Walking through the front doors of Emily Carr today after a few days in political science land was a reawakening to the extraordinary.The gallery by the front doors was bursting with fresh pieces, including something that requires you to put on headphones and look at a painting of birds. The young man coming down the stairs as I went up was wearing a NSFSS* jaunty cap. The bathrooms had a new crop of inspiring graffiti.
It’s a different scene from the one that I and my fellow political scientists were trained for, as I remembered during my ritual re-immersion last week at the American Political Science Association meetings. It was absolutely lovely to see so many old friends and colleagues, and to discover new ones. My grad school classmates have mostly made it through the gauntlet of tenure, and (in not-unrelated news) their first books were laid out on the tables of presses like Oxford, Cambridge and Princeton University. My colleagues in the Information Technology and Politics section, which hosted all the panels I attended (surprise!), offered up insights on topics like online extremism and political twittering, many of which provoked me to think about my own writing and research in new ways.
There were plenty of aspects of APSA that I wanted to wrap up and bring back to my colleagues at Emily Carr: the norm of participating in a global research community as an integral and rewarding part of academic life. The breadth of academic publishing opportunities, still more available in social science than in art research. The widespread tradition of co-authoring with students, and providing the students with the professional opportunity of presenting the results of that work.
But I couldn’t help wondering what a burst of art school energy could do for APSA, and for social science more broadly. Setting aside the sartorial benefits of cross-pollination (which I hesitate to do), and the likely impact on PowerPoint style (easy on the fonts, cowboy!), I am most intrigued by the idea of unsettling a field that one APSA blogger excorciated for its innate conservatism. That conservatism is not so much a political position (like many academic fields, political science skews left) as a temperamental one. As I noted last week, this is a conference in which people still focus on publishing books and talking at you on panels. They take notes on paper, and nobody seemed to be having a panic attack at the lack of wifi. The Internet revolution has arrived, and given way to the social media revolution, and political science has remained largely unchanged except for the appearance of a few booths hawking e-textbooks and software tools for data analysis. And that conservatism makes sense, in a way, because we’re talking about a field based on the idea that research is a cumulative and incremental process in which each researcher builds on those who have gone before.
After almost two years of working out of an art university there are still huge gaps in my understanding of how people learn, teach and work in a field that is so different from my own. What I observe, however, points to a pedagogical and research culture that is miles away from that poll sci conservatism. As one colleague said while discussing the idea of giving students a highly structured assignment, “if an art student doesn’t rebel against that structure by the time they get to their 3rd year, we’re not doing on job.”
How can a field and culture that cultivates rebellion engage with one in which conservatism is the deeply embedded norm? I don’t have an answer, but I have a hunch that it’s an important question. Every day I spend at Emily Carr, I see a willingness to challenge, a fearless capacity to experiment, and most of all, a passionate commitment to the political and social ideals that first inspired entry into the field. These are qualities that conventional academia frequently kerbs, or channels into structures so narrow that we extinguish the spark of excitement from which they sprang.
As well as being the first day of school here at Emily Carr, today is also the very first day of school for my youngest child (aka Lil Pnut) who is starting kindergarten. When I think about what I want school to be for him, I do indeed think about his potential induction into the human project of knowledge creation, and into the culture of discipline required for sustained intellectual work. But I also think about how to nourish his joy in learning, his ability to see beyond the problem presented to him, and even his terrifying, powerful ability to refuse the rules that don’t make sense. And I feel grateful to be spending my days in a place that reminds me how to do it.
*Not Safe For Social Science.