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An artful merger
For pop-culture junkies, life after Survivor is just not the same. Not only did the cultural phenomenon deliver a whopper of a cliffhanger wrapped in a slickly produced television package, but it taught valuable lessons about forging strategic alliances in the face of possible elimination.
Ironically, it's just the kind of subject that might be studied in the new Department of Art History and Communication Studies. It's a merger between the Department of Art History and the Graduate Program in Communications -- two programs that some speculated might have been in jeopardy by dint of being on the small side.
"These are survival tactics," suggests Geoff Stahl, a PhD student in the communications program. "But this is an alliance that makes sense."
Department mergers have become more commonplace against the backdrop of cutbacks to university funding. Some of these amalgamations have been bumpy affairs -- when the Department of Natural Resource Sciences was created several years ago by merging three Macdonald Campus units, there was an outcry from some professors who didn't like the idea that their old departments were disappearing.
But the marriage of art history and communications was initiated by the units' own faculty and students.
"Mergers happen that are forced," says Professor Will Straw, director of the Graduate Program in Communications. "But that's not what happened in this case." In fact, Straw was instrumental in the process, when, a few years ago, he started tossing around the idea of a merger with colleagues from both units.
Last year, with the support of Dean of Arts Carman Miller, Senate approved the consolidation. Even political science professor Sam Noumoff, Senate's resident sceptic, acknowledged that the merger was a good idea from an academic perspective.
The new department goes into effect this semester.
The merger makes sense financially as well as philosophically. "We're trying to carve out a special area that examines art and technology. For example, museums are interested in learning about what kinds of technologies they can use," Straw notes. "And, in a period where universities are starting to grow again and developing new technologies, it's relevant to study the effects of these technologies in today's culture."
"It's an intellectual venture," says art history professor Ting Chang, who has been involved in the transition of the past year. "We share a number of issues. Undoubtedly, we have different approaches, but we can make those work for us."
Students of the programs are also enthusiastic about the cross-pollination of ideas between the units. "Both disciplines emphasize visual culture," says Stahl, "but I see art history as being more about textual analysis, while communications is more about contextual analysis."
Kate Sowley, a PhD student who is researching 15th century art, agrees. "Communications theory will bring a new perspective to art history students, especially -- but not limited to -- those who study 20th century art and video," she says.
The merger has brought the administration of the two departments together, "and that gives us more strength and visibility," Straw maintains. "It has also given us the ability to cross-list courses." That's translated into a profusion of course offerings: this year saw an increase of 50 percent in art history courses listed as compared with last year.
"We are trying as much as possible to merge administratively and geographically, but also intellectually," Chang points out. As evidence of that commitment, there have been several new appointments in both areas that reflect the academic needs of both sides. In art history, for example, the two new hires were chosen partly because of their aptitude in communications theory. In the future, courses will be designed to overlap material from both sides in order to attract students to the new program.
One of the greatest challenges facing the new department is maintaining a balance between both disciplines. "We've kept the autonomy of both disciplines by keeping the degrees separate," Straw says. The degree offerings will not change: art history will continue to offer bachelor's, master's and doctorates, while communications will still grant only master's and doctoral degrees.
Each discipline is looking to the merger to help them over the long term. Chang hopes it will attract more graduate students into the art history section, although she admits, "That will largely depend on staffing and funding."
The communications side will leverage the merger to try to get a BA program off the ground -- something that the Arts Undergraduate Society has been pushing for. "There is definitely a market to create an undergraduate degree in communications," says Nick Linardopolulos, VP Academic of AUS.
As good a fit as this integration seems to be, should universities submit to merger madness? Stahl is cautiously optimistic. "I'm not sure that this is a harbinger of ill things to come. Funding has been cut, and mergers have to be sought. You have to learn to play the game of institutional politics very well. In the end, we hope that this will open things up in interesting ways."