Arts

Kevin Kee is a professor of history and digital humanities, and the Dean of the U of O's Faculty of Arts. Photo: Parker Townes.

Dean of Arts discusses plans to strengthen and modernize the faculty

Over the past decade, the Faculty of Arts has faced serious enrolment decline. The faculty peaked in 2010 with 7,488 undergraduate and graduate students, but had only 5,420 enrolled students by 2016. From 2014 to 2016, the faculty dropped over 1,000 students.

That decline, though, seems to be coming to an end, and as the faculty comes out of free-fall, it is reassessing its situation to find out why that decline happened, how to avoid it happening again, and how to build up their numbers.

Kevin Kee, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, tackled that first issue by laying out several reasons for the decline in enrolment that are far beyond the control of the faculty.

“Number one, the end of the double cohort; number two, fewer students available coming into university at all; number three, the 2008 crash and the kind of generalized anxiety that resulted,” Kee said.       

“Everybody’s going through it, we’re going through it, and the only question is, well, who do we become as a result of the heavy lifting and hard thinking that we’re doing in this particular moment?”

Kee recognized that the world has been going through a ‘technophile moment,’ but that many tech giants are coming around to the benefits of a humanities education. Technology needs to understand the human experience, not just coding, Kee said, and the arts provides that element of human understanding that STEM-careers are lacking.

“So yes, there has been a big STEM thing. I think the STEM people themselves are now saying ‘I’m not convinced that’s healthy, we need STEM, we need arts in there,’” Kee said. “Arts needs to be there as well for the sake of creating good people and good products, and ensuring we live in a better world with technology.”

The core skills of a Bachelor of Arts degree are well-known to those who have gone through it, but seem to go under the radar for people outside the faculty. Kee stated that an arts education teaches critical and analytical thinking skills, creativity, communication skills, and gives students an entrepreneurial edge to their education.

“Everybody needs somebody who can think really critically and can break a problem down, everyone needs someone who can then be creative and come up with a new way of dealing with a challenge, and then everybody needs somebody who can communicate why that answer to the problem is the best way to move forward,” Kee said. “That’s what we do here, I think better than anybody else.”

The Dean pointed to major companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Netflix as the reasons for focusing on foundational skills that can be applied in many ways, like communication and critical thinking skills. These are massively successful companies that didn’t exist five years ago, he pointed out, symbolizing just how quickly the job market is changing.  

“We are preparing you for a world that is changing rapidly and we don’t know what jobs are going to exist for you in two or three years, so by focusing on foundational skills, we’re providing you with a kind of tool kit that you’re going to be able to take to whatever emerges,” Kee said.

Even with its faith in those foundational skills, the faculty has recognized the need to innovate and diversify its course offerings, and it’s doing that in a big way. Kee listed three pillars that the Faculty of Arts is adopting as it moves forward—partnering with organizations inside and outside the university, focusing on experiential learning, and connecting to the rich cultural offerings that the National Capital Region can provide.

The Faculty of Arts continues to grow its co-op and internships. The faculty is also partnering with colleges to offer more vocational training. This is already being done in the Department of Communications, where the public relations and digital journalism programs are done jointly with Algonquin and La Cité colleges. As for inter-faculty partnerships, Arts is offering an entrepreneurship option with the Telfer School of Management.

“We begin with a premise that Bachelor of Arts students, no matter the discipline, have to be entrepreneurial,” Kee said. “So, we’ve created an entrepreneurship option with our colleagues in the Faculty of Management that arts students are going to be able to take.”

The faculty is also entering its second year of the Digital Humanities minor, which allows students to use computers and computing technology to further their humanities research and their creativity. The digital humanities build from the emphasis on STEM and the rush of new technology, but still allow the humanities to be front and centre.

Additionally, when Arts Court is finished—a joint initiative with the City of Ottawa—the Department of Theatre will have a stage and learning space capable of augmented-reality performances.

“Are we interested in growing college partnerships? Yeah. Are we interested in keeping pure, conventional (programs), just within the University of Ottawa? Yeah. Are we interested in more co-op? Yeah,” said Kee.

One interesting thing about the Faculty of Arts is that even though faculty enrolment numbers have gone down, the number of students in individual courses has gone up. Many faculties come to Arts to teach their students ethics and writing skills, for instance.

“Engineering has always said to us: ‘You are the faculty that teaches students how to write well, so our engineers, they can do great math, but they need to come to you to learn how to write really well in French and English,’ and we provide those courses,” Kee said.

“The pathway that I see has been steady growth in people taking our courses.”

Vocational training has become a serious issue of debate, though. Arts have been forced to show their practicality or get sidelined. Even though tech is embracing the arts, it is in a way that makes it seem more like a necessary evil to simply improve technology products. Similarly, the faculty does not want to exclusively teach composition to engineers, at the expense of a traditional, rigorous arts education. Still, others see the arts solely as a training ground for professional schools.

Kee isn’t worried, though. As he points out, the ‘pure’ arts make up a giant industry. Money and success can be had without toiling as a tech giant copywriter.

“The culture industry is massive, and the amount of money that we spend going to concerts, buying art, buying books, watching movies, that dwarfs a lot of these other so-called ‘practical’ industries. So, for me, you could make that economic argument easily,” Kee said.

It’s also important to note that arts graduates earn about the same as graduates from many other faculties. A U of O statistician, Ross Finney, has figured that out by looking at tax records from the Canada Revenue Agency.

“We know we’re going to be fine in the job market, and we’re going to spend four years studying what we love,” Kee said.

The Faculty of Arts, then, doesn’t seem to be in a hopeless situation after all. Though enrolment numbers have fallen sharply, there are ground-breaking initiatives and promising partnerships in the works to grow the faculty and make it a leader in the humanities in Canada. Even given all this, though, Kee thinks the real value of the arts is that it teaches us what it means to be a human, and there will always be an interest in that.

“There is always going to be a love for culture in and of itself, because it’s in reading English literature (for example) that you come to understand what it means to be a human being and, frankly, a better human being,” Kee said. “That’s what we do here, we create better people.”