March 16, 2010

Who are the agency, and what do they want?

Who are the agency, and what do they want?

who-are-the-agencLakehead professor divulges their not-so-nefarious scheme

Ian Kaufman

Features Editor

In recent months, Lakehead students may have noticed a growing presence around campus. The first signs were the intriguing posters, followed by whispered references in the hallways and The Study. Then came the talks. Many of us were lucky enough to see Imre Szeman speak about the cultural politics of oil, hear Mark Kingwell’s meditations on consciousness and the city, or experience Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with live piano accompaniment. These events were sponsored by an organization called the aig+c (pronounced “agency”) – the Advanced Institute for Globalization and Culture.

The group’s Advisory Council includes “intellectual superstars” like Szeman, Mark Kingwell, Franca Iacovetta, George Marcus, and Henry Giroux. It has brought Steven High from Concordia University to Lakehead as a visiting scholar and Diana Brydon from the University of Manitoba to as a speaker, both Canada Research Chairs.

The Argus sat down with founding co-director and Lakehead philosophy professor Todd Dufresne to find out the answers to these questions, and more.

Argus: So what’s the idea behind the aig+c?

Dufresne: What we wanted to do was create a venue in which we could gather a whole bunch of people with different interests from across the university, but also open up to the community. One of the main goals was to foster what is sometimes called “creative class” discourse, which just means thinking about cities and what drives them forward as it concerns culture. People like Richard Florida have posited that culture and the humanities are actually economic drivers. What I wanted to do was to start this agency to do some intellectual work, but also try to forward the cause of culture in Thunder Bay. So much of the discourse here is located around forestry and the mining industry; we really wanted to talk about ideas and culture instead of pulp and paper.

Argus: It’s based around Thunder Bay, and yet globalization is the word you picked to focus on.

Dufresne: We want people to think about Thunder Bay in the context of a broader world. Like I said, one of the problems with discourses here is that they’re so compulsively focused on natural resources. Globalization is no longer just connected to discussions of economics. We want to show that, of course, natural resources are connected with the global economy, but the other factors that are just as important are a really healthy arts and cultural vibrancy within the city.

One of the jobs the university sometimes doesn’t do so well is getting involved with the community and letting them know what kinds of things we do, helping to push forward the agenda of culture and ideas, which is what we’re supposed to be about. But if you’re not talking with the community, you’re just talking to yourself. We’re glad to be able to have a lot of community members in the aig+c.

Argus: So it’s not just some insular Lakehead University club?

Dufresne: No, it absolutely isn’t. We have almost fifty members, and at least half of them are community members. At some of our events we’ve had nearly 200 people; I doubt that more than %20 are from the university.

Argus: When a speaker comes in, is it creating dialogue in the community? Do people find this relevant to Thunder Bay?

Dufresne: The response varies. Some talks are more directly relevant to Thunder Bay than others. But our position has always been that we’re not bringing people in to talk about Thunder Bay or the region per se. We’re trying to show the community that these are the kinds of things we talk about all the time at Lakehead, things of global import. How could we ever say, for example, that Imre Szeman’s talk on oil is of no relevance to Thunder Bay? Of course it is, but it’s in a national and global context. We’re not going out of our way to make it local – we’re just trying to make it as urbane as possible. At the same time, though, one of the first online book projects we do will probably be a profile of local artists.

Argus: Is this something that’s been a brainchild for a long time? What was the original “I should start this group” moment?

Dufresne: I came up with this idea because I didn’t think there was enough collaboration or enough attention paid to the arts among my colleagues. We’re all in our individual departments and, though there’s a lot of talk in the hallway, there’s no place where we can come together. The goal of the aig+c is to create an umbrella group that will help bring a bunch of different interests together, the results of which noone could predict in advance – but maybe there would be some synergies that would be useful to all of us. From the administration’s side, they’d say, “great, people who otherwise aren’t working together are coming together on group grants.” But on a more socio-cultural side of things, we provide more community for ourselves and for the community at large to engage with us.

