A Paradigm Shift

Political science is not the only way to understand the world. It seems like a simple statement, but when I first entered the Faculty of Arts I was surprised how many students grimaced when they heard the word science. As a former life sciences student, this distressed me. I changed faculties with the view that the problems of the world are complex, and that therefore, both the humanities and the sciences need to work collaboratively in order to create lasting change. This personal belief is what led me to terry when I was a nascent political science major, and has sustained my love and admiration of the project through much of my time at UBC.

Did this idea ever truly sink into my consciousness though? Perhaps not. I read once that when you find yourself surprised at your own reactions, that means you have discovered a personal bias that likely you did not previously realise existed. If that is so, then something similar has happened to me.

In early September this year, a friend gave me a novel called “Does My Head Look Big In This?”, a funny, clever book about a Palestinian-Australian sixteen year old who decides in the middle of high school to adopt the headscarf. Despite being far older than the novel’s target audience of about 14-17 years of age, I found it fascinating, particularly because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the protagonist is just a normal person who happens to be Muslim. In other words, a person that makes mistakes, experiences success, and has a dynamic personality, rather than simply being an “oppressed, suffering female smothered under Islam”: the image that is found in much of literature and popular media. The author demonstrated that generalizations are problematic, and long after I finished the book, I found myself wondering whether she was able to convey this idea in a way that pages upon pages of de-constructing stereotypes, could not have achieved as successfully.

Similarly, in my children’s literature class this term, we are reading “Parvana’s Journey”, the second book in a trilogy by Deborah Ellis about children in Afghanistan. Despite the book being written for a much younger audience, children describing the effect of wars between adults (whether foreign or domestic) has a powerful effect regardless the age of the reader. It gives context to what we might already know, and personalizes conflicts that we may have become desensitized to.

My surprise over the impact of literature means one thing: that at some point in my university and high school days, I developed the idea that papers and scholarly journals are the ‘proper’ vehicle in which to discuss issues, and that social scientists have a monopoly on speaking about issues that affect populations worldwide. In other words, that novels and short stories and poetry are somehow a lesser way to make sense of the world.

My gained understanding on the importance of stories on the other hand, does not mean that reports and papers are not useful as well… Last night I read UNICEF Emergency Child Alert Afghanistan Report where Afghanistan was described as the most dangerous place in the world to be a child. That was important to read on its own, but even as I read UNICEF’s description of the region, my mind went to the characters I had met and learnt about in the context of that novel.

Now I am interested to learn more about the impact of stories on the human consciousness. How does literature enable the discussions of big important ideas and helps readers to think critically about their own views about a subject matter? Does fiction help people connect to issues, (and to action), in ways that scholarly papers or newspaper clippings cannot?

what do terry readers believe the possibilities of fiction to be?

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at http://seriouslyplanning.wordpress.com.

15 Responses to “A Paradigm Shift”

  1. Dave Semeniuk

    I think fiction has been the dominant mechanism for exchanging ideas among the general populace for the last few centuries, no? I particularly liked, “…at some point in my university and high school days, I developed the idea that papers and scholarly journals are the ‘proper’ vehicle in which to discuss issues…”

    I often find myself wanting to say, “Is that so? And in what peer-reviewed journal did you read THAT bit of nonsense…HARDLY reputable, indeed, nnnyesssss” in a high-pitched, pompous, English-accented voice. Then I remind myself – not everyone reads peer-reviewed, scholarly journal articles everyday.

  2. Brenda

    Myth making is a crucial part of how knowledge is transfered, but I don’t think the question of value is so neatly defined by fiction vs non-fiction/academic types of literature.

    In many cases, it’s really a case of how effective the communication was done, and here you find, the creative artsy way can often striking a louder chord. Maybe it’s more about accessibility, and don’t you think being funny, suspenseful, dramatic is often a better way of doing that?

  3. Flo

    Dave brings up an interest point. It’s all fine when we can discuss the merits of Creative Arts vs say Social Sciences, of even “hard” science. But what happens to our priorities when there is funding and money at stake.

    If fiction (or theatre, etc) is so powerful, can you make a case for more funding going here, at the expense of funding going to these more academic type things?

  4. stirring things up a bit

    As a science student, I honestly don’t get the merits of spending money on fiction. Shouldn’t that money go towards more concrete ways of saving the world? I know you can make a case for saying that creative things do remarkable things in the cultural zietgeist (is that the right word?), but it sometimes just seems like there’s no control over such things, so how can you set aside significant money towards that?

