Community Liberal Arts Salons

Abraham Bosse "Salon des Dames" from Wikipedia commons

Abraham Bosse "Salon des Dames" from Wikipedia commons

A Proposal for a “Community Liberal Arts Salon Society (CLASS)”

VISION —

The Calgary Community Liberal Arts Salon Society (CLASS) will provide a salon-style learning opportunity and social engagement activity for diverse adults with at least grade 12 literacy skills and an interest in the broad liberal arts (literature, language, culture, fine arts, history, philosophy, politics, law, etc.).

The CLASS “salon” draws on the precedent of Humanities 101 which has been successful at the University of British Columbia and several other Universities.

It is also based on the model of the conversational Salon in early modern Europe in which literate adults gathered to discuss and apply historical and contemporary literature and culture in an entertaining and socially engaging manner. Through these salons they formed shared knowledge and social bonds and networks that strengthened individuals’ and groups’ ability to perform their roles in civil society. Our contemporary salon society combines the educational and social features of postsecondary liberal arts courses with those of a community reading group and a nonprofit organization.

A Community Liberal Arts Salon Society is envisioned as a partnership that facilitates 2-way learning and leadership between a local community and liberal arts programs in a higher education institution. It is neither simply an “outreach” of academia toward community, nor simply a community organization with educational aims and methods.

A CLASS is affiliated with one or more postsecondary departments or programs, where it is proposed this concept will first be piloted. However, it is jointly led by academics and community leaders and is administered through an organization that is run separately from the academic institution.

CLASS salons are not courses administered by a postsecondary institution, although salons may be related to or loosely integrated with an institution’s course or program of study, and may receive some funding from or in partnership with that institution. CLASS values of diversity and collaboration mean that adult students and everyday citizens, not just academics and those who already have official organizational leadership positions, perform leadership and facilitation roles within salons and within the salon society’s organizational administration. They value community-based knowledge and personal experience as well as traditionally academic forms of knowledge, aiming to integrate these knowledges and apply them to create social cohesion and inspire action.

AIMS

  • To enhance our collective knowledge of the liberal arts, and raise awareness of the value of the liberal arts in the Calgary community and in society in general.
    • “Liberal Arts” shall be broadly defined, but is largely based on the literary and cultural arts. We would aim to promote a balance between historical and contemporary liberal arts, and aim at an integration of the contemplative and the active approaches, our aesthetic appreciation and practical application of the liberal arts, and local and global perspectives.
  • To enhance our individual and collective advanced literacy skills and our abilities to communicate effectively and ethically.
  • To discover how to apply our individual and collective knowledge of the liberal arts to enhance our local and global communities and cultures, to sustain and celebrate the liberal arts in society, and to work toward resolving contemporary social challenges.

PARTICIPANTS

  1. Each Salon will aim to form a diverse group of adult participants from various sectors of society, diverse ages and both sexes, diverse cultural or ethnic backgrounds, diverse religious and political beliefs, and varied levels of formal education, although diversity in every aspect is not always possible.
    • Participant diversity, combined with salon methods described below, helps to ensure that individuals’ areas of expertise, education, personal experience, and network affiliation can enrich the group’s knowledge and ability to make a difference in society.
    • Ideally members will choose and/or be encouraged to join a salon largely based on two essential factors: A) the selected themes and methods of each salon, B) the location and schedule of each salon. Another factor that may also attract members to a particular salon and strengthen its social cohesion would be a personal or professional acquaintance or affinity with one or more members of a salon.
  2. Each Salon’s number of participants will be suitable to its community venue (a large living room, public library room, or community hall room). Methods for learning and conversing described below shall be suitable to the size, venue and leaders & participants’ backgrounds.
  3. A structure for leadership and leadership development exists within CLASS so that leaders and learners can be mentored as facilitators, speakers, and scholars, and so that the vision and aims of CLASS can be sustained and adapted to changing contexts.

METHODS

  • The “core” function will be a Salon-like experience that merges the functions of an academic course with sociable conversation and social network development.
  1. Participants engage in sharing light refreshments together. Salons designate time for informal and lightly structured socializing.
  2. Participants engage in shared reading, viewing, and listening experiences that are based on a core (minimal) and supplementary (broader) resource list and a list of questions or issues that guide salons’ engagement with the resources.
    • Salons’ resources and questions shall not be limited to any single religious, political, or national perspective, but should invite comparative examination.
    • Salons should be tuition-free and much lighter on “homework” than postsecondary courses. However, more challenging levels of participation and leadership will be encouraged, as determined by people’s ability to contribute.
    • Resources should range across new and traditional media and genres, and should not be limited to text.
    • When longer resources (i.e. movies, books) are in the core resource list, their cost (or subsidized cost) and availability in the public domain shall be a factor in selection, and a sufficient number of copies (respecting copyright laws) will be made available in a timely manner. In the case of written texts, an oral reading of a reasonable length should be performed during meetings.
  3. Participants engage in creative and interactive activities for conversing, discussing, and communicating each other’s knowledge from the resource list and related areas of individuals’ expertise and personal experience. These activities shall be consistent with philosophies of inquiry-based learning and collaborative learning.
  4. Participants will be informed about (and encouraged, but not required to participate in) local and global events, projects, organizations, and social movements that relate to the aims of CLASS and/or the resource list.
  5. At the beginning of every salon meeting, all participants are reminded of the aims and methods of the salon, and new participants are welcomed to either observe or to engage in active participation as they feel comfortable.
  6. Participants will engage in a mechanism to inform each other about selected aspects of knowledge that were discovered through each Salon. This knowledge will be performed or communicated briefly at the end of a salon meeting and the beginning of the next salon meeting.
  7. Quarterly or biannual knowledge/insights from salons will be posted on the group’s website and may be shared publicly through other means. More detailed records of Salons will be kept in an archive to be used for research purposes (participants’ ethical consent will be obtained when necessary).
  • The “supplementary” functions, those which are optional but recommended, could include
    1. A structure for financial giving and/or volunteering, in which people donate what they are able to in terms of skills and/or financial resources to CLASS so that it can function as a sustainable organization.
    2. Applying for funding for our organization and projects
    3. Publishing academic work based on Salon-built knowledge as well as performing public displays or holding events more accessible to the majority of citizens. For example, a sub-group within the Salon may write and perform an adaptation of an ancient Greek tragedy that suits issues facing Calgary today. Or some of Glasberg’s class’s Big Picture Projects could be performed at a public theatre.
    4. Hopefully CLASS can eventually develop its own charitable foundation that supports projects and other groups whose aims are consistent with CLASS.

