IPLAI gets to work

Institute opens interdisciplinary window on arts, ideas

By Chris Chipello

In an age of fast-paced technological change – and at a university that regularly produces cutting-edge scientific discoveries – it’s easy for the humanities to get overlooked.

But McGill’s newest institute promises to open a new window onto the humanities, promoting teaching and research that cuts across disciplines and departments.

The Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), which launches its first year of programming this week, will draw together teachers and researchers interested in understanding how the arts and new ideas come into being – and how they transform the world.

“People in the humanities are searching for new ways to be entertained and excited by what they they’re doing,” said Desmond Manderson, the institute’s director.  “Learning about other people’s areas” is a way to cultivate that creative tension.

IPLAI (pronounced I-play) is a fitting acronym since “play is central to the creative process,” Manderson said, citing a passage from Kant.

The institute already has appointed 10 resident faculty fellows, representing nearly as many disciplines.  Their areas of research range from medieval French literature to 1960s Japanese film, from mourning in Plato’s Republic to Baroque architecture in the Americas.

The resident fellows form the core of the collaborative community that IPLAI aims to build.  They are already at work on four or five graduate and undergraduate courses to be offered starting next year.  One example:  an exploration of the concept of “home” and how it has developed through history – architecturally, philosophically andlegally.

All the courses will be co-taught by two or more professors, who will be in the classroom simultaneously.   The approach is inspired by the McGill Shakespeare Moot Court – an innovative seminar run for several years by Manderson, who is a Professor of Law, and Prof. Paul Yachnin, Chair of the English department.  In that forum, students from Law and graduate students from English team up to argue cases based on a body of law that they piece together from the Bard’s plays.

The seeds for IPLAI were planted in June 2007, when Provost Antony Masi phoned Yachnin to ask if he would consider leading a working group on “Languages, Literatures, and Cultures” – one of several areas identified in the University’s 2006 White Paper as key to McGill’s mission.  Yachnin quickly agreed.  Over the following year, a group including colleagues from Religious Studies, Management, Music,  Law, Architecture, Education and Arts hammered out aproposal for an institute that would combine research and teaching.

For the institute’s initial two-year program, the management committee chose the theme “Memory and Echo” – evoking the way art and ideas are conceived.  In addition to the collaborative teaching projects, the resident fellows will explore the theme in reading groups and works-in-progress seminars that will bring together scholars from the university and guests from elsewhere.  “We’re not a group of teachers,” Manderson said in an interview last week at IPLAI’s office suite on McTavish St. just above Dr. Penfield.  “We’re a group of learners.”

McGill students, staff and faculty are invited to join many of IPLAI’s activities, starting with an open-house reception Friday, Sept. 11, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., at 3610 McTavish, 2nd floor.

To paraphrase Manderson: “Let the IPLAI begin!”

On the web:  http://www.mcgill.ca/iplai/