International Studies & Community Engagement

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I was at a conference recently and one of the participants made a comment that really resonates with me. He said, “it works well in practice, but does it work in theory?” We are more accustomed to the question, “does it work in practice?” I once heard Stephen Lewis quip that he’s a Socialist so he knows all about great ideas that don’t work in practice. This all reminds me of the wonderful, perplexing, sometimes frustrating, ongoing tension in academic work – and life in general – between theory and practice.

In the “ivory tower”, we have often been accused of – and enjoyed – living a little above the fray of everyday life; of delighting in the ideological and philosophical atmosphere where practicalities are not our principle focus. In the social sciences we can wrestle with and develop ideas and theories and leave it to the practitioners to figure out whether or not our theories add any sense of meaning or coherence to the “real world” with its promises and problems. In the humanities, we can gain understanding and give expression to the agony and ecstasy of human experience throughout the ages.

I confess that I’ve always felt a bit like an imposter in academic circles, partly because I have an ongoing fascination with the interplay between theory and practice. I come by this fascination honestly enough – my dad was a biomedical engineer who specialized in developing the myoelectric technology which allows people with prosthetic hands to control the finer and more complex movements of their hands. Hooks can grasp objects but do not even attempt to mimic the more complex and nuanced tasks that I can take for granted – picking up delicate or fine objects, for example. The prosthetic hands that my dad helped develop are a wonderful example of theory that is applied and refined for utilitarian purposes.

And, having married a commercial fisherman over three decades ago, I participate daily in discussions of practical significance. Questions about environmental stewardship or policies around resource management have consequences now and into the future and are always based on one theoretical and political vision or another. A frequent lament amongst fishers and farmers is that decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods are too often made in offices in Ottawa or Halifax or Edmonton, far removed from the bays and fields of real life. And bad policies can be as much about a failure to consider culture and the influence of generational wisdom, knowledge and resilience as they are about misguided or incomplete science.

At SSU as we consider how to move forward with our vision of community engagement, I am very excited for how this will strengthen the International Studies (IS) program. Students often come to SSU and more specifically, into International Studies, because they want to “make a difference” in the world. They recognize some of the challenges humanity is facing and feel compelled to be engaged. But, truth be told, they don’t actually know much about how the world works – the international or national organizations and structures and ideologies that underpin the “way things are” or the historical moments upon which the arc we’re now on is rooted.  My hope has always been that their time at SSU will help them to identify the things that they think need changing and some of the principles and practices needed to move in those directions.

I have also consistently said that wanting to make a difference is a great place to start, but that if we can’t make a difference WHERE we are, there’s no point in aspiring to make a difference somewhere else. At present, the Field Experience requirement (a 3 credit hour course, usually done in the third or fourth year of the IS program) is the one intentional opportunity for students to choose, or design, a hands-on community engagement project, locally or further afield. It CAN be a transformative experience.

My hope is that the community engagement focus will amplify this aspect of the SSU experience for all students, thus better equipping them for whatever path they choose after they graduate, be it further study, work in their chosen field, and/or intentional engagement in community and/or family life.

Community engagement makes sense in theory, but even more importantly, I believe that it will work in practice to prepare our graduates through academic and personal development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.

Discussion and Investigations: ‘Community Engagement’

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The Mission of SSU is “to prepare people, through academic, personal, and spiritual development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.” This is a lofty and admirable mission and it requires us to actively review and rethink how we do things. Over the 44 year history of the university we have developed many different academic programs and right now we are exploring something called ‘community engagement.’ Why are we focusing on this now? Our preliminary research suggests that ‘community engagement’ is something that is related to many things we have done previously, but could also extend our academic program further in useful and desirable ways. How will ‘community engagement’ aid us in our mission? This is one of the big questions we are just starting to unpack.

Of course, this question of how community engagement aids us in our mission leads to many other questions. What do we mean by “community engagement?” What do others (people and institutions) mean by this term? Do we not already engage with our community? Which community are we talking about anyways?

It is often helpful to begin a journey into unknown territory with questions, and as an academic institution we know that questions are at the heart of our studies across the disciplines we are passionate about. So we ask even more questions, organize them into groups and peck away at answers. Some questions are important to ask because they help us pay attention to who we are, and not just the information we collect in our research. As we look around at various ideas and expressions of community engagement we ask: what are we drawn to? What are our goals? What will we add that is desirable by focusing more ‘community engagement’? What will we add that is undesirable?

