Patrick Mahon is ready to switch gears.
An accomplished artist and Visual Arts professor, named among the new Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada earlier this fall, Mahon is wrapping up the calendar year preparing to take the helm of Western’s School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities (SASAH), a unique-to-Canada program that offers an elite liberal arts education. Stepping into the role in January 2018, he follows in the footsteps of Joel Faflak, the school’s inaugural director who has held the position since SASAH’s nascency in 2012.
“In many ways, this is a great time to be in the humanities because there’s so much work to do. There are some profound challenges we have a responsibility, in the university, in the humanities, to be sure we are addressing – environment, race and indigeneity, community and mental health,” Mahon said. “Those are urgent areas of inquiry and a challenge for all of us, but particularly for young people. It’s important to look at the ways humanities scholarship offers us entry points, windows and even opportunities for critique, if we want to look at some of the cultural underpinnings and think about how we got here.”
SASAH offers interdisciplinary study options, new language skills, experiential learning, interaction with new technologies as well as international travel and exchange options – all under the same degree umbrella. The program graduated its first cohort this year.
The specialized school, within the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, engages students in a broader and more meaningful way that allows them to see the relevance and impact of larger sociocultural issues and how they relate to academic study, Mahon added.
“I’m a visual artist. In addition to having done a certain amount of administrative duties – being chair of my department and graduate chair – my work has had a lot to do with trying to use art and humanities scholarship to basically put the issues and challenges of our times on a public platform, sometimes in new and inventive ways. I see this (director role) as an extension of that,” he continued.
Two years ago, Mahon taught a course on water in SASAH which resulted in an art exhibition in downtown London. The course and students’ engagement with the community spurred his involvement with the school going forward, Mahon added. Since, he has had an interest in the ways it creates spaces for contributing, learning and connecting outside of the classroom.
Looking ahead, he is eager to pick up from the solid foundation Faflak has built, meeting with faculty and students across campus, as well as community members to look for opportunities and ways in which the program “can continue to address urgent challenges humanities scholars can take on in these times,” he explained.
“The program began with a first-year class of 25 students. Over the years, it grew incrementally and moved from a really intensive introduction to humanities scholarship to greater development of what I would call a ‘tool kit’ for humanities engagement and community engagement,” Mahon said.
“We are looking at ways students can continue to apply the kind of learning they’ve done in the university, but also beyond the university – that’s the exciting thing. There’s been a shape that goes from the classroom, out into the world, and back again.”
While the university is a great starting point for complex discussions, what is discussed needs to extend beyond the academy. The world is facing real challenges and today’s students have opportunities to take the work they are doing and apply it in their communities. This is one of SASAH’s goals, Mahon added.
He hopes to see more faculty engage with SASAH.
“Some people have called the school a flagship for the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. I hope some of its aspirations will continue to infect and engage our faculty at large. There’s real enthusiasm from people who haven’t necessarily taught in the program to come in and teach,” he continued.
“And my sense is, the more people involved with SASAH, the more some of this thinking around how to make the work we do that much more available and tangible in the community, the more people will start to think about (humanities’) impact in the day-to-day.”