Professors from a range of disciplines may bring the practice into our first new program in over a decade
Last October, professor of Hispanic studies in the modern languages, literatures and cultures department Lauren Beck called a meeting of “everybody who [she] thought did research in and/or taught visual and material culture,” and “told them to invite anyone else they knew on campus.” By the time they were in room together Beck said the question was raised, “Should we be developing a program? Should we be finding better ways to synchronize our research and our teaching in ways that will benefit students and provide them with experiential learning opportunities and applied learning opportunities?”
Out of that meeting came the idea for a new material culture studies and visual culture studies program.
According to Beck, visual culture can refer to “anything that exists within the visual realm. The discipline is much less interested in the aesthetics of the image – whether it’s a good image or good painting. It’s much more interested in what kind of information we can [gain] from looking at objects visually.”
According to the proposal that Beck and others brought to the Jan. 26 faculty council meeting, material culture “comprises processes, tools and media used to create objects.… It uses actual objects as primary sources but also includes objects described verbally or exhibited in visual media.”
Beck said that after that proposal “received support” at that meeting, a group of professors worked with the academic matters committee to develop the specifics of how the program would operate.
At last week’s Senate meeting, a visual culture certificate was approved and the material and visual culture program will be brought forward for approval at the next Senate meeting on April 2. The proposed program is comprised of two minors: one in visual culture and one in material culture. “The minors themselves, once they’re approved at Senate, will be available to students, along with the new certificate, to enrol in. So, we’ll be able to start offering these programs as of fall 2019,” said Beck.
The two minors are distinct: “The material culture minor will have a series of streams, so you can choose how to specialize within it.” Beck noted that among the streams will be a “marketing the arts” stream where arts students will be given tools to translate their specialized skills into careers; a wellness stream where we think about the body, the commodification of the body and food and “all things related to wellness;” as well as an archeology stream and a spatial stream.
The visual culture minor is “more about breadth and less about specialization,” said Beck. This minor will cover a diversity of topics and create a diversity of opportunities. Topics will range from Indigenous perspectives and use of visual culture to fine arts and history and “an array of other subjects.”
The visual literacy certificate, meanwhile, is more focused on keeping up with a world turning to online communication. “If you think about it, we live online. We have these avatars of ourselves, whether it’s on Facebook or Instagram or a projection of our voice in an email,” Beck said. “The online world is a visually structured place that involves images and text in creative and new ways. We increasingly need to increase our visual literacy to comprehend what we are seeing.” She emphasized the importance of our ability to “look at an illustration or an image or a photograph and do more than describe the basic objects that you see and critically assess the components of that image, whether it’s race, gender, politics, age and the impact, the accessibility of that image, the meaning of the image.”
That growing need for visual literacy is the basis for the creation of the certificate. “Next year, we’ll be offering the foundational course on visual culture. We hope to, in this way, provide students with a credential they can put on their resume that employers will be impressed by,” said Beck.
Beck considers diversity of voices and perspectives to be another justification for the new program’s creation. “Academia right now, and historically, has focused on the text, and that has ensured that primarily white men have been and remain sources of authority, not leaving a lot of room for women’s voices or Indigenous voices, African voices,” she said. “Visual and material sources of knowledge can provide incredible access to, for example, women’s daily lived experience in the medieval period. We can learn about that through material objects in ways that are quite hard through textual sources of information primarily authored by white men.”
Both Beck and Patricia Kelly Spurles, the anthropology department head, referenced the way that a material and visual culture program will allow professors opportunities to decentre text as the sole authority in the classroom.
Spurles will be teaching the other introductory course – Introduction to Material Culture – both semesters next year. Coming from an anthropological perspective, Spurles identifies material culture studies as a subfield of cultural anthropology. On the difference between the disciplines, Spurles said that material culture studies “focuses more on how we interpret objects and how we understand culture and cultural difference through objects.”
Spurles will also be teaching Material Culture of Islam, Documenting the Community, and Autoethnography next year, which fit into the new material culture program as well as Spurles’ background in anthropology.
After a year of no introductory anthropology courses being offered at Mount Allison and only 3000-level and 4000-levels courses remaining on the time table, the new material culture minor and introductory course may revive some aspects of the discipline currently inaccessible to Mt. A students.
Spurles said she is “encouraging anyone who has taken anthropology courses to ask for admissions to the course – it would be nice to see the students.” Spurles also wanted to clarify the program’s flexibility: “Because we’re starting off with some 2000 and 3000 courses right away in the first year, I really want to encourage students who are interested in the area to speak to me about special permission to enrol in the upper-level courses.”
What those involved seem to find most exciting about the new program is the opportunity for interdisciplinary interaction. There is potential for involvement from departments across campus.
Dr. Linda Pearse, associate professor of music at Mt. A, said, “I think the exciting part of [the potential program] is the interdisciplinarity that is so inherent in visual and material culture.”
From a music perspective, Pearse noted the visual culture potential in relation to the work done on the “visual aspects of opera and musical theatre.”
She also identified sound studies as an interdisciplinary pursuit within material culture. “Sound studies are often included along with material culture. Sound studies consider the environment, the sounds that the world makes … all sounds, not necessarily musical and not necessarily organized,” said Pearse. “There’s potential for growth in sound studies and that’s something I’m very interested in – how we interact with sound, what does sound mean, what does sound tell us about culture. What can we learn from the sound of the world?”
Beck noted that the interdisciplinary aspect of the program, in addition to being exciting for professors and their research, will equally benefit students: “I think students need to become increasingly interdisciplinary because when you graduate from Mount Allison and enter the work-scape, who knows what you’ll be doing in 10 years, 20 years. You may change professions; you likely will have three or four different professions, so you need to be prepared with an array of skill sets, for example, by having interdisciplinary cross-faculty preparation [in your undergrad].”
Correction: A previous version of this article name Dr. Lauren Beck as the “Hispanic studies department head”, when no such position exists. Dr. Beck is a professor of Hispanic studies in the department of modern languages, literatures and cultures of which Dr. Robert Ireland is currently the external department head.