So… what’s cultural studies?

Queen’s introduces a cultural studies graduate program to its academic roster

The first 24 students enrolled in the program at both the PhD and Masters students share the same core CUST 800 Cultural Studies Theory course
Image by: Tyler Ball
The first 24 students enrolled in the program at both the PhD and Masters students share the same core CUST 800 Cultural Studies Theory course

The cultural studies program may be a work in progress, but it wouldn’t rather be anything else. Thanks to provincial government funding and faculty pressure, students interested in culture have have found a true niche at Queen’s. This year marks the program’s addition to the school’s graduate calendar.

Ciara Murphy MA ’10, a cultural studies masters student, said the program’s all- encompassing nature drew her in.

“I liked the idea of interdisciplinary studies and thought I would learn a lot from the other people in the program,” she said. “Everyone is excited about the newness of the program. We all come from very different backgrounds and feel as though we can learn so much from one another.”

Murphy, who received a degree in theatre and English from McMaster in 2007, said she took cultural studies as an undergraduate and developed an interest in the discipline because it encourages constant questioning of cultural convention.

“It questions what culture means and asks ‘what does society mean?’ It’s very self reflexive that way,” she said. “You have to want to question the world around you and you have to be self-reflexive in how you do research.”

Murphy said cultural studies has a reputation as a radical discipline.

“There’s a huge school of thought where people think that by institutionalizing it, it loses touch with the world that it’s trying to connect,” she said. “I personally think that we can still be radical while being within the academic sphere.”

Murphy said she’s entertaining the idea of using the project option her program allows, using drama as a forum for to ask questions addressing the nature of culture and society.

Murphy said the evolving nature of the program, excites her about being a member of the cultural studies community.

“The thing with cultural studies is that it’s almost impossible to define, so it’s hard to have any preconceptions,” she said. “There’s still a lot of people trying to figure out what it is.”

Program director Lynda Jessup said the program’s constant state of flux is what makes it stand out.

“Cultural studies is a relatively new field of inquiry. That is, in comparison to the established, older disciplines, it is new approach to the production of knowledge. It’s not an established department,” she said.

“The program is unique because it allows opportunities for cultural production and for community and activist based fieldwork. The emphasis is on social justice and social change.”

Cultural studies stems back to its creation at the University of Birmingham in 1964. In 1978, Trent University founded Canada’s first Cultural studies program.

“It is the interdisciplinary component, which attracts many students to Cultural studies,” she said. “With the cultural studies program, this puts Queen’s at the cutting edge of inquiry, in this regard.”

The program offers degrees at the MA and PhD levels. It comprises 65 faculty representing 20 academic disciplines, ranging from Kinesiology and Health Studies to drama.

“It’s been a grassroots effort,” Jessup said, an associate professor in the art department who’s been teaching at Queen’s for more than 20 years. It’s been over the last five years or so, since faculty have become really involved, that we’ve got the ball rolling.”

Jessup said the Queen’s program is unique within Canada.

“The cultural studies program at Queen’s is different in that it has a project option, as well as a thesis option. It’s the only program in Canada that offers a project option,” she said. “You could have projects whether it be a creating an exhibition or creating a cultural text.

“It is also possible for students to undertake community-based work. It’s very much research based, so the work that you do on the field is then taken back to the University and developed.”

Jessup said the project component to the program is attracting a significant amount of interest enrolling 13 PhD and 11 Masters students for its inaugural year.

“Our masters program will be at full capacity next year. The PhD program will be at our maximum capacity in four years.”

Janice Deakin, associate vice-principal and dean of graduate studies and research said that a graduate studies funding program sponsored by the Ontario government allowed for the creation of 10 new graduate programs this year, of which cultural studies was one.

Deakin said the program is part of the McGuinty government’s 2003 pledge to create 14,000 new graduate spaces in Ontario universities by 2010, at a cost of $240 million.

“We at Queen’s asked for approval and we received a growth target of 546 masters and 157 PhD spots between 2005 and 2010. These were our growth targets and it allowed for these spaces.”

Deakin said the program came to fruition partly due to faculty pressure, on the administration to form a program that would more specifically address their areas of research.

“It was extremely encouraging to see the level of the commitment given to the creation of the program by the core group of faculty members,” she said. “There was a true level of excitement from faculty members that saw themselves as part of the program.”

Deakin said by welcoming cultural studies to its academic calendar, Queen’s is continuing a tradition of promoting non-traditional fields of study.

“At Queen’s, there’s been a long history of interdisciplinary education, our Neuroscience program being one good example,” she said.

Deakin said the anomaly of a PhD program in cultural studies is eliciting international inquiries.

“Cultural studies is a relative unique academic niche. At the doctoral level, there are only a handful of programs around the world.”

Deakin said the demand for a cultural studies program reflects the changing nature of academia.

“Queen’s will consider and add programs as they become more relevant to society. That’s the direction that Queen’s is moving towards in the implementation of these programs.”

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