Bringing the humanities to the community

By Mason Zimmer
February 27, 2014

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In the darkness of Conron Hall, Larry Towell, an acclaimed war photographer, picks sombrely at an acoustic guitar while strains of harmonica from virtuoso Mike Stevens float across Towell’s folk song.

The only lights are on Towell, Stevens and a projector screen running through photos of corpses and survivors with missing limbs staring at Towell’s camera. Some are from Afghanistan; some are from Central America. He stops the music to describe the context of a bombed-out scene, and actual audio of the shelling and gunfire he heard that day plays in the background.

In the crowd, a group from El Salvador is holding back tears – reminded of the conflicts they and their families had seen.


The show was part of Towell’s Blood on the Soil series, and it would not have been possible without the Public Humanities @ Western Program.      

Since 2011, Public Humanities at Western has promoted a type of arts and humanities scholarship that aims to engage the public while forging new relationships within the community and between faculties, said founding director Joshua Lambier. The program strives to fulfill three major objectives: getting academic knowledge out to a broad audience, ensuring students spend as much time in the community as in the classroom and building fruitful partnerships between Western and the London community.


The program arose from a desire to move away from isolated learning that traditionally dominates Canadian academics, said Joel Burton, the program’s community engagement co-ordinator.

“Typically, we’re trained to be more insular, more intellectual, more to ourselves,” Burton said.

Events such as Towell’s performance, which saw academics mingle with members of the community, are one of the ways the team, composed of nine graduate students, seeks to solve this problem. They secured the venue for Towell, took charge in organizing the performance and assisted in a cumulative eight hours of sound checks.

It sounds grueling, but for co-ordinators like Burton, the result of community-campus engagement is worth it.

“My work with the Public Humanities team has been the most rewarding thing I’ve experienced, definitely over the course of this degree, and, in some ways, it’s saved or preserved my interest in scholarship when it was waning,” Burton said.

This is not the first time Towell and the Public Humanities team have worked together. In February 2011, the program’s co-ordinators worked with Dianne Pearce, Museum London’s co-ordinator of public programs, to bring the Canadian photographer to the museum to speak about his work, Pearce said.

With monetary support from King’s University College and the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, the Public Humanities team arranged for a rare interview in front of an audience between Towell and Sharon Sliwinski, a Film and Media Studies professor at Western, Pearce said. Afterwards, Towell took a portable microphone up to his exhibit and told a crowd of approximately 150 people why he took the photos he did.

“Between all those departments, like Public Humanities and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, and then King’s University College, it was quite an exciting collaboration,” Pearce said.

But these events aren’t the only way Public Humanities co-ordinators are promoting publicly engaged scholarship.

Lambier and Joel Faflak, the director of Western’s school for Advanced Studies in the Arts & Humanities, have been chosen by the Department of English and Writing Studies to select the curriculum for a course in cultural leadership. Students in this class are assigned interviews and case studies with cultural groups and leaders in London, which Lambier said will both show students what they can do with their degrees and help London retain students by showcasing potential employers.   

Funding projects like these can be challenging because of Public Humanities’ small budget, said Lambier, who chose not to disclose its exact figures. To fund their events, the Public Humanities @ Western team arranges events intended to interest multiple departments.

“We couldn’t cover everything on our own because we’d have one event and we’d be done,” Lambier said with a chuckle.

Despite the size of the budget, Lambier said the dean of Arts & Humanities is generous to provide it at all.

“I want to make that very emphatic – it’s small but it’s an essential component. If we didn’t get it the whole thing wouldn’t be possible,” Lambier said.

In the course of organizing events and planning curricula, the Public Humanities at Western co-ordinators have made over 30 partnerships at Western and in the London community, said Lambier. This includes their Stories of Health partnership with the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and the London Health Sciences Centre. Here, people with chronic illnesses tell their stories to assist in medical education and to give fellow patients a sense of what to expect.     

For collaborators like Pearce, the partnership has proved worthwhile.

“And I think this is a great endeavour for the faculty. I mean they’re getting this wonderful programming these gung-ho individuals who are informed and concerned about culture and are building the profile of the university,” Pearce said.


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