This past summer, a group of students spent a few weeks in the northeast corner of the Sir Daniel Wilson quad conducting an archaeological dig. They were taking Professor Ted Banning’s ARH 306Y Archaeological Field Methods, a course that gives them the opportunity to learn how archaeological research really happens – with dirty hands and sweaty clothes.
A phrase kept coming to mind as I watched the students unearth layer after layer of our College’s history: “fieldwork in familiar places.” The philosopher, Michelle Moody-Adams, used this phrase as the title of her important 1997 book, where she argues against taking anthropological findings of synchronic or diachronic cultural diversity as reasons for embracing moral relativism. By engaging in what she calls a kind of fieldwork within academic philosophy, she isolates its blind spots about the social sciences—as if they do not make significant philosophical assumptions in the course of their investigations—and about our own practices of everyday moral reflection—as if academic theory were entirely isolated from public life. Moody-Adams’ fieldwork, by “making the familiar unfamiliar,” reminds us of the robustness of our moral commitments and our capacity to make moral progress.
The fieldwork in a familiar place this summer was a more literal kind of fieldwork, of course. What did the students find in their dig? Some coins. Remnants of burned wood and some nails—detritus from the fire of 1890, no doubt. A lipstick tube from the 1920s and pieces of sherry glasses—signs that, throughout its history, University College has been a community where students learn from one another outside of the classroom as well as in.
So I think a version Moody-Adams’ argument for the fundamental continuity in our practices, across cultures and across history, might even apply to the College. We remain committed to offering students the opportunity to challenge themselves intellectually and providing them with the skills they will need to make a difference to the world.
Of course, educational practices do change. Professor Banning, whose course was using the College as a research site this summer, is himself a UC alumnus (BA 1978 UC), as well as a College faculty member and the Chair of the Department of Anthropology. When he was a student here, his studies did not include digging up the College grounds, though he did eventually have the opportunity to join in off-site archaeological research as an undergraduate student.
He approached me about the possibility of using the UC grounds as a teaching site because he wanted students to have the opportunity to learn in the most active way possible, by themselves participating in archaeological research. And he knew that I believed that the College’s heritage should be used in support of student learning, and not merely preserved as relics. As the fall 2013 issue of the magazine explained, we plan to reinvigorate Canada’s most important academic building by highlighting its significant architectural heritage while also providing 21st-century students with new educational opportunities.
One year into the fundraising campaign for the UC renovation, I am very pleased that the alumni community has come together in support of our plans. Edmund and Frances Clark have generously provided a lead gift of $2.5 million, and many others have joined them in recognizing the need to ensure that the College continues to provide its students with the best educational experience possible. Though we remain some distance from achieving our overall goal, plans for implementing phase one of the renovation are underway.
The Sir Dan’s quad is now back to normal, with little indication that almost a dozen metre-square pits had been dug only a few months ago. Another UC orientation has come and gone and I suspect that a new layer of lost or dropped items has been deposited in the quad. The University College building, with its imposing towers and gargoyles and gryphons, looks as if it has not changed in the 155 years since its opening. In fact, the College has repeatedly had to adapt itself as the needs of its students changed, even as we remain committed to challenging our students to think in new ways—undertaking fieldwork in familiar places in one way or another.