A New Model and Movement for Social Engagement

In just three years since its launch, the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry has become a model for engaging the campus and local communities in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Oct. 30, 2013
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The Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry is hosting or co-sponsoring a number of upcoming events. They include: 

  • Nov. 13: The next Show & Tell event will be held 5:30 p.m. at the Playground Bar & Lounge with the world premiere of v->t->d, a piece for live electronics and jazz trio composed by Christopher Jette and performed by Kelland Thomas.
  • Dec. 14: At 11 a.m. at the UA BookStore, a performance will be held in honor of World AIDS Day, which is Dec. 1. Talented vocalists will join UA School of Music professor Paula Fan, and people living with HIV/AIDS will tell their stories of survival.
  • Jan. 15: A Show & Tell @ Playground event will be held 6 p.m. at the Playground Bar & Lounge on the subject of play. Filmmaker Yuri Makino and primatologists Dieter Steklis and Netzin Steklis will share clips from the in-progress documentary "Rough & Tumble: Taking Play Seriously." The film features the Steklis's 20 years of field observation experience studying family dynamics and the play of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and also includes what we can learn from the play of dogs and wild dolphins.
"I think the UA is a better place because of the Confluencenter. It has had a positive impact in a very short time," said Javier Durán, director of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
"I think the UA is a better place because of the Confluencenter. It has had a positive impact in a very short time," said Javier Durán, director of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
The Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry's Show & Tell lecture series is becoming a popular downtown staple. (Photo courtesy of Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry)
The Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry's Show & Tell lecture series is becoming a popular downtown staple. (Photo courtesy of Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry)

It was just four years ago that an important, unconventional idea was vetted, and administrative backing provided, to establish what would become the University of Arizona's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.

Since its inception, the Confluencenter has led a profound shift in the UA's interdisciplinary and synergistic engagement, connecting the arts, humanities and social sciences with other disciplines and communities beyond the University's boundaries.

"Having professors present their research in informal venues has been an effective way of getting the University into the community," said Yvonne Ervin, the center's development director.

Concurrently, the center is redefining engaged scholarship around issues, ideas and communities historically underrepresented in academia, serving as a model for interdisciplinary arts and humanities centers at institutions nationwide.

In doing so, an alignment begins to occur between the needs of the UA and the community, particularly at a time when economic resources are pressed, said Javier Durán, the center's director.

"Our programming and our grant awards are enhancing the innovation and collaboration at the  UA and engaging students, faculty and the community," Durán said.

In advancing collaborative, engaged research and community action, the UA center is driven by a philosophy that is representative of the core tenants of the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Ultimately, those involved with the center are striving to ensure that the institution is representative of the community in which it resides and that those on and off campus can be engaged in collaborative actions that also encourages inquiry, creativity and innovative scholarship.

And never does the center's work exist in isolation, Durán emphasized. With every event, grant initiative or program, the center's staff and affiliated faculty act, in tandem, with a community of scholars and supporters, both on and off campus, in the Tucson region and elsewhere.

In offering space for alternative discourses and perspectives, this year alone the Confluencenter is facilitating activities centered on the identity and experiences of African American women, the impact of religion and secularism on political life, Julia Child's legacy, the lives of children during the Holocaust and the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I.

"We're trying to think beyond the traditional mode of scholarship," said Alice Ritscherle, the center's research coordinator. Taking on challenges and risks is sometimes necessary for innovation, she said.

One of the center's goals is to establish structures that ensure lasting connections and impact. Toward that end, the center's range of initiatives and programs include:

  • The Faculty Collaboration Grants, which provide seed funding for collaborative interdisciplinary projects led by faculty in the Colleges of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences.
  • The Graduate Student Fellowships, which provide up to $5,000 to students in those three colleges who are engaged in interdisciplinary work.
  • The Show & Tell series, which is held in downtown Tucson and generally includes a multimedia lecture involving community members in conversations about UA research.
  • The Creative Collaborations series, established last year, which connects scholars and musicians in engaged conversation, often about important historic or contemporary issues. In a new partnership with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the center is reaching a population of adult learners.
  • The I-19 Project, which engages community members in conversations and activities around issues of importance to communities along the I-19 corridor, from Tucson to Sonora.
  • Innovation Farm, a new grant initiative that will provide critical seed funding for projects with great potential to have a lasting impact on creative and scholarly life. Projects that qualify for funding must, among other things, involve at least four faculty members, and establishing community partnerships is highly encouraged.

"I-19 really connects communities between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico," Durán said. "We want to enhance that important physical and social corridor by bringing intellectual and cultural offerings to people who don't necessarily have the opportunity to come to campus."

The center carries this philosophy in much of its work.

UA Regents' Professor Paula Fan of the School of Music, who is a faculty advisory board member for Confluencenter, said the center has opened her mind in ways she had not imagined.

A classically trained pianist, Fan is invested in the traditional values of her field and is deeply committed to collaborative work. She did not always see easy venues for collaborations with those outside of her field until she became involved with Confluencenter.

As of late, Fan is working through the Conflucencenter with a classics professor to explore vaudeville and its influences; she also is collaborating with an English professor on a study of the life and influence of a prominent historic LGBT celebrity; also, with an optical sciences professor, she is exploring the connections between music and astronomy.

Also, Fan helped organize the Confluencenter's Nov. 2 tribute and mini-opera to culinary epicureanism and Julia Child, an event that involves a local Tucson chef and a mezzo-soprano and professor from the Eastman School of Music.

"It has been a great honor to collaborate with people like this," Fan said. "The Confluencenter has made me stretch way beyond my comfort zone, which has been so, so good for me."

And that is ultimately what the Confluencenter's staff wants – to impact the institutional culture at the UA, as well as the broader community, Durán said.

"We are unique in that we believe in bringing together parties that don't always get to sit at the same table," Durán said.

"The support of the community is essential to securing our future and we hope that people will continue to look at the center as a potential partner and investment," he said. "Part of our future is expanding the possibility to enhance our resource pool."