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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 8 | Aug. 4, 2005

English Meets Art History

Outside-the-box thinking behind new faculty

By Bud Mortenson

A different school of thought is taking shape at UBC Okanagan.

Robert Belton, dean of the brand-new Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, is an art historian with a plan to blur the lines between language, literature, and visual and performing arts this year.

The idea of an overtly interdisciplinary faculty began to take shape in 2004, while Belton was Dean of Arts at the former Okanagan University College and a member of the UBC Okanagan academic planning team.

“It was during the development of the academic plan that the penny dropped for me,” he recalls. “We kept saying we want to do things that are different. I said, let’s do it.”

As a result, this September courses in English, modern languages and other literary studies won’t be offered through the new Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences. Instead, they will be offered alongside visual arts and art history in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies.

Next year, the traditional majors in English, French, Spanish and Fine Arts will be joined by new offerings in creative writing, theatre, film and media studies, and cultural studies -- with music, musicology and possibly other areas to follow in September 2007.

It’s a new approach, “but I think people will get on board quickly,” say Belton. “Something is happening that’s value-added without additional expense. This opens up a smorgasbord of possibilities.”

The vision he has is for an environment that provides students with both the traditional majors and the opportunity to mix it up -- for example, to study creative writing and theatre history together. “Or acting and painting,” he adds. “You don’t really find that right now.”

Visual arts students at the former Okanagan University College participated in a visual forum as part of their program. Belton would like to see that kind of forum for all students in creative and critical studies courses.

“Visual arts students have done it for 15 years. But if you’re an English major, why not take the opportunity to be exposed to art history at the same time? These are things that build and set off fires of interest in students.”

Belton, who earned a PhD from the University of Toronto in 1988, has a background in the history, theory, and criticism of modern and contemporary European and North American art and architecture. And he’s adept at making connections that cross over traditional subject bounds.

Author of several books on art and art history, his recent publication Sights of Resistance (University of Calgary Press, 2001) was once described as “an anti-textbook,” he says, explaining how each feature in the book was accompanied by a list of key terms and pointers to other concepts -- some without obvious connection to the topic at hand. It was designed to make readers aware of ideas they might not otherwise experience.

“I like to let others achieve what they want to,” says Belton. “I get a reward from helping them see how to do that and then getting out of their way.”

The cross-discipline model Belton and his faculty are designing may be a new idea, but he’s confident it will provide UBC Okanagan students with the distinctive educational experience called for in the academic plan.

“This is about getting students excited and prepared for new challenges and finding a way to embrace the unexpected,” he explains.

“Imagine fine arts students working with social work students on the psychology of creativity, or engineering and sculpture students working together on projects,” Belton says.

“I can hardly wait to start developing this vision.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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