English Matters

Dale Tracy (RMC): “What We Make in the Humanities”

Editor’s note: In this blog post, Royal Military College’s Professor Dale Tracy thinks through some of the ideas about the relationship between humanities education and creativity that developed in a session at ACCUTE’s 2017 meetings at Ryerson University. As part of this exploration, she describes the fascinating Tailor Made project she initiated at RMC. 

At a Congress 2017 ACCUTE panel organized by Brandon McFarlane, “Ideating the Creative Humanities,” I came to the following conclusion: in the humanities, we do practice-theory that makes cultural life. The study of cultural texts makes new cultural texts, and cultural texts not only reflect or comment on, but make relational life. My presentation on this panel considered a performance project I created at the Royal Military College of Canada. At RMC, I used actual texts as models for the new actual text of a performance, and the performance made visible this process—finding models in cultural texts to make new actual texts—that is also the process of classrooms, conferences, and monographs.

This blog post offers a version of a larger investigation, initiated in my conference paper, in which I consider at greater length creativity and making in regard to the humanities and institutional cultures. I understand my performance project as making tangible or visible the process of making relational, cultural life, but to be otherwise doing exactly, in a different form, what I do in the classroom and in research. Through my creative project, I consider here the creativity of making actual texts from models (which are already their own actuals) to think about what it is we make in the humanities.

Making Cultural Life

In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, psychologist Jerome S. Bruner understands education as a forum for “intensifying” the forum-quality of culture (123). A culture is a forum in that it is “constantly in process of being recreated as it is interpreted and renegotiated by its members” who are “making and remaking the culture” (123). Anthropologist Tim Ingold, in “Modes of Creativity in Life and Art,” in Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam’s Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, engages with Bruner’s understanding of education and culture to argue that “there can be no distinction in practice between learning culture and (re)creating culture, since the contexts of learning are the very crucibles from which the cultural process unfolds” (51). Humanities research is not abstract thought or theory without practice or product: rather, it is part of the cultural life we study. Cultural texts, the ones we study and the ones we make ourselves (whether creative or academic), are not simply models of real life but are actuals participating in and creating life.

In the introduction to their book, Hallam and Ingold describe social and cultural life as improvisational. They understand this improvisation as a fundamental creativity that is the process of living relational life (6). This idea of creativity opposes the currently dominant ideas about creativity as innovation (in which the individual genius makes a wholly new product by breaking with the past) (2-3). To understand work in the humanities as relational, improvisatory creativity that makes cultural life is to understand it to be well-positioned to shape institutional culture.

Tailor Made

The Royal Military College of Canada has in its library’s Special Collections a text pertinent to the college’s institutional specificity. Paper Dolls: stories from women who served, edited by Pam DeLuco and published by Shotwell Paper Mill, is a book of stories and paper dolls with paper uniforms. The stories are told by women who served in the U.S. military and the book’s pages are made from these women’s pulped uniforms. In some cases, the women who offered their stories did this pulping themselves. At RMC, where I teach, uniforms are part of the classroom: students pursue their university degrees while also training as Officer Cadets. Because I am interested in institutional culture, I wondered about the uniform stories at RMC and about the diversity in what might, on the surface, seem uniform.

I believe understanding institutional cultures and contexts is important for meaningful teaching and learning, and I work in an institution with a unique set of cultures. RMC is a small university that mixes degree acquisition and military commission, academic and military training, formality and familiarity, tradition and reinvention. These are not binary oppositions or contradictions, but pairings of characteristics that put each other into relief, demanding attention. In this way, RMC offers special opportunities for reflecting on learning in relation to institutional culture. I don’t mean that my thoughts here are irrelevant to other universities, but that RMC seemed to me, when I entered it a few years ago as an outsider, to be uniquely aware of its cultures, to have its contexts laid out on the surface for everyday reflection in a way I had not previously encountered. This hyper-availability of institutional context caught my attention, and I formalized this attention by developing it into a pitch for a performance project about wearing uniforms at RMC.

My pitch was answered with the ability to bring in playwright Julie Salverson as an artistic consultant and artist and production manager Bill Penner as the performance’s director. We asked the individuals making up the college community for their uniform stories, soliciting stories through email and through preliminary events involving conversation about the project and theatre games designed to elicit stories. Tailor Made took shape through the responses we received from staff, faculty, and (primarily) students. The creation process involved meeting with storytellers to learn about the meaning of each story, as its teller understood it.

In an intimate room in the library, performers took turns stepping out of the audience to take their place in front of shelves of books about leadership (a reminder of an important focus at the college and a quality the student performers were showing in telling stories to their peers, professors, and administrators). The free, one-hour event began and finished with two tableaus, each one telling a story we had repeatedly received from multiple sources. In between, students told individual stories and two students performed songs from a nineteenth-century opera about RMC, which incorporated the idea that the evening’s stories were being told about and within an institution with a long history. To conclude the event, a professor from the Department of English who is also a major in the Canadian Armed Forces and a graduate of RMC read a poem reflecting on his career that offered the students in attendance a glimpse beyond the institution into their possible post-graduation futures.

