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Reflection on This Year's Plenary by Cynthia Hammond

Reflection on This Year's Plenary by Cynthia Hammond

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Jun 1, 2011

 This year's meeting in beautiful and resilient New  Orleans was my first as a SAH member. In addition to  an outstanding range of panels and presentations, Dr  Craig Wilkins' plenary was a special privilege to hear.  Presented in a spacious darkened theatre and  unaccompanied by images, his address was a  powerful reminder that architectural historians must  continue to question the content of our classes, the  decisions we make as researchers, and the scholarly  priorities to which we dedicate our energies. His  opening question was simple. "What if," he asked  quietly, "You didn't matter?"

 Wilkins used wit and critical insight in equal measure  to draw the audience into his primary concern, that  architectural history - the books published year to  year, the grants awarded, conference papers  presented - often reiterates rather than steps beyond  the familiar outlines of the architectural canon. If one  does not belong to the cultural traditions that are  produced or are represented within the canon, the  implication is that one's own cultural traditions and  production do not matter. This is a devastating  message for young architects and scholars who may  not fit cultural - and I would add, gendered - tropes  within these professions.

At Concordia University in Montreal, where I teach courses in architectural history and art historical methodology, cultural diversity is one of our institution's most frequently touted attributes. And this diversity is indeed something that makes Concordia - and Montreal - wonderful. Yet I need not to reflect for long on the constitution of our classes in Art History to see that the majority of our students are white, English-speaking, middle-class women - like myself. The presence of female faculty in our Department is a testament to increasing gender inclusivity in Canadian institutions, which is something to celebrate. But Dr Wilkins' talk was a timely reminder that this advance is the thin edge of the wedge.

Wilkins' plenary recalled the observations of cultural critic, Bell Hooks, who has often pointed out that the objects studied in the Humanities rarely reflect the diversity we want to see in our classrooms. So what is taught - still the Western tradition, despite a lot of critical questioning - has a direct relationship to the constituency that registers for our courses. Wilkins reminded me that if I want change, as an educator I have to reflect the great scope of what matters beyond the history of privileged, European and European-descended producers of culture. The 2011 plenary was an elegant and moving call to action, whose key question came at the perfect moment - just as the precious summer months of research, writing and course planning beckon.

Cynthia Hammond
Concordia University, Montreal

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