Wednesday, November 18 saw an informal gathering of professors from a multitude of fields and departments at U-House as part of the Scholarly Sharing Initiative, an ongoing monthly event that allows professors to present their research in a casual, congenial, setting. The SSI, open to anyone interested in attending, features a light lunch and thoughtful discussion following each presentation.
This month featured two presentations, the first by history professor Clare Dale on the propaganda poetry used in 18th century Britain to glorify the empire and its colonialist attitude. Nicola Mooney from the anthropology department also gave a presentation on the use of the word “caste” and its over-simplification of a complex network of different ideas present in the Indian caste system. And while the topics may seem to be the sort you’d expect to hear in a classroom, the delivery and the absence of a rigid “teacher-student” relationship, meant that the event felt more organic and stimulating.
Over the course of an hour I learned of a concerted effort on that part of Britain’s leadership to sway public opinion away from negative criticism of their imperial imperative through poetry — which, when you consider how poetry, music, and the arts have become even more of a voice for anti-establishment thought in modern times, is quite interesting. Over past two hundred years, we’ve been told that poetry is the purest form of self-expression, a creative outlet for individualism, and the British government in the 18th century felt that poetry was the perfect way to promote pro-imperial propaganda. The lionization of the monarchy and heroic characters such as James Wolfe for his victory of the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and subsequent annexation of Quebec, all through a pseduo-classical form of poetry? Who did they think they were fooling?
But it does raise certain thoughts; it’s almost stereotypical of students to be considered rowdy, rebellious youngsters who don’t get along with the “the system,” and if there’s one thing the Beat generation showed us, it’s that protest poetry can be surprisingly effective. But is there anything about the institutions surrounding us, our employers, our government, our society, that is worth praising through the arts? Can we write creative pieces in support of the organizations that dictate so much of our lives? Or was the British pro-imperialist poetry a short lived, failed fad?
Following the discussion on the propaganda poetry, Nicola Mooney continued on a different avenue of the same branch of study: colonial attitudes that clash with the general consensus. Her topic, the oversimplification of the Indian caste systems caused by the use of the word “caste” to describe several different systems, was another interesting one. It’s easy to picture this being taught in classroom, but due to the less-inhibited structure of the SSI, the conversation was far more engaging than a regular lecture. Even though I was bombarded by terms in a language I don’t speak, I was enthralled by the complexity and inter-connected nature of Indian society, which has been all boiled down, incorrectly, into one all-encompassing word — one which completely fails to even approach the nuanced meanings and relationships of the actual systems themselves, as Mooney pointed out.
It was an eye-opening moment and a strong reminder of the power of words, and the consequences of misusing them.
Ultimately the Scholarly Sharing Initiative was the most informative and interesting method of learning I’ve experienced as a student in a long time. It was casual, stress-free, and most importantly it was engaging. And if you’re like me, and struggle to pay attention in a classroom, then this conversational style of teaching is right up your alley.
The Scholarly Sharing Initiative will return in the Winter 2016 semester with talks from Leonne Beebe and Linda Pardy on January 22.