Some individuals who shared their stories in one-on-one meetings performed those stories in the event. Others offered the stories for performance by others, after explaining what made the story important to them and what aspects of it generated its core meaning. These stories were then interpreted by performers through their own experiences at the college. This approach made space for more diverse participation and for sensitive stories that individuals did not wish to share themselves; prompted participants to consider other stories (or to consider others considering their stories) and what a story is and does; created stories shaped in community; and, an argument Salverson makes in “Performing Emergency: Witnessing, Popular Theatre, and The Lie of the Literal,” avoided positioning performers for witnessing that falls short. None of the stories were memorized as scripts, so there was space to respond to the context of the telling. This process thus involved some of the interaction that the storytellers for Paper Dolls encountered, while we dropped other planned forms of interaction in response to the demands of students’ schedules and their performance interests.

Thus, the actual did not follow its models schematically. Recognizing this space between model and actual is both practical and thematic. Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, another model that sparked this project, is a poetry collection that examines model cities and the divergence between the model and the actual city. The collection begins, “What was it like?” and answers the question 288 times, but the answers suggest the disappointment in the slippage between the ideal and the reality, which can only be “like” the model. I was interested in examining the slippage as generative without disappointment when we asked the RMC community, “What is it like to wear your uniforms?” The uniform is an ideal (at the same time as being an object), but the divergent ways actual individuals wear it is what makes the uniform human.

The director’s alteration of the original conception to meet practical demands was important for pursuing the productive space in which models and actuals twist and shift places. Creating this space allowed for the performance to really reflect the institutional culture. At the same time, like the uniform, the institution is itself an actual providing a model for the new actual of the performance. If the performance is using the productive space between model and actual, it should say something new about the model or even change it. In an essay called “On Reset,” my final model for the performance project idea, poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield writes about the way many poems are arranged in a parallel rather than developmental structure, such that each stanza is a kind of reset. He arrives at this thought from watching an audition tape in which each new hopeful actor plays out the same scene; the tape, understood as a whole, has a structure of reset that turns up new meaning from the repetition. Tailor Made had this structure, in which each story follows the other, not to develop a linear plot, but to reset the meaning of the uniform at RMC with each new perspective.

The stories the uniform topic prompted were about models and actuals, the pursuit of ideals and role models, following rules and circumventing them, aspiring and failing, living in the present and visioning possible futures. Tailor Made did change the institution: there are plans for a new storytelling project this year, making the event part of the annual life of the college. Less quantifiably, the project made relational, cultural life by engaging with the institution and the uniform to turn stories into a new actual that the institutional community could engage. Audience members told me that they gained exceptional insight into students’ lives, and students engaged in self-reflection and conversation with other’s stories. In what ways might this insight and reflection shape and reshape institutional practices? How might they reset individual behaviours, feelings, and assumptions? Tailor Made will twist and shift as an actual turned model, part of the actual institution, inseparably ideal and real in its relational, cultural life.

Making Good Relationships

If the humanities make relational, cultural life, what is “making” and what is the significance of thinking with this term? In the question and answer period at the “Ideating the Creative Humanities” panel, McFarlane asked, “How might we integrate the practices of critical making into humanities classrooms to deepen the learning experience for students?” Though Tailor Made didn’t participate in this kind of making, it is an interesting question for me because critical making also joins what are otherwise understood to be distinct—the abstraction of critical thinking with the tangibility of creation (Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema, “FLWR PWR—Tending the Walled Garden 52). But here, too, the twists of model and actual are difficult to follow. In “Why I Am Not a Maker,” Debbie Chachra records her worry about the valuation of “artifacts” over “an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women,” such that “[d]escribing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.” She explains why she refuses the label of “maker”: “As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them.” Of course, critical making labs also offer non-hierarchical collaboration (Patrick Jagoda 361). My answer to the question about critical making and the humanities is in this attention to making relationship, that invisible infrastructure that I understand as central to the humanities.

If the humanities make relational, cultural life, what opportunities and responsibilities do those working in this discipline have in an institution and the academy? In a blog post seeking space in academic work for “tenderness or tending to those with whom we co-think, collaborate, or co-exist,” Zoe Todd asks, “what does it take to disrupt and transform this obsession with individual success and ‘innovation’ in euro-american academe, arts, media?” Like Hallam and Ingold and like Chachra, Todd understands creation against individual innovation, or what she calls here, “the myth of academic rock stars.” Against the valorization of the individual, Todd calls for “long-term networks” and relationships with “room to grow.” She cites Audra Mitchell’s term “lifework” as one that “inherently centres relationships, tenderness, and reciprocity.” In her own piece, Mitchell explains that her thinking around lifework is “deeply influenced by Indigenous research methods, and by the approaches of Indigenous scholar-friends, but they are not, strictly speaking, Indigenous methods.” Todd is also thinking about her “responsibilities as a Métis woman” and the “kinship and relationality that deeply informs Métis law and life.”

