Revitalizing Studies in Canadian Literature

Monday, October 22, 2012

  • CRC's help bring about things like the TransCanada Institute.

    CRC's help bring about things like the TransCanada Institute.

Written by Abigel Lemak

Prof. Smaro Kamboureli, School of English and Theatre Studies, has had her Tier 1 Canadian Research Chair (CRC) renewed for the next seven years, bringing in 1.4 million for Canadian literary studies and research at U of G. This research grant is a renewal of the CRC she’s had since 2005, which helped fund the TransCanada Institute and TransCanada conferences. 


Prof. Kamboureli agreed to meet with The Cannon and discuss the direction of the TransCanada Institute and her thoughts regarding Canadian literary studies and pedagogy.


The Cannon: What kind of research will a grant of this caliber open up for SETS?

Smaro Kamboureli: One of the primary mandates of my research is to put together a collaborative teams for pursuing different aspects of canadian literature. [O]ne of the things my next CRC period will engage with is looking at Canadian literature within a global transnational context on the one hand and Canadian literature in relation to the turn to ethics today. 

Ethics is a very complex notion, it means different things to different people, but because of the pressures [of funding] in terms of humanities research, there is pressure to demonstrate that what we do has a certain kind of value because what we produce is not necessarily knowledge that has direct economic benefits. I think it does [have economic benefits], but we cannot always easily put a dollar figure to what we do. It’s very important to demonstrate that what we do has a social and ethical relevance to what we do in society today. 

TC: Will this CRC help to revitalize SETS? How?

SK: I think that’s already been happening in the context of my first term (a CRC is seven years long and I just got it renewed) and I think just what’s happened in terms of the TransCanada Institute [...] has played a major role in revitalizing the intellectual culture in our department and the College of Arts. I intend to use these kinds of cultural activities to bring out people within the university community, but also within the community at large. 

One of the things I’ve wanted to do with the TransCanada Institute-- and I think I’ve been doing it in different ways-- is to bridge the gap between the university community and the community at  large; to bring people here and for us to go out there. I’ve been trying to do it in different ways [like becoming] involved in the very important local event, Guelph Lecture.

TC: What are your thoughts on the disconnect between the university and the community?

SK: I think there is a disconnect, but I do not necessarily agree with those who say that if you are an academic you do academic research and you have nothing to do with the community, I do not agree with that. As a university teacher I have immediate access to the community through my students, I consider my students to be the public [and] represent the public. What they learn in my classes and my colleagues classes is definitely something that they disseminate with their families, with their friends, so I think that this notion of what we do within the boarders of the university-- because the university is very much like a city within its own right-- it’s something that constantly gets filtered beyond those boarders through the student body. 

TC: What do we do with the common question of Canadian identity?

SM: What is Canadian identity? Or Northrop Frye’s question, “Where is here?” The question you asks determines the answer you come up with. So if we keep asking the same questions, we’ll never get out of the box. I think we need to ask different questions, and how we come up with those questions I think has a lot to do with the various methods and critical tools we use to read literature. 

TC: Where do you see the TransCanada Institute headed in the next seven years?

SM: I’ve proposed a number of projects that continue my research agenda in the same direction with more specific foci. I want to have another TransCanada conference, it’s not going to happen tomorrow [...] but one of the things I’m looking at focusing on is the nature of public [and] bring the public into the conversation. Another project [is] a research project and workshop on the notions of ethics and globalization [...] and one other particular project that I have already started is a project I call, “writing the foreign.” 

I’m looking at Canadian authors who set their novels outside of Canada, taking on political issues in places like Burma, or Malaysia, or Vietnam and see how the Other, those “Other” cultures, are represented and to what extent white consciousness of the central character in these books is able to understand [and] empathize with those Others and various problems in those countries [and ask,] what are the problems with empathy?

TC: How are you helping rethink Canadian literature and how it’s taught?


SK: When I was recruited at Guelph as a Canada Research Chair, I had to think about the research project I would purpose, and I wanted to propose something that would be of interest not only to me as a researcher of canadian literature and a canadianist, but to the community of canadianists at large, both in Canada and overseas, and it was the right time for me [...] to propose of re-visioning of Canadian literature as a discipline and as a field. 


I did that in a collaborative way by working with colleagues and I organized three major conferences --the TransCanada conferences-- and they've been really successful in terms of revitalizing the field, by inviting scholars to think of Canadian literature outside of its traditional concept as a national literature or as a stable cannon. To re-examine the methods and the critical paradigms within which we have studied Canadian literature so far and start thinking of it outside of the box. Not always in relation to the nation-state, though the nation-state remains a constant reference point, but to see it in transnational terms, interdisciplinary terms, in terms of ecological issues, in terms of issues that come from within indigenous communities at this point in time, and it terms of how the production of Canadian literature and the teaching of it implicate us as teachers and researchers in various larger cultural and social narratives that we have to begin questioning. 

...I think pedagogy is not a stable thing, how you teach the material, how you construct your courses have a big role today with how we understand what’s happening in Canada. So these were some of the ways I try, through the TransCanada institute, to invite colleagues and students to think about Canadian literature otherwise.

For more information on the projects and events going on at the TransCanada Institute click here.

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