  5. Doug Alder

    Good question Shagufta. Dave is right when he says that “fiction has been the dominant mechanism for exchanging ideas among the general populace for the last few centuries” – indeed it can (and should) be argued that it is the best way to discuss the impact and formulation of ideas regarding society. Fiction, by its very nature, gives a person the ability to step outside the constraints of current society and examine it from multiple perspectives. As an example, how else to discuss the possible future impacts of a technology in a peer reviewed scholarly journal without drawing a great deal of criticism for what are essentially guesses. Put it in the context of a novel however and the ideas can be explored in great depth. If the author is skilled in their craft he or she will generate a lot of interest and discussion with regards to their ideas. William Gibson is a perfect example of this, starting with his novel Neuromancer and his concepts of cyberpunks and the influence of cyber technologies on society. Fiction gives an author the ability to start with a social construct today and project it into the future, to explore new ideas and new ways of linking data together, in ways that scholarly journals simply can’t as the rules governing them are far too tightly constrained.

    Consider global warming. No one can accurately predict what will happen. Will we get a technological solution in time? Will governments get their act together and force CO2 emissions down? Will it turn out to be a natural cycle as denialists claim? Will it get so bad that a large part of the world’s population and species die off? How do you deal with that in a scientific paper – it’s all guesswork . With fiction you are free to explore and create controversy. An example would be Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz – a post apocalyptic novel written at the height of the cold war (1959) that deals with a society that’s lost technology through a backlash against knowledge after a nuclear war – the same could happen after a ecological meltdown – highly recommend reading this book by the way – it stirred up a lot of controversy – a lot of thought as it were , in its time. see the Wikipedia article on it – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz

  6. Dave Semeniuk

    RE: Flo
    Good point, but inevitably every academic is in the same snake pit fighting to the death for the pile of NSERC or Canadian Council for the Arts money in the middle. There’s no way for getting around this. Would either side willingly give up funding? Never – they’ll just continue whining about how little money they get. It seems that what is required is a radical shift in public opinion on the merits of both hard-line academic research (other than medicine, whose merits are implicit) and the creative arts (and consequently, a shift in government spending). Does anyone know whether this sort of information is available (i.e. national surveys and such)?

  7. Courtney

    An issue close to my heart. I’m a theatre student. Arguably a form of fiction which doesn’t even have the same impact as a novel or a film simply because it’s impossible to get the same wide range of audience– theatre needs to be witnessed at its point of creation. Theatre is also one of those creative arts which often depends heavily on government funding. So the question of the value of what I’m doing weighs heavily on my mind. The thing is, I feel that if we don’t as a culture continue to creative arts, we will be denying society venues of thought. I very much agree with Doug’s comment above–the various creative arts all offer the public ways to engage in issues. Theatre in particular is a very dynamic way of reflective society back at itself. Historically theatres have always been at the heart of political change (why else would so many oppressive governments in the past and present make theatre illegal or impose harsh restrictions on what can be shown in theatres) because not only are plays ways of offering commentary, they also bring people together into the same room to witness each other and hopefully communicate with each other.
    Then, there are the perhaps less noble but equally important aspects of creative art. They are public and tourist attractions. Theatres can rejuvenate economies (see Stratford Ontario for a great example). Theatres often become safe havens for marginalized groups (especially youth) because of the openmindedness and sense of community that is necessarity to create theatre.

    My own thoughts and justifications change daily–I guess the bottom line is that I think it is important for people to take the time to see the value in what other people are doing, be it arts or science. I think you can safely say that people who are deeply passionate about something must have some pretty compelling reasons to do what they are doing.

  8. David Ng

    Let me just also add the fact that discussions that actively court different perspectives are becoming increasingly more and more popular. And that is regardless of whether we’re talking art vs science, twee vs serious, academic vs non-academic, creative vs straight and narrow.

    It’s an interesting phenomenon, partly fueled by the onslaught of different communication avenues (like web 2.0 stuff for instance), which in turns makes it easier and easier for folks to be able generalists, which ultimately feeds into culture itself.

    Funding agencies haven’t quite jumped on this yet, but I think it’s coming.

    In any event, from my own personal experience, I think it a big part of why things like the Terry Project or the Science Creative Quarterly are attracting attention.

    So I say: science and theatre? creative writing and science, visual arts and science? (To quote a GREAT movie) Bring it on!

  9. Carlie Smith

    I think that fiction, along with all forms of creative art, are just as relevant to society as academic articles. This post was a great reminder that we are capable of different types of thought patterns, and one of the side-effects of a university education can be forgetting to let our minds explore ideas and communication avenues that don’t fit the academia model.

    The academic prose that hits you over the head with the facts, dryly reports procedures, and convinces entirely through reason does not allow you to come to conclusions on your own. There is nothing better than finding the deeper meaning behind a novel, a dance, a play. It is often forgotten that the scientific method is a thought process, a way of getting from a starting point to a conclusion. What would happen if more people relaxed and let their minds wander and explore?

