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.