By: Martyn Wendell Jones
How might the imagination provide an “alternative” to knowledge in the encounter with unspeakable horror? What educational styles might empower individuals to oppose the impositions of a homogenizing global culture? What do paintings of the Annunciation across the centuries show us of our changing understandings of spiritual experience? How do HBO’s Westworld and the movie Blade Runner employ the idea of the West? What sorts of ethical questions arise in the context of “digital resurrection” through posthumous social media and chat-bots programmed to respond to messages in the manner of the deceased?
These questions represent a broad sampling of the issues and concerns that arose during the 2018 Interdisciplinary Colloquium that St. Mike’s hosted in the Basilian Common Room on Saturday, January 27. Titled “Divine, Human, Machine: The Imagination, Its Possibilities and Its Limits,” the event gave over a dozen undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to present academic papers and discuss their findings with their peers and professors.
Postdoctoral fellows Dr. Rebekah Lamb, Dr. Peter O’Hagan and Dr. Tristan Sharp solicited paper submissions in the fall of 2017, and together organized and ran the Colloquium. The event involved collaboration between faculty members, post-docs, staff, students in both graduate and undergraduate programs, and the Kelly Library, where librarian Silvia Vong set up a bookshelf display of materials related to the papers being presented. In printed introductory remarks, St. Mike’s Principal and Professor Randy Boyagoda hailed the event as continuing the legacy of “the ambitious student research culture” developed under former principal Dr. Domenico Pietropaolo.
Drs. Lamb, O’Hagan and Sharp divided the presenters into five panels, each organized around a theme related to the imagination. St. Mike’s faculty moderated each panel, giving students a chance to receive immediate feedback and questions from Drs. Bernard Kohl, Iris Brooke, Felan Parker, Michael O’Connor and Stephen Tardif. Moderator responses led naturally into Q&A periods with the audience, and often these discussions spilled into the breaks between panels as presenters, cups of coffee in their hands, addressed questions and comments related to their research.
For many participants, the event offered a first experience of an academic conference. Two first-year students, both members of the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, explored questions related to the use of the imagination in the context of religious faith. First-year Christianity and Culture major and Gilson student Maryrose Doucette posed a distinction between the “imagination of understanding” and the “imagination of expression” before examining the historical phenomena that pushed the Church in the 2nd century to define the limits of the imagination in ecclesial practices. “I’ve never participated in anything like this before,” Doucette said of the Colloquium, which she described as offering “a valuable widening of my approach to many topics”.
Fifth-year St. Mike’s student and Editor-in-Chief of The Mike Josh Scott gave a paper exploring novelist W.G. Sebald’s oblique approach to unspeakable atrocity. As with many other presenters, his research grew out of recent classes. Scott appreciated “being forced to articulate, defend, and expand upon my ideas to actual academics” in back-and-forth exchanges during the Q & A period.
A wide range of cultural objects and artifacts came in for scholarly consideration during the course of the day. Novels, TV shows, movies, academic monographs, paintings and wholesale intellectual movements were brought up in unexpected connection with philosophers, theologians, scientists, journalists and social science researchers, and were analyzed in the light of various critical methodologies. Third-year American Studies and Human Geography student Aisha Assan-Lebbe offered an assessment of “the entanglements of a frontier mythology with the post-human” in the movie Blade Runner and HBO’s television series Westworld. Assan-Lebbe described the research she presented as “the beginning of a bigger project that will hopefully translate to a thesis I would complete for my Master’s or PhD,” and she hopes to use the experience to prepare for presenting at graduate student conferences at the University of Ottawa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the near future.
In his opening remarks, Professor Boyagoda located the event in the context of the larger community of St. Mike’s, in which the integration of knowledge across disciplines reflects the traditions and commitments of the school. In the course of preparing his paper on acedia, undergraduate Philosophy major Sam Hodgkins-Summer discovered a community of shared concern across the centuries. Encountering writers from ages past grappling with a common problem “was a pretty life-giving endeavor,” Hodgkins-Summer said. His conversations with fellow presenters and respondents during the Colloquium “reinforced my belief that we have to marry our intellectual pursuits with our lived experience.”
Drs. Lamb, O’Hagan and Sharp concluded the day’s program with thanks to the Gilson donors whose support made the Colloquium possible. Chairs were returned to their places under tables, and the projector powered down. Before the last attendees had departed, however, a new conversation was already in the air: When shall we do this again?
Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer in the Office of Communications at St. Mike’s.