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MRU scholars and students help conceptualize the border

Slippery concept gains traction with cross-disciplinary and trans-continental studies

Over the past three years members of Mount Royal University’s Faculty of Arts have been making their mark on the global map as members of the Leverhulme-Trust’s Culture, Canada and the U.S Border (CCUSB) studies network, an international research network dedicated to studying cultural representation, production and exchange on and around the Canada-US border.

Professors Kelly Hewson and Lee Easton, both film studies instructors from the Department of English, helped organize the CCUSB network, and have so far attended three international conferences to discuss the Canada and U.S. border in terms of everything from surveillance and securitisation to indigeneity.

Kelly Hewson, Department of English

In 2011 Hewson and Easton saw a call for proposals for a conference focused on the question of representation and the Canada-US border.

“We knew that was exactly where we needed to go. I guess we were hailed, as we sometimes say in cultural studies,” said Easton.

After jointly presenting a paper based on their observations of Canadian students viewing American film products at the conference, which took place at the University of Kent, a “hotbed of border studies,” said Hewson, the pair were asked to assist in creating a network.

Mount Royal then joined forces with the University of Kent, the University of Nottingham, the University of Buffalo and Algoma University, and the CCUSB project was kick-started with a $50,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust, one of the largest multi-disciplinary providers of research funding in the U.K.

“We are working with student learning and trying to render visible things that are made invisible,” said Hewson.

In addition to the conferences, three more workshops have been held in various locations, the most recent being organized by Hewson and taking place in September, 2014 in Calgary at Loft 112. Attendees, which included MRU students, took a close look at the concept of aesthetics and the border.

“The atmosphere was open and honest, and the discussion was lively,” said Hewson.

Speakers included visual artist, Dylan Miner, who spoke of indigenous movements against settler-colonial borders, and the ground-breaking cultural anthropologist, Audra Simpson who spoke of the genderized and politicized life of Chief Theresa Spence.

“This is an emerging field and it has MRU’s name all over it. It’s an international field fulfilling a niche in scholarship that has been overlooked, and MRU has been tagged as a sponsor,” said Hewson.

Next up on the border studies agenda is a two-day symposium to be held in Paris entitled Theorising the Canada-U.S. Border in May, 2015.

The CCUSB includes representatives from several fields of study, which has resulted in collaboration providing perspectives from all angles.

"The project itself is breaking down borders between research disciplines," said Hewson. “To be able to look at a subject and view it through so many lenses, such as how social geographers look at the border or how historians look at the border, I find it fascinating. There’s a real community involved."

Hewson says those on the literary side of things, such as herself and Easton, look for texts that can harden the border, or challenge, unsettle, or completely ignore it.

Lee Easton, Department of English

“There are all kinds of academics who think that there’s something problematic about these national formations, and that the thing to do is look at this literature from a hemispheric perspective,” said Hewson. “Bounded categorizes of study are being unbounded, unbordered, and are now being called hemispheric studies.”

A number of resources have been created through the CCUSB already, including an anthology entitled Parallel Encounters: Culture at the Canada-US Border (2012) and a special journal called Borderland Studies. Students have also been creating resources in their fourth-year Film Studies courses that can serve as a potential pool those who want to teach to draw upon, said Hewson.

MRU students are being encouraged to apply to attend the Paris conference.

“The things the students are bringing to the table are wonderful too. They come to the borderlands with an array of viewpoints,” said Hewson. “I think there’s something kind of exciting … and slippery … because it’s new and you’re trying to hang on.”

Easton adds that they hope the discussion will help connect and engage students in classes.

“On another level, our research encourages us, our students and ideally those outside the University to engage with the important questions about how mainstream Canadians use the border to bracket off some of the difficult aspects of Canadian history and even current situations,” said Easton.  “We hope to help shape that future to ensure MRU and the Department of English are seen as leaders in this field.”

— Michelle Bodnar, Dec. 1, 2014