“SASHA? What’s that?” An Endeavour to Define the Undefinable

By your fourth year in SASAH, you’ve rehearsed a certain response to the question, “What is your degree?”. It usually starts off quite normally, but becomes an impassioned speech about the relevance of the Arts and the merits of a Liberal Arts education. It usually goes something like this:

“Hey what programme are you in?”
“I’m 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 the Advanced Studies in Arts in 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, incoherent explanation copied from the promotional booklet.

“It’s a Liberal Arts, interdisciplinary model.”
“It’s like a survey of the Arts and Humanities faculty?”
“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 on exchange.”

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

I think the difficulty arises from the fact that SASAH itself doesn’t know what it is yet. In its developmental stage, 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 even approach such an elusive definition.

I didn’t actually join SASAH until my second year. I found out about the programme 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. Put simply, I was overwhelmingly jealous! The class appeared to be so daring and enlightened in its examination of its material. However, what I really appreciated was the interdisciplinary nature of the class’s approach.

I have always been interested in gray areas, areas where the clarity of black and white muddle to form an indeterminate, ambiguous mess of opinions, facts, and distinctions. When I came to Western, I was determined to conquer what I saw as the arbitrary divide between the Arts and the Sciences. In my opinion, 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. As I heard my friend’s stories each night, I saw the opportunity to achieve this goal in SASAH.

Our 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. In university, this is a novel departure from a faculty-based segregation of areas of study. From an administrative, practical, and organizational point of view, it is obvious why faculties and departments must exist and why courses are specific to a subject. Nevertheless, I worry sometimes that much like the Enclosures Acts in the United Kingdom, this structure partitions and closes off the open fields of human knowledge and study. We like to process the world in categories, but rarely does the world follow such constraints.

But wait, isn’t that just a fancy umbrella term for student labour? It sometimes can be, but in SASAH it is an educational tool and crucial one at that. Surprisingly, this experiential component is lacking in many programmes. “Traditional” education is the way of the university world; a professor at the front of the room lectures to students sitting in ordered rows. Education is changing for sure. 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. While SASAH is there to guide and help, ultimately students can choose the type of experience they want to have. Personally, I’ve been part of the Vindolanda Field School, an intensive 5-week excavation on a Roman Military site in the North of 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 exchange programmes have rounded out their global profile.

But why do blurred boundaries benefit anyone? If, as I have conceded, boundaries facilitate efficiency and organisation, does the borderless style of the SASAH result in utter chaos? Maybe, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. At university, 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 desperately 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 the Humanities.

A constant mantra, as enrolment in Arts programmes drops and funding diverts to STEM disciplines, is that the Arts are dying. However, before we hire the wailing mourners, I offer an alternative interpretation. I think instead the Arts are adapting to a new and challenging environment as they always do. For centuries, painters followed a tradition of realism and accurate representation. While styles and tastes changed, the goal of most paintings was to depict the physical form of their subject accurately (barring a few artistic liberties or softened wrinkles). With the advent of the photograph, realistic painting lost its immediate importance; no longer did one need expert artistic training to accurately capture the figure of a person. But painting did not die. Instead, it carved a new niche for itself by creating various schools of art attempting to capture that which a camera could not. From this evolution we gained some of the greatest paintings and painters of our time. Arguably, art and beauty became even more complex and relevant.

Today, as we navigate the uncertain waters of rapid technological advancement, unprecedented broadcastability, instantaneous communication, inauthenticity, consumerism, and globalization, 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 contextualize 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 next generation of Arts students can enter the world better prepared to face modern challenges, then the experiment can be called a success. So, the next time someone asks me what SASAH is, maybe I’ll respond, “how long do you have?”

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