Making sense of circles

In harmony with Mount Allison’s Indigenous Year of Knowing, dozens gathered at the Owens Art Gallery to engage in playful discussion about the powerful symbol of the circle on Thursday, Sept. 29.

The first installment of the second anniversary of Interdisciplinary Conversations featured speakers Doreen Richard, Mt. A’s Indigenous affairs coordinator, Vicki St. Pierre, professor in the music department, and Doug Campbell, professor in the biology department.

Interdisciplinary Conversations brings together three speakers of varying professional backgrounds to present an unscripted talk on a common topic. Following presentations, the floor opens to audience members to ask questions and provide personal insights.

For English department head Robert Lapp, Interdisciplinary Conversations functions as a “healing process” and “community practice of thinking about central ideas.” These conversations are “important because we are exploring ancient ways of communicating with each other, which I think in some ways healthily pushes back against our fragmented digitization,” Lapp said.

Richard began the conversation with a talk entitled “The Power of the Circle.” She spoke of the seven circles of courage, love, respect, honesty, patience, truth and wisdom, which are linearly connected with courage, the largest circle, on top and wisdom, the smallest, on the bottom.

Richard’s accessible presentation reflected the event’s goal to inspire collective thinking about a previously foreign subject. Lapp found Richard’s talk to be “informal, unrehearsed [and] ad libbed in a beautiful way. It was so nicely informal…There was a genuity to it that was not infected by the pressure to be perfectly structured.”

St. Pierre had everyone flexing their six-packs during her presentation on “The Circle of Breath.” Audience members shuffled to the edges of their seats to hear the opera singer demonstrate how the manipulation of muscles and breath affects vocal projection.

St. Pierre stressed that taking care of your vocal chords applies not only to singers. “For those of you who teach all day, [muscular contractions and low breathing] is something you have to think about,” St. Pierre said.

In “Circling in the Environment,” Campbell discussed how a principle of the Iroquois Confederacy is practised in microbiology. Campbell said the Seventh Generation Principle posits that “decisions or policies [are] to be made with the consideration for not today but for seven generations.”

Connecting this to his field of study, Campbell said when growing microbial cultures in the lab, “We have a very similar rule. [In a] study of microbial physiology or microbial molecular biology we put them under a condition and we keep them there for seven generations,” effectively linking biology to the Iroquois governance principle.

When opened to the audience, the conversation primarily focused on the potential application of “circle process” to pedagogy and politics. 

When a student raised the idea of circular classrooms that encourage class discussion, Campbell responded, “That’s a very uncomfortable place to put people when they’ve been told for 12 years, ‘give the [right answer] and you will get a sticker.’”

Director of the Ron Joyce Centre for Business Studies, Sandy McIver, countered, “the wonderful thing is, if you introduce ‘circle process’…you can restore that kind of conversation.”

McIver noted a predominating theme of Thursday’s discussion: “In classrooms, and also potentially politics, with [short-sighted] cycles, we are not bringing out [all] of the potential we have.”

The next Interdisciplinary Conversations is scheduled for Oct. 27 with featured speakers Marilyn Walker (anthropology), Mark Hamilton (math and computer science) and Robert Lapp (English literature).

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