Making relational, cultural life urgently involves the necessity of remaking academic life with Indigenous knowledges, scholars, and students. An implication of understanding the humanities as making relationship is the need for foregrounding Indigenous perspectives on making good relationship. As a settler scholar, I am following here on the TRC’s recommendations and work by Indigenous and settler scholars and artists on decolonization and reconciliation, as well as my own feelings on learning, teaching, and living in Canada. About decolonizing the humanities, Marie Battiste writes, “An inclusive Canadian educational system is well placed to nourish and export the protocols of respect, collaboration, and creativity that achieve justice in education and lead to the revaluing and protection internationally of Indigenous knowledge and heritage” (116). Battiste gives as examples of “the Indigenous humanities in action” those who “understand concepts of humanities and creativity as performance or doing or living. Action brings humanity and creativity to life, and doing and being turn life into knowledge and wisdom” (114). Leroy Little Bear, in a synthesis paper for the Canadian Council on Learning about Indigenous Knowledge, writes, “In the Indigenous world, knowledge is about relationships” (7). Little Bear’s comments on making good relationship are not unlike Hallam and Ingold’s, Chachra’s, Todd’s, and Mitchell’s comments on improvisational, relational creative life that opposes individual innovation: “If good ‘citizenship’ were the end goal of western education, it would be very complimentary to the idea of ‘goodness’ but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Competition, rivalry, and survival of the fittest are part of the tacit infrastructures of the present education system, which are aimed at capitalistic materialism. This is at odds with the notions that the AbLKC [Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre] kept hearing in its work: holistic approaches, community involvement, relationship building, and a cultural-based education” (15). Indigenous understandings of good relationship valuably envision and enact, as the comments above suggest, alternatives to the model of individual achievement, alternatives necessary, as Battiste writes, for “justice in education.” If humanities scholars make what we study—cultural life—and cultural life is the relational life of individuals’ improvisational and creative existence, then humanities scholars seem well positioned to remake academic cultures by understanding what we make to be, at least aspirationally, good relationship.


My comments here are meant to be exploratory. My brief engagements with critical making and Indigenous perspectives on good relationship explore the implications I see for my thinking about models and actuals, making and creativity, doing humanities and resetting institutions, all of which come out, for me, of the creative process and product of Tailor Made. In a time when the harmful shortcomings of the academy and its institutions are in the public consciousness and in a time when the humanities are so often on the defensive about their value, this mediation aims to suggest how understanding the humanities in terms of making relationship can be significant as we in the humanities and beyond continue to make relational, cultural life together.

Works Cited

Battiste, Marie. Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit. Purich, 2013

Blanchfield, Brian. “On Reset.” Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Nightboat, 2016. 121-7.

Bruner, Jerome S. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard UP, 1986.

Chachra, Debbie. “Why I Am Not a Maker.” The Atlantic, 23. Jan 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/ technology/archive/2015/01/why-i-am-not-a-maker/384767/. Accessed 20 Jul. 2017.

DeLuco, Pam. Paper Dolls: stories from women who served. Shotwell Paper Mill, 2013.

Hallam, Elizabeth, and Tim Ingold, editors. “Creativity and Cultural Improvisation: An Introduction.” Creativity and Cultural Improvisation Berg, 2007, pp. 1-24.

Hockema, Stephen, and Matt Ratto. “FLWR PWR—Tending the Walled Garden.” Walled Garden, Virtuell, 2009, pp. 51-62, criticalmaking.com/flwr-pwr-2/. Accessed 30 Jul. 2017.

Ingold, Tim. “Introduction: Part I Modes of Creativity in Life and Art.” Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold, Berg, 2007, pp. 45-54.

Jagoda, Patrick. “Critique and Critical Making.” PMLA, vol. 132, no. 2, 2017, pp. 356-63.

Little Bear, Leroy. “Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge: Synthesis Paper.” University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre, Saskatoon, Sask. and First Nations and Adult Higher Education Consortium, Calgary, Alta, Jul 2009, http://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/ education/21._2009_july_ccl-alkc_leroy_littlebear_naturalizing_indigenous_knowledge-report.pdf. Accessed 20 Jul. 2017.

McFarlane, Brandon. “Ideating the Creative Humanities.” ACCUTE Conference Panel, 30 May 2017, Ryerson, Toronto, ON.

Mitchell, Audra. “Lifework.” Wordly, 14 Sept. 2016, worldlyir.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/ lifework/. Accessed 25 Jul. 2017.

Penner, Bill, director. Tailor Made. Royal Military College, 2017.

Salverson, Julie. “Performing Emergency: Witnessing, Popular Theatre, and The Lie of the Literal.” Theatre Topics, vol. 6, no. 2, 1996, pp. 181-91. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/35168. Accessed 26 Jul. 2016.

Stonecipher, Donna. Model City. Shearsman, 2015.

Todd, Zoe. “Tending tenderness and disrupting the myth of academic rock stars.” Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî, 20 Jul. 2017, zoestodd.com/2017/07/20/tending-tenderness-and-disrupting-the-myth-of-academic-rock-stars/. Accessed 25 Jul. 2017.


Dale Tracy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Royal Military College


Categories: English Matters

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