JHI Working Groups in 2023-24

June 26, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Each academic year, the JHI sponsors interdisciplinary working groups composed of graduate students and faculty who conduct research or engage in other scholarly exchange. To learn more about each group and/or to request to join a group visit the Working Groups web page. The groups for 2023-24 are:

Elite Africa: Creativity, Expertise and Power (renewal)

  • Dickson Eyoh, New College African Studies
  • Antoinette Handley, A&S Political Science
  • Sean Hawkins, A&S History
  • Nakanyike Musisi, A&S History

Both popular and academic treatments of Africa tend to feature those actors commonly regarded as “weak,” small or poor. There is a curious squeamishness about focusing in a sustained way on those who are most powerful, effective and influential on the continent—its elites. Alternatively, where elites are considered, they tend to be treated as uniformly corrupt and self-serving. These approaches ignore the burgeoning ranks of globally-renowned artists, prominent intellectuals, innovative businesspeople, accomplished scientists and many others who are flourishing on the continent and, in the process, transforming both Africa and the global fields within which they work. These approaches are due for a reassessment. This group seeks to 1) challenge the narrow and often racist popular and scholarly understandings of elites in Africa as comprising only a venal comprador class; 2) map the dynamics of elite formation in Africa; and 3) theorize power as a process that is transformed by this dynamic, rather than simply as an object to be captured.

Emerging Interventions in Contemporary China Studies (new)

  • Anup Grewal, UTSC Historical & Cultural Studies

This working group is a forum for those engaged in China studies, from a variety of disciplines, at both the tri-campus University of Toronto and other local universities, to come together as a community of scholars after years of relative isolation, and at a time of political and academic urgency affecting the field. This urgency arises out of a shift in global public discourses and imaginaries about “China,” be it as surveillance state and aspiring hegemon, as a space embodying and provoking health and climate crises, or as a site for new forms of cultural, political and social movements; and from new urgent questions of how to study China as a subject – historically and in the contemporary moment. The question of what, where, and how to locate studies of China has been compelled by new restrictions on accessing national and local archives in China. Scholars are engaged in reassessing the dominant narratives, sites and meanings of China’s revolutionary century, while state violence and rising voices from the peripheries of the political community (for e.g. Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, new feminist and LGBTQ+ voices), and an emerging environmental consciousness have further opened up definitions of who and what we study as scholars of China. We are exploring conflicting processes of centring and decentering China, as both an object and site of research.

Medieval World Drama (renewal)

  • Matt Sergi, A&S English

This working group is intended to make the study of medieval plays less insular. First, we de-centre England, whose texts are grossly overrepresented in academic publications and play productions. Each month, we gather to read through a medieval play that has been translated into present-day English from any language other than English. We often seek out medieval plays in translation from outside western Europe (hence world drama). Our readings last year were translated from premodern French, Arabic, Japanese, Dutch, Chinese, Danish, Czech, K’iche’, and Spanish. Second, we adopt practices that emphasize access and outreach. We always cold read our plays: rather than asking members to prepare material outside of meetings, we discover and enact the reading right there, together, assigning parts as we go. This community-building practice takes considerable pressure off members, allowing us to recruit faculty, students, local performers, and members of the Toronto community, and to retain their frequent participation. Thoughtful, productive discussions of the text naturally emerge from this shared reading experience.

Public Writing in the Humanities (renewal)

  • Christy Anderson, A&S Art History
  • Dragana Obradović, A&S Slavic Languages & Literatures

This working group builds a supportive and critical space for humanities scholars across various disciplines, at all stages of their careers, to write, read, and learn together about public writing. As academics pressured by the demands of research productivity, there are very few opportunities to slow down and focus on one of the essential tools of our trade – good, engaging writing. Even though focusing on the craft of writing is something extremely valuable, institutional structures hardly allow for this type of engagement to occur even though it is expected of us, as researchers, to communicate with a broader public. Our group carves out a space for sustained and supported writing to occur through workshops and regular writing sessions.

Rethinking Policing, Penality, and Pandemic (renewal)

  • rosalind hampton, OISE Social Justice Education
  • Vannina Sztainbok, independent researcher

This group brings together established, junior and emerging scholars across academic institutions, communities, and areas of research and organizing. Members meet monthly to discuss and analyze scholarship, reports, and current events related to policing and penality. We also organize and host conversations with and between community organizers and activists, in the spirit of study that aims to cultivate relationships and solidarity through collective dialogue and learning. We share a sense of responsibility and commitment to pursue collective work oriented toward good relations with one another and with land, and to work creatively and compassionately with one another and more broadly, with Black, Indigenous, migrant, queer, racialized, trans, disabled, street-involved, and poor people’s communities in and around Toronto. We are also especially concerned about how policing in its many forms endangers the lives of these groups, and how we can contribute to the work of local organizers and learn from and with them. Key themes around which our study group works, include Community-university relations and the role of the university in society; notions of “pandemic,” “public health,” and the contexts and consequences of neoliberal capitalism; carceral logics, practices, and institutions, notions of safety (including on and around university campuses in Toronto); food sovereignty in and around Toronto; housing precarity and houselessness in and around Toronto.

The Other Sister: New Research on Non-Cloistered Religious Women (new)

  • Isabelle Cochelin, A&S History
  • Alison More, A&S Medieval Studies

Our working group aims to restore the history of medieval and early modern non-cloistered religious women, whose voices are conspicuously absent from the historical record. We will do this through a series of workshops designed to share research and explore new collaborative links. Our plan is that this working group will eventually lead to the publication of a Companion volume on these women, primarily but not exclusively in Europe, their communal dynamics, and the contributions they made to their societies. Traditional historiography has accepted the cloistered nun as the archetypal expression of feminine religious devotion. In so doing, it has relegated the numerous women who lived as religious in the world to the margins of historical society. A closer look at sources reveals that from the beginning of Christianity, these women who were known as house ascetics, beguines, penitents, secular canonesses, seroras, bizzoche, and pinzochere (among other names) held a vital and vibrant role in their societies. Scholarly exploration of the significance and multiple roles of these non-cloistered religious women only began seriously in the last two decades. Much of this, however, is far from systematic and had a narrow geographical and chronological focus. Our working group will bring together scholars working on this topic, with the aim of collaborative research on the history of these women.

Theorizing Scholar-Activism and the Global Food Sovereignty Movement (new)

  • Jayeeta Sharma, UTSC Historical & Cultural Studies
  • Siera Vercillo, Postdoctoral researcher, UTSC Physical & Environmental Studies

The unprecedented state of global hunger is exposing the fragility of food systems, which are the political economic processes and infrastructure involved in feeding people from rural farms to urban markets and kitchens. This fragility is caused by political economic systems that privilege the commodification of food over fundamental biophysical necessities and human rights. Major ongoing efforts to respond to global hunger advocate for food sovereignty, which is the right of people to define their own food systems instead of corporations, so that healthy