When people are strange
Aiofe Mac Namara
In the vestibule of the downtown Halifax campus of NSCAD University the commissionaire is telling Aoife Mac Namara about a book. He doesn’t remember its title, or the author’s name, but it has something to do with 10,000 hours. “That’s how long it takes to get good at something,” he says.
The new president of the university is hanging on his every word. She grips the corners of his desk. She shuffles her feet. She nods enthusiastically as if they were dear, old friends. They’re not. They just met.
Or maybe they met a few weeks ago when, on her first day of work, she paused briefly to introduce herself and pronounce her name (which is Irish for “radiant” and sounds like “ee-faw”) before bounding up the stairs to her new digs on the fourth floor.
Her office is sparse. Sticks of furniture rest by a window that affords a view of Historic Properties and the harbour beyond. She has spent the past four years as Dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications, Art and Technology in Burnaby, B.C. This, too, is very strange. The space is queer. She’s not used to it. She likes it.
“We have to get used to the unfamiliar,” she says, not actually referring to the room where she sits or the man in the lobby. “We have to embrace it, be happy with it. That’s how we make ourselves more open.”
That’s been her signature move for most of her life. She was born in Amherst, N.S. but her Irish parents moved the family back to their homeland when she was three. As a young woman, she received two masters degrees and a PhD in fine arts before climbing the academic career ladder and eventually returning to Canada as Dean of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and then to Simon Fraser.
“She’s a visionary, and students are at the centre of this,” Ellen Balka, associate dean of SFU’s communications faculty, says about her old boss. “But she also has a very strong understanding of structures and how they work. She’s not afraid to jump right in and figure things out, and that means she knows how to make change.”
She’ll have to as NSCAD endures one of its existential moments.
Students fret about purpose and prices. Faculty (who went on strike earlier this year) worry about workload and wages. Administrators deliver balanced budgets to their board of governors, while outsiders question whether the 132-year-old institution can stomach the pressure to become more “market-savvy,” more “job-preppy.”
Mac Namara insists she packs no silver bullets. But she does have a plan, of sorts. She wants to know what, exactly, students hope to pull from the place. She’s keen to understand what, precisely, teachers need to cultivate imaginative thinking. She’s determined to meet with and hear from as many citizens of her college as she possibly can, and to fold their promising ideas and inspirations into the school’s curriculum.
She also wants to know who isn’t there. Who is, well, unfamiliar.
“Why, for example, are other people not partnering with us?”
By “partnering”, she means with the big, wide world beyond the university’s doors. “We must demonstrate the impact that cultural industries have in different ways on the economy. It’s actually huge.”
She’s not wrong. Canadian Heritage estimates that in 2017 creative industries accounted for $53.1 billion, or 2.7%, of national GDP, and more than 600,000 direct jobs. That’s bigger than mining and agriculture, combined.
“Ask anyone, though, and they won’t believe you,” she says. “So, we need to have better alliances. We need to go out and talk to our neighbours, to strangers—to all of the people who are building partnerships and enterprise in the knowledge economy, in the ocean superclusters right here. It’s our job to help them comprehend us.”
She wouldn’t be the first head of a fine arts university to throw down this particular gauntlet. Today, as she moves from her seat to take in the view of an alien waterfront, she just sounds like it.
“I don’t buy this whole arts versus the rest of society argument,” she says. “It’s a false dichotomy. But I can sympathize. People believe that stuff. The story goes that you’ll never get a job and that universities don’t add value unless they provide clear programs that lead to existing, traditional employment. That’s disingenuous. We are living in a time when even the most stable professions are beginning to lose massive numbers of workers. Automation is completely changing the workplace.
“What I do buy is this: Students need to talk to people they don’t know. Teachers need to do the same thing. We all need to do this: to be open, to be empathetic, to learn, to collaborate. That’s how, when we walk out these doors, we’re all going to be future-ready.”
Ready, indeed, for the unexpected, which can be as exciting as getting to know a new job brimming with boundless creative possibilities, a different seabound coast on the other side of the country, or a stranger who shares the same tastes in reading material.
Ten-thousand hours to get good at something? That’s from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Aoife Mac Namara is not familiar with the book. But, chances are, she will be.
CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, Aoife Mac Namara’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. We regret the error.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.