Education, Interdisciplinarity, Universities

CIRLA Conferences

Friday, 2nd June 2017

From June 2, 2017

As I work on organizing the HASTAC conference (, I’m also cleaning out my closet. I found this wrinkly but otherwise brand-new T-shirt, from the first significant conference I organized in 1996 (and, I also dug out the ones from the 1998 and 2002 conference as well – don’t have anything from 2001, for some reason). It was for a center I directed called CIRLA, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Liberal Arts. It was based at what was then Augustana University College, and is now the Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta. There is no record of this center at Augustana – it has vanished into the mists of time, even though we organized four significant conferences there. In fact, if you search for CIRLA in Google, what you’ll find now is the Chesapeake Information and Research Library Alliance.

These were significant events for Augustana at the time. They were:

1. “Liberal Arts and the Future of University Education” (May 1996).
2. “Generating Surprises: The Post/Disciplinary University” (May 1998).
3. “Paradigms Lost and Paradigms Gained: Negotiating Interdisciplinarity in the 21st Century” (May 2001). Co-hosted with the Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. This had a journal special issue that I edited with Tamara Seiler,
4. “Playing the Wild Card: Undisciplined Thoughts on Wild(er)ness” (May 2002).

We had some great speakers. It is where I met Julie Thompson KleinDavid R Shumway, and many others. It was kind of exhilarating, a small Canadian college punching way above its weight, doing something that people actually wanted to come to (well, that, and they were all in Banff in the springtime, which didn’t hurt).

If these happened now, I’d like to think that there would be institutional records of these sorts of things, maybe even an archive of significant events from the past. Now they exist only in the memories of those who were there. And yet, I think they had an effect, on the institutional culture at Augustana, on thinking about what interdisciplinarity could be, and what the different models for it were, and on how place (specifically a small college in Canada) might play into the construction of knowledge.

I remember the whole-hearted buy-in from many faculty, staff and students for these – people who gave loads of time and energy. People like Chris JensenRoss EmmettMilton Schlosser, Paula Marantette, Neil Haave, Keith HarderPaul HarlandJohn Johansen, Kieran Bonner, Scott GrillsBill HackbornRonni Ishaky, and so many others who I’ve forgotten to list.

Other than Julie and David, mentioned above, we had as plenary speakers Ursula Franklin, Gregory Baum, Jill Vickers, Liora Salter, Alison Hearn, Don McKay, David Rothenberg, Ann Simpson, Max Oelschlaeger, and George Blondin.

So, as I organize this larger conference for November in Orlando, in some ways I’m always striving to recapture what was good about those CIRLA conferences. Great discussions, critical and constructive engagement, and a good feeling about what had happened by the end of it all.

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