Selena Crammond, the Institute’s Visting Scholar, Dr. Donia Mounsef of the University of Alberta and East-Vancouver-based, theologian, priest and former Institute director Dr. Donald Grayson.
The eclectic mix of attendees is just one testament to the Institute’s commitment to wide-reaching, inter-disciplinary public engagement. Dr. Gandesha, who has directed the Institute for three years now, says members, staff and associates of the Institute have always worked hard to establish community ties, and part of this ability stems from the very constitution of the Institute itself which has provisions for working with other units within the University as well as bringing Associates into the Institute’s fold. He explains that the initiative to have Associates is something the Institute had in place when he became a member of the steering committee in 2004.
Associates played a key role in 2010 when the Institute hosted a major international conference entitled “Cosmopolis/Cosmopolitics: Humanities and Citizenship After Neo-Liberalism,” with keynotes by UC Berkeley’s Wendy Brown and Toronto-based Iranian dissident Ramin Jahanbegloo. Dr. Gandesha explains that Associates are invited to participate in the Institute extensively: not only are they encouraged to attend ongoing events the Institute hosts, they are invited to working meetings, and—perhaps most importantly—the Institute’s annual general planning meeting, where members are asked to suggest events, speakers and add their voices to helping to establish the direction of the Institute as a whole.
As Dr. Gandesha sees it, the involvement of Associates allows the Institute to “put our feelers out into different communities,” and see what conversations the public is most excited about. While the Institute cannot fully fund every event, Dr. Gandesha says they are “able to do quite a bit with a small budget” and partners are encouraged to find additional sources of funding. This year, he says, it’s been exciting to “build new relationships” with the Vancity Office of Community Engagement, DOXA-the Documentary Film Festival, The Mainlander and UNIT/PITT Projects. In addition, the Institute is working with SFU’s Audain Gallery, to host an installation by Althea Thauberger, titled Marat Sade Bohnice (January 16-March 8, 2014).
Dr. Gandesha says he doesn’t really like the buzzword “synergy,” but it somehow expresses what energy is at play when “a certain dynamism and energy” from one institution meets that of another “unit, institution or organization.” Such synergistic ties and the mutual support they offer become immensely important in the current Canadian political climate. As Dr. Gandesha notes, “not only do we see cut-backs to the social sciences and the humanities and a beefing up of business-oriented research, but we also see government scientists and librarian being muzzled and most recently the wanton destruction of National Science libraries.”
With the Institute already supporting public institutions, Gandesha says “building bridges with our colleagues from across the university” aids in building solidarity as departments and public organizations all face the same “dismal reality.” Following this principle of solidarity, the Institute is oriented to “pooling resources which enables us to do more with less” and create a “relatively independent and autonomous forum which is so vital for much-needed critical public discussion or what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the “public use of reason.” What is more, Gandesha says, is that this environment sparks a “growing interest in the kinds of work we’re doing […] People seem much more receptive to critical perspectives and seem to be shaken a bit out of their complacency, although there is a lot of work that still needs to be done…it’s nothing like, say, Spain, Greece or Thailand, where you have tens of thousands of people in the street marching as a kind of democracy in action.”
To be sure, SFUs Institute for the Humanities is tirelessly engaging the public and participating in debates both local and international. In addition to the public events the Institute works on, they also host an online journal, Contours, publishing articles and lectures the Institute has hosted. Dr. Gandesha says Dr. Laurie Anderson, Executive Director of SFU-Vancouver, and SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, have been instrumental in helping Institute establish itself locally, as both are based in downtown Vancouver. Recent events they’ve hosted or co-sponsored at SFU Harbour Centre include “Citizens Acceptance of New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure: Value Theory and Canada’s Northern Gateway Pipeline,”—a talk by Dr. John Axsen, Assistant Professor in SFU’s Resource and Environmental Management and “Mi’kmaq Warrior Society: Strategy Session,” responding to the youth arrested and incarcerated at Elsipogtog, New Brunswick. Up-coming events include a Skype lecture by Professor John Holloway on the economic crisis and a talk by Dr. Vivek Chibber on the “Perils and Promise of Postcolonial Theory.”
On the international front, the Institute for the Humanities is also involved in two highly anticipated, upcoming events: On February 6th and 7th at SFU Harbour Centre, “Peace and the Environment: A Symposium Exploring the Legacy and Insights of Six Nobel Peace Prize Laureates” featuring Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Jodie Williams. And on July 16-18 2014, they are co-hosting with Douglas College, New Westminster and the University of British Columbia, “The Frankfurt School: The Critique of Capitalist Culture,” a Conference featuring keynotes by SFU’s own renowned philosopher of technology, and student of Herbert Marcuse, Andrew Feenberg, and one of the most important contemporary intellectual historians and expert on the Frankfurt School, Dr. Martin Jay. The Institute is also planning an ambitious conference for September 18-21st entitled “The State of Extraction” which will investigate the effects of the extractive industries on Canadian democracy.
For a comprehensive list of upcoming and past public events sponsored by
SFU’s Institute for the Humanities, including the films the Institute is co-hosting with DOXA, please visit the “Events” section of the Institute website.