Many institutions of higher education, in Canada and abroad, are talking about community engagement. It is a very trendy topic. Investigating what different people are talking about when they talk about community engagement is helping us get a clearer sense of what we would like to do. Some institutions, such as the University of Calgary (U of C), talk about community engagement in the sense of making spaces and activities as connected and accessible to the people who live in the space around the university. The U of C website has a page dedicated to explaining their approach to ‘community engagement’ and it lists almost every part of the institution, from its facilities to ‘Indigenous Reconciliation’, as being a component of ‘community engagement. 

At Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, the activities associated with ‘community engagement’ are different. SFU does not list the ways in which its facilities are part of engaging with the community, rather SFU has set an institution wide target to become “Canada’s most community-engaged research community.” It lists on its website the objectives it associates with community engagement as well as its priorities. Objectives include: “increase experiential learning opportunities”, “develop new programs for mature, returning and non-traditional students.” Priorities include: “measure, communicate & celebrate”, “improve community access.”

Finally at Western University in London Ontario we see another approach that seems to be as different from those taken by SFU and U of C as they are from each other. At Western the faculty of Arts & Humanities has a department of “Public Humanities.” The Public Humanities is not a strategic focus for the university but rather conceived of as a discipline of the humanities. As an academic discipline it works on reimagining “the place of public scholarship, experiential learning, and mutually beneficial forms of campus-community collaboration across the Arts and Humanities disciplines.” What does this mean? Well rather than seeing community engagement as something to be bolted onto university programs, or a new program that is added alongside others, the Public Humanities at Western appears to understand ‘community engagement’ as a part of the humanities, or a way of doing humanities itself. It is something that is created through academic ways of asking questions, engaging in dialogue, and producing knowledge.

Many universities beyond these three are actively talking about ‘community engagement.’ How ‘community engagement’ is talked about varies widely. How it is deployed varies widely. At SSU we have long talked about community, engaging with one another, and being changed through that engagement. Now we are looking to go deeper and broader, to again re-examine the mechanisms and purposes of our academic program as we continue to try and provide a place that prepares people for a life of beauty, justice and compassion. Throughout this academic year the research being undertaken by our faculty, and the conversations happening among leadership, will move out in various forms to broader community spaces. Look to this blog and various public events for opportunities to learn with us as we move forward. Also feel free to email me, Dr. Matt Balcarras, Associate Dean of Arts, with any questions you have about community engagement or our process: mbalcarras @

Ashes, Dust and Water

By | Agnes Kramer-Hamstra, Faculty Blog | No Comments

Ashes, Dust and Water: a meditation grounded in Margaret Avison’s “Rising Dust”

This week  some Christian traditions practice Ash Wednesday.  Participants in an Ash Wednesday service receive on their foreheads a thumbprint of ashes as they hear this reminder:  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Cheery thought?!  It may be: that we are made of humus, of the stuff of the earth, that we are limited, gifted with a few years, fragile, ornery, dusty. Maybe this season can speak to and be brought into dialogue with the forces that swirl in our current way of being public. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”: imagine the politically and financially powerful on this good earth framing their rising within this mantra.

The frailty and tentative qualities that Ash Wednesday evokes might offer some relief in the constructed urgencies of a public life that demands a “brand,” in the trigger-happy political atmosphere of tweets and short attention spans.   There is that seemingly paramount pressure in the marketplace, of trying to catch another’s attention, of creating sway in the ebb and flow of manufacturing public opinion.   In this vortex where time is measured less by seasons and more by ticking clocks, where pace is measured less by the sun slowly warming the earth and more by being on some cutting edge, poets and others who go by a slower language may feel speechless or tongue-tied.