  10. Benjamin Cohen

    I would add, if I might, that the entire impetus behind something like “The World’s Fair” — and the untold numbers of amazing forums that precede it — is to suggest that multiple ways, and many humanities ways (film, visual art, fiction, poetry, satire, etc.), offer different and frequently more effective means for engaging and furthering understanding of issues the globe wide. One thing I find from fiction especially is the availability of seeing the individual as a focal point for wider issues — so, through fiction I am able to generate more insight about personal identity and personal ethics in a way that seems necessary for even attempting to approach anything else. I think it’s a Lao-Tzu quote, although I may be misremembering, which says that ‘Fundamentally, the marksman aims at himself.’ Fiction helps me think through issues beyond my self by providing insight about that self that I couldn’t have figured out alone.

    Here’s an example of something related; it’s about a short story I use in my engineering ethics classes:
    http://insidehighered.com/views/blogs/the_education_of_oronte_churm/guest_blogger_benjamin_cohen

  11. Melissa

    Scholarly work is nothing without a little narrative. This reminds me of the quantitative vs qualitative debate- there is definitely a bias that gets quantitative work and qualitative work that aligns itself with quantitative methods funded and subsequently published. But really, some of the most impactful scholars have written in a narrative manner (Nick Blomley, Mike Davis, Jane Jacobs… wow, you can really tell I come from Geography). Anyhow, stiff scholarly work is supposed to inform institution and policy. Stories and narrative inform culture (where the REAL change happens.. and now you know I’m from Soci as well).
    Fiction is never fake. It is informed by societal issues and cultural norms. They are highly valuable in guiding scholarly work. Personally, I think UBC is one of the stuffier institutions. Terry is a good step towards developing greater communication between the Arts and Sciences but there needs to be more institutional change within UBC to support cross-networks between Faculties.

    You should check out John Robinson’s stuff. He does a lot on narrative and philosophical things with respect to geog and sustainability. Excellent Professor and great thinker.

  12. Kerrie

    Thanks for writing this, Shagufta.

    I think academic writing does allow the reader to draw her own conclusions-and just because it isn’t fiction doesn’t make it fact, right?

    Fiction writing and other art forms can be very powerful, especially for people who have not lived through those times, it makes history seem more real to us. The art of Kathe Kolwitz was a powerful visual supplement to my History 12 textbooks, for example, and the Woodstock hippie music is like a soundtrack to studying some Cold War events. Movies, from Dr. Strangelove to Apocalypse Now, to We Three Kings, to (regrettably) Top Gun have made their impact too. Most of my appreciation of old English history comes from the literature I’ve had the opportunity to study, and I can gain a far better understanding of cultures and societies different than my own by reading their authors.

    But fiction and non-fiction have different roles. I personally do not see value in diverting “hard” research money towards the Arts, especially given that a novel or a movie has more popular market appeal than running regression analyses. Instead, we should work to create a society of readers and critical thinkers who will support the Arts with their own money. I’m doing my part, as my astronomical library fines will attest. 😉

  13. Stephanie Z

    Speaking as a writer with a psychology background, I think that one of the most important things art, and particularly fiction, does is engage empathy. A good writer finds the things a reader has in common with a character and uses those to make the reader visit places they wouldn’t go on their own, see things they’d never otherwise look at.

    Narrative is also simpler than reality. It gives the writer an opportunity to outline connections and consequences that would normally be hidden in everyday noise. Readers would question that kind of simplicity in academia, where it would read as intellectual dishonesty. In storytelling, it’s a convention.

    Then there’s the fact that narrative works as a mnemonic. Ask any kid how the magic system works in Harry Potter. They’ll be able to tell you in detail, not because they love memorizing rules, but because those rules make a difference to how the story plays out.

    But as important as fiction can be in shaping opinion and creating interest, I’m not a big fan of funding for it, aside perhaps from uses in curriculum. I think a writer who relies on readership for funding is more likely to produce work that appeals to readers. It strikes me as a more effective conversation when someone is listening.

  14. Melissa

    “I think a writer who relies on readership for funding is more likely to produce work that appeals to readers.”- steph Z

    I’m sorry, but i gotta say, scholars can be sluts for funding too.
    look at Richard Florida. pleeeeeze..he just sells what people want to hear. He should ashamed to be called a scholar but he’s on of the “heavy-hitters” of the day.

    Check out his disgusting self-promoting site. http://creativeclass.com/
    It’s dripping with cheap solicitation.

    How dare University of Toronto hire him as a professor. shame, SHAME!

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