‘Sasha? What’s that?’ Defining the undefinable

By your fourth year in SASAH, you’ve rehearsed a certain response to the question, ‘What is your degree?’ The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Hey, what program are you in?”

“I’m doing a double major in (insert major) and SASAH.”

“Sasha? What’s that?” (I’ve received variants of this including Sassy and Salsa)

“It stands for the School for Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities, or S-A-S-A-H for short.”

“Oh, cool. I haven’t heard of that. What is it?”

While this may seem like an easy question to answer, the conversation instead devolves into a clumsy explanation copied from the promotional booklet.

“It’s a Liberal Arts, interdisciplinary model. We do things like philosophy, but also visual arts, but also literature. There’s also a language requirement. Sometimes, our professors allow us to call them by their first name. There’s an experiential learning component, so a lot of us go on internship and exchange.”

With a puzzled smile, the person usually just nods and then slowly walks away. I don’t blame them. Why is SASAH so hard to define? Do we use up all our best words in class discussion?

The difficulty arises from the fact SASAH itself doesn’t know what it is yet. Defining SASAH is like trying to predict the weather. You can only truly know its state in the moment and guess with varying certainty about its future. It’s dynamic, shifting and influenced by the university zeitgeist and the experiences of the students. Nevertheless, I think the subject is worth interrogating to see if we can approach such an elusive definition.

I didn’t join SASAH until my second year. I found out about the program through a friend of mine. As we walked back from our respective night classes together, she would tell me about the sophisticated and lively class discussions, the creative projects and even some of the thematically challenging lessons and readings. I was overwhelmingly jealous. It appeared to be so daring and enlightened in its examination of material. However, what I really appreciated was the interdisciplinary nature of her class.

I have always been interested in grey areas. When I came to Western, I was determined to conquer what I saw as the arbitrary divide between the Arts and the Sciences. This distinction is damaging because it segregates two halves of a very important whole. Microbiology informs our understanding of the world as much as 19th Century literature. I saw the opportunity to achieve my goal in SASAH.

RAMANI

It dissolves boundaries, especially those between disciplines. Courses are informed by history, art, music, philosophy, writing, classical studies, theory and criticism, feminism, political science, sociology, psychology, coding, physics and much more. Students are able to pick from a buffet of subjects in courses that highlight an overarching and cohesive thread or theme. This is a novel departure from faculty-based segregation of areas of study. We like to process the world in categories, but rarely does the world follow such constraints.

SASAH also blurs the boundary between academia and the rest of the world. A crucial component of the program is experiential learning. But wait, isn’t that just a fancy umbrella term for student labour? It can be. It is also an educational tool. This experiential component is lacking in many programs. Many classes have embraced discussion-based learning, and many courses involve a field or cultural component. What SASAH brings to the table is a laissez-faire approach to student learning. That freedom is revolutionary because it gives students the power to make their own path through the thick, academic forest – an invaluable coming-of-age experience. Students emerge more confident in their decisions and better prepared to face a daunting world. I’ve been part of the Vindolanda Field School, an intensive five-week excavation on a Roman military site in England. This experience has provided me with research opportunities and even the ability to return (twice) as a senior student and mentor for the school. Others have used the experiential component as a diving board into industry and internships. For some, immersion in another culture through an exchange program rounded out their global profile.

We can get bogged down in details, convention and routine of academic study. It’s hard to see the merits of an Arts education when you’re trying to recollect the dates of Roman emperors, or as you spend three weeks dissecting a chapter of a book. In this sense, SASAH is an experimental microcosm in the universe of the Arts and Humanities. Free from the taxonomy of learning, we are forced to confront deep, underlying principles that make up the Humanities. What does it mean to be an engaged citizen? Why does the world appear a certain way? What is our role in the universe? What is beauty? What does it mean to be human?

A constant mantra, as enrolment in Arts programs drops and funding diverts to STEM disciplines, is the Arts are dying. However, before we hire the wailing mourners, I offer an alternative interpretation. I think the Arts are adapting to a new and challenging environment, as they always do.

As we navigate the uncertain waters of rapid technological advancement, instantaneous communication, inauthenticity, consumerism, globalization, and unprecedented broadcastability, the Arts are our lighthouse, illuminating our way to the shore of a better future. Every new smartphone is accompanied with a decision to influence mainstream aesthetics. Democratic platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud and the Blogosphere have completely reimagined content creators, writers, poets, musicians and artists. Scientific discoveries go hand in hand with marketing, publication, dissemination, and even application. In a world fraught with political turmoil and division, historians contextualise and understand trends on a much broader scale. In a time when computers can outsmart humans at every turn, the Humanities are not just relevant, but essential to moving forward. Rather than dying, the Arts are thriving in a new ecosystem.

If the Arts are morphing into something new, then Arts education must follow suit. If the next generation of Arts students can enter the world better prepared to face modern challenges, then the experiment of SASAH will be a success. So, the next time someone asks me what SASAH is, maybe I’ll respond, “How long do you have?”

Prem Sai Ramani is in the final year of a double major between Chemistry and SASAH. He enjoys digging up ancient artifacts at Vindolanda, calculus (to the disgust of his peers), learning languages (both foreign and for computers), hiking the beautiful trails of British Columbia and creating art through embroidery, drawing, video editing and radio production.