Argus: Do you feel the climate at Lakehead and the way things are set up institutionally is conducive to that?

Dufresne: Because my research and my teaching are cross-disciplinary (although they’re housed in Philosophy), to me it’s self-evident that departments are fictions created for institutional and political reasons. They have nothing to do with scholarship at all. We break students up into different disciplines, making them into political scientists or sociologists. But the truth is that if you’re doing research today, those boundaries are completely artificial, and if you’re a good scholar you have to ignore them. So this means the institutional structure of the university is completely archaic.

Argus: Don’t you think that’s pretty common across most Canadian universities.

Dufresne: The older and more venerated the university, the worse it is. Lakehead, because it’s smaller, has to be more collaborative, and sometimes that’s the advantage of being in the shadows of the U of T’s of the world. Those places don’t have to be collaborative because they have fiefdoms upon fiefdoms. The real challenge for the smaller, newer universities is that we have little mini-fiefdoms echoing and repeating the structure of traditional universities – and that model, to my view, is dead. It’s especially dead for universities that can’t compete at a level with departments of eighty people. So why bother trying? The model of inter-disciplinarity is not only intellectually coherent and way more progressive, it’s actually the only way of doing business today, in my view.

Argus: It seems like you have the framework to expand as a nebulous organization that can do a lot of diverse things. Is that the idea?

Dufresne: It is, but we really want to be institutionally grounded. One of the things we’re really excited about is that we’ve been offered a space in PACI [Lakehead’s newly-acquired building in downtown Port Arthur]. We have a number of partners on campus; we’re now trying to develop some partnerships off-campus with the CBC and with the city. We have plans to do conferences: there’s going to be the Finn Forum, a huge group of eighty-some Finnish scholars, coming to town in the next month and a half, which is sponsored by the aig+c. We’re also going to do a conference with Italian studies. We’ve even been talking about the possibility of creating a master’s program in cultural studies that could be loosely housed with us.

Argus: What’s the ideological basis for the aig+c?

Dufresne: We’re trying to provide a venue for different kinds of ideologies to come together. We’re certainly not advocating any particular viewpoint – Marxist, liberal, anarchist, whatever – but we are trying to provide a platform for those people to come and speak. For example, we had a Marxist speak this year about Obama. That doesn’t make us Marxist; it just means we’re curious to know what a Marxist has to say about Obama. It’s meant to be a very tolerant group open to diverse opinions about globalization and culture.

Of course, “globalization and culture” is a fairly broad spectrum that can hold a lot of things. The one thing we really want to champion is urbanization and culture, and the role that the university can play in bridging these kinds of academic issues with a community. That’s been done fairly poorly at most universities. People will sometimes spend a lifetime without stepping foot on their local campus. Having the kinds of events [the aig+c puts on] really does a lot of service to the university, whether or not we get grants or forward the cause of research – it’s just good for community-building. I actually think that’s our primary job, although from the perspective of the university, we’d better be conducting research and producing results. There’s probably a tension between those two things, but I don’t think ultimately it’s an issue. My interest in the early stages of this is to establish the community, and the research will follow.

Argus: Lakehead can seem like its own little world within Thunder Bay sometimes, but that kind of outreach can be hard to do, because there’s so much institutional build-up of how things traditionally work.

Dufresne: Well, part of the problem is that universities across North America all have suburban campuses like this one. The best campuses would be located in downtown Port Arthur and downtown Fort William, where people could actually open businesses next door and make money from the students – and the students then don’t have to eat food from Aramark. A place out here can never be truly dynamic, because it’s a little suburb unto itself. That’s what I like about PACI – I’d love to see if we could increase the number of students by a couple thousand and have an urban, downtown campus. Then you’re talking about creative class and creating synergies with the community. They see you everyday and you see them everyday, and it’s just so much the better for everybody.

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