Ash Wednesday brings to mind not only another pace, but a way to translate dust and ashes.  Reaching for a remote can subtly take the place of face-to-face conversations . “Remote,” and, “reaching for the remote” – these terms for that way of being is telling.  Ashes could become associated with drones and those who sit in dark rooms with their remotes in their hands, watching the screen that tells them about the movements of the people they are targeting, waiting for the moment when the drone that they are controlling can make its hit.  Who is the audience being remotely targeted?  The “audience” is hidden from the auditor: both are “virtual,” untouchable, ghosty, physically out of touch and time-wise, out of joint, as Jacques Derrida’s sharp commentary of Hamlet suggests. These conditions seem to graphically describe the ashes and the dust, how our little lives can fall apart, how remoteness escalates conflict, how nations fail those many who remain hidden.

Faced with a world I cannot make sense of, where face-to-face encounters break down and dissolve, I need language that has the power to uncover a deeper reality.

Margaret Avison’s “Rising Dust” speaks deliberately: takes the image of humans-as-dust and reframes it. Turns out, we are composed of mostly water.  It is the power of such language that fires me up and that calls me, over and over, into a current that gives life.

The thumbprint of ashes on my forehead, I turn to speech that counters speechlessness, thirsty for words that call the world into being.  Parched for the speech that calls and recalls us, I am grateful for the claim we are “rising dust,” that suggests, in fact, that we are “though leaky firm.”

This language claims we are composed, and assumes the presence of a composer.  This story is about a reality “the learned few / do not explain,” and is there a tone of relief in that, that “that’s life”?  In the world that this poem conjures up, there is the constant movement of water, the image of the “sky and earth [that] invisibly / breathe skyfuls of/ water.”  Beyond the disconnect of the remote, of the illusion of remote control, the very sky and the earth are in fact breathing.

With the daub of ash on my forehead I am reminded that we breathing beings are “kin to waterfalls [and] all that flows and surges….[and]  yet I go steadily.”  I am composed of substance, of some solid goodness.   Moreover and somehow, this includes a “vital bond,”  some energy that “thrums and shudders and twists,” that somehow connects all that lives and moves to the composer / weaver.  This bond is something that somehow “sounds” (“forever”?!) the heart, that is “almost limitless,” and that we dusty ones thirsting for water can never “quite make sense of it.”  But there it is, offering itself this Ash Wednesday.

Rising Dust

The physiologist says I am well over
half water.
I feel, look, solid; am
though leaky firm.
Yet I am composed
largely of water.
How the composer turned us out
this way, even the learned few do not
explain. That’s life….

Click here to read all of Margaret Avison’s poem

In ________ We Trust

By | Peter Fitch | No Comments

There are many possible choices about where truth lies in its purest form. For some people it’s a religious perspective; for others it’s more of a societal or cultural blend. For some it’s built from a confidence in science; for others it’s adherence to a form of political philosophy. Whatever you decide is the best ultimate authority or truth source in your life will have a profound influence on the decisions you make.

At St. Stephen’s University, we acknowledge that there are people in our midst who have made different choices, whether conscious or unconscious, regarding the source of truth. It can be a great challenge for people who are coming from different perspectives to get along! Each new topic in a class or a mealtime conversation or a social media fight will be affected to some degree by the underlying assumptions that people have within their heads.

If people are coming from a religious perspective, they may define truth in line with the teaching of their church or with a sacred text like the Bible. If someone is coming from a less-well-defined religious perspective, or is an agnostic or atheist, it may be difficult to understand the motivations and thoughts of people who are trying to be obedient to something outside of themselves. This difference can be seen in conversation after conversation; it can cause an impasse which makes the breakthrough to community quite difficult.

What can help? First, learning to listen. This sounds simple but is actually one of the greatest of life skills. French genius Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Learning to hear what others are actually saying, rather than using the moments when they are speaking to create strategies of attack against them, is an essential component of maturity.

Second, it is possible to have a “teleological suspension of disbelief.” This is an offshoot of an idea by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who spoke of a teleological suspension of the ethical. He suggested that normal ethics might need to be put aside at times for a good reason or purpose (that’s what “teleological” means). A teleological suspension of disbelief is different. It means temporarily taking what you believe about something and pushing that to the “back-burner” of your mind, so that your concentration can truly be on the perspective of the other. This is about laying down your defenses and your sense of right and wrong, not forever, but for as long as you are listening to a person who has a different belief. In this way, it is possible to get a better glimpse of what the person is saying. An attempt can be made to imagine the world as the other person is seeing it. There can be benefits to this. Perhaps there are ideas that will improve your own way of thinking when you return to them to sort it all out. Perhaps there are not. Even so, you will have conferred a sense of dignity to the person you were speaking with as you listened as though they had something important and true to say.