RATIONALE

This idea is my current inspiration for addressing the sense of powerlessness and alienation that comes with the commercialization and fragmentation of our communities as well as academic life. I am always looking for better ways to use our knowledge and professional lives to build ongoing dialogue on social issues that many of us are concerned about.

CLASS is a way of making the “bubble” of a credit course have a more permeable boundary, and a way of creating a “double bubble” in which a course is surrounded by a more inclusive and diverse community of learners, some of whom may become guest speakers, occasionally invited observers, or paying auditors in a credit course.

I wanted to imagine an initiative that would celebrate the liberal arts and humanities’ relevance in a time and place where people seem increasingly to think of them as elitist, antiquarian, and irrelevant compared to engineering, business, and more “practical” ways of knowing, being & acting.

I am tentatively naming this social innovation the Community Liberal Arts Salon Society (CLASS). CLASS is a very appropriate and seductively “classy” acronym. In many ways its existence would put into question what “class” boundaries do in relation to learning, as well as what limits or opens up a “class” or course in the academic sense.

Of course, I was inspired by my interests and research in community service learning, rhetorical culture, and my studies of women who participated in and co-led Salons in 17th and 18th century France and England. In particular, I am inspired by my study of Elizabeth Montagu, a salon leader and patron of literature and the arts, and the conversational salons co-led by Hester Thrale Piozzi and Samuel Johnson (both of whom were famous eccentric conversationalists and literary mentors).

I was also thinking about how I could welcome my husband and friends into the excitement and richness of learning and discussion that occurs in our courses, and how we could pleasurably and practically learn from each other and sustain our knowledge and our vision for the liberal arts and broader interdisciplinary inquiry.

This model of a Habermasian “proto-public sphere” (though not limited to Habermas’s conception of it) is combined with the idea of a Humanities outreach course affiliated with our university (and perhaps other post-secondaries, eventually). The semi-public sphere is an arena where academic and community knowledge are joined to facilitate the transition from the one to the other for the betterment of society.

If can figure out how to create this hybrid space, then we can be more confident that the liberal arts can indeed help ourselves and our students to learn ways of being and communicating in society as well as academia.

It would be a structure where each of us could be more of “who we really are outside the university” — we could be not just our institutional selves, but a SOCIO-PUBLIC self. Hopefully we could construct a space where we could talk with a little greater freedom (& with greater sensitivity of course) about how we see our liberal arts knowledge coming alive in our involvement in other aspects of society….political life, social life, religious groups, social movements, subcultures.

Sound scary? It can also be exciting and meaningful. Nothing risked, nothing gained. We take risks all the time as teachers and course designers.

Below is a tentative outline of the salon society. However, ultimately the structure of the Calgary Community CLASS would be co-determined by others who are willing to construct it with an innovator.

INTEGRATION WITH EXISTING INITIATIVES

As with my other ideas, this is NOT a new addition to workload but hopefully a way of enriching what a department does by doing it a bit differently within its schedules and within the cycle of the academic year. It is intended to be integrated with our academic teaching and research and service so that it strengthens it.
In general, I don’t want to simply multiply liberal arts initiatives and separate them in competing parallel universes. My visions are usually about some form of institutional “glue & strings” that can hold several things together in a nurturing way. Hopefully one could naturally integrate various initiatives.

STEPS FORWARD FOR THOSE INTERESTED

To build sustainably means to build small at first, and to take on a vision lightly and gradually rather than overexerting ourselves at the beginning.

It would welcome diverse participants with at least a high school graduate’s literacy skills. Salon participants and leaders may include interested students at the university who are taking our courses. It may be connected with existing student clubs or spur the development of a student club for “Liberal Arts & Social Change” or something. It may include other faculty members from diverse disciplines. It would welcome recent immigrants or visitors to Canada with sufficient proficiency in English.

The “salon society”, after a “salon” or two was informally piloted in combination with our courses, would led by an initial group of academics who are interested, and we would invite collaboration with other leaders and participants from the community.

We could eventually form a funding arrangement with a large chain bookstore, or with alternative local bookstores that are struggling to keep their heads up in the market dominated by larger stores.

As resources, expertise, and infrastructure develop, community-based Salons would be more able to accommodate individuals with disabilities or special needs such as child care, transportation, and food.

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