On the “cutting edge” of an academic evolution

The University of Calgary's Congress 2016 emphasized the importance of academics being "useful" to the non-university community

CALGARY, Alta. June 12, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The academic world, at least that represented by the University of Calgary, is moving toward socially innovative research and away from more traditional pursuits.

The evidence could be found at the recent Congress 2016, whose purpose was to bring academics and others together to share progressive ideas and create partnerships.

In a previous [popup url=”http://www.troymedia.com/2016/05/27/hob-sknobbing-with-nabobs-of-academe/” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]column[/popup], I discussed the distinction between a university that understands its chief purpose is to be useful to the non-university community and one that sees it as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. That distinction was clearly evident at Congress 2016, hosted at the university, and in a surprising new way.

The official purpose of the university has been articulated by the president and her senior leadership team on several occasions. Earlier this month, for instance, the Calgary Herald published a piece by U of C president Elizabeth Cannon and Peter Garrett, president of Innovate Calgary. The latter organization describes itself as “the technology-transfer and business-incubation centre for the University of Calgary.”

As an example of how the university bridges the gap “between discovery and innovation,” that is, between scientific research and introducing practical change, the authors refer to “a musical instrument for an unborn child that enables the baby’s movements to trigger sounds – or music.” Innovate Calgary is helping to market this “prenatal development product.”

Another product promoted by Innovate Calgary is a “social enterprise called Diversity Leads,” which is a “training firm” that helps organizations increase their diversity and “gender equity.” Whatever one thinks of such an instrument and whatever the term gender equity means, the purpose of each is clearly practical.

The surprising element in this “social innovation research” is that it also featured strongly at the recent Congress 2016. Sticking with gender research and confining the focus to political science, one could point to a couple of papers on “feminist intersectionality” as providing examples of practical advocacy regarding the way men and women should get along.

The barbarism “intersectionality” is not unusually employed in polite company. It was introduced several years ago to deal with overlapping and intersecting “systems of oppression in women’s lives.” For example, are First Nations women “oppressed” as women or as First Nations persons? And are they oppressed by men in general or by non-First Nations persons? Or both?

Two initial observations are in order. First, the division between biological, social, cultural and other categories can be extended indefinitely until one arrives at the unique individual. This does not, however, turn followers of intersectionality into classical liberals who begin with the reality of individuality. Instead, intersectionalists say that any particular division, as a female or a First Nations person, for example, is “strategic.” The actual humans who are categorized in various ways are thus urged to co-operate to end oppression.

The second observation is that, for intersectional political science, oppression is the flip-side of privilege. The result is that a privileged person, such as a Caucasian, male, or tenured professor of political science, is an oppressor, whatever he actually does.

This cutting-edge and highly practical social innovation research was also captured in a reference by Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin in her “big thinking” talk about how we deal with diversity and the “other.” By and large she flattered Canadians as being inclusive but concluded “there is no other way forward,” which betrayed both her progressive expectations going forward and her view that progress towards inclusivity was unavoidable.

Not all the participants’ time was devoted to celebrating how practical academics have become. There were also discussions of how judicial activism, exemplified by McLaughlin, posed a challenge to constitutional democracy. There were even informed reflections on what Stephen Harper achieved in 10 years as Canada’s prime minister.

Traditional and useless activities of scholars were merely eclipsed by the prominence of socially innovative research. They have not yet been extinguished at the U of C.

Barry Cooper is professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

Barry is a Troy Media [popup url=”http://marketplace.troymedia.com/our-contributors/” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]contributor[/popup]. [popup url=”http://www.troymedia.com/become-a-troy-media-contributor/” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”1″] Why aren’t you?[/popup]

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