Third, it is very helpful to remember that all perspectives are incomplete. Even if you are very confident in the truth source you have chosen, there will be acknowledgements from those who represent it most deeply (priests, scholars, scientists, politicians, philosophers, parents, movie stars, etc.) that there is a level of mystery in life. Our perspectives are finite. So is our knowledge. So, probably are some of our cherished beliefs. Different groups may have different opinions about how much mystery is involved but remembering that mystery exists allows us to have something we might call an “epistemology of humility.” This is an open-handed approach to life, thought, and belief. It means that there is always more to learn. Life is always deeper than we know. The clue that will lead us to the next life-changing thought may very well come from an unlikely source. It’s important, then, to stay open, awake, with a sense that learning is a privilege and a journey. We do not yet know all that we need to know. We keep learning as we go.

Fourth, and finally, it is worth it to place a high value on synergy. It is possible to have the opposite, to be “right” and to be lonely. At times this is admirable. It means that you are holding on to a sense of conviction in the midst of many others who think you are wrong. At times it is less about conviction and more about stubbornness, refusing to listen or to learn from the perspectives of others. A good deal of wisdom is needed in order to know which is which! Am I being a hero or a fool?! Most of us will try both of these on from time to time. However, just as harmony enhances melody, synergy enhances life with others. This is the beauty of community, when we offer our gifts, perspectives, learning, beliefs and concerns in a way that produces a deeper vision for all. Valuing this, knowing that it is possible, allows people of different perspectives to share in life together with the hope that moments of breakthrough can be achieved. Life can be richer than it has been. Perhaps we will never agree on all aspects of thought or belief, but we can learn from each other as we go, and we can make better societies if we learn to care about the perspectives of others.

Normalizing Maturity

By | Faculty Blog, Walter Thiessen | No Comments

The title for this post might seem naively optimistic, but if that’s true, that’s precisely my point. We no longer seem to expect maturity. A whole generation of millennials are frequently (and unfairly) criticized as immature and not necessarily maturing. We don’t seem to expect maturity from politicians or even church leaders anymore.

This led me to wonder whether we’ve been failing to normalize maturity. Consider the big potential advantage of planning for maturity: if we truly expect our young people to mature, perhaps we could choose to introduce them to a worldview that was big enough to mature into?

I think we’ve been doing the opposite. At the risk of some oversimplification, let me sketch what seem to be the two most prominent worldviews in North America lately: a consumeristic and competitive materialism on the one hand, and a narrowly conservative form of watered-down Christianity on the other. Of course, in spite of the paradox, many people manage to hold both of these small worldviews, with worn-out patches of faith slapped onto the emptiness of the rat race or a home full of stuff. But the key is that both worldviews are small. Neither lends itself to a maturity in which we relate to the world in an open, gracious and compassionate way.

I think many teachers in public schools try hard to awaken compassion, but they are stuck in a system that discourages straying outside of materialistic ways of seeing the world. Students are taught the authority of science, but not the open-ended mystery that good science can inspire. Has anyone learned about the mystical thinking of leading physicists and geneticists in high school? Instead, students subtly learn that if you trust science, which you should in the 21st century, there is nothing else.

In churches, and the families that support them, many learn a kind of faith that has been hardened through decades of defensiveness. A huge effort is made at creating a culture bubble in which they feel safe because they are on God’s side. And they don’t seem to notice that these bubbles contain little of the lifestyle challenge and outward compassion of the Jesus to which their gathering is meant to be dedicated.

Of course, thank goodness, there are many, many exceptions in the marketplace and in the churches. But we make it way too easy to stay immature: never to think a complex thought, never to wonder what it takes to risk welcoming a stranger, never to imagine that God is way bigger (and better and more mysterious) than imagined, never to question whether a good many of our present understandings are incorrect or incomplete.

The humanities are one place in which maturity should be expected, but fewer students are spending much time there these days. One way of normalizing maturity would be expecting educated leaders to give some serious attention to the humanities. If we really thought that maturity is where we would end up, we would be inviting people, right from childhood, into a bigger and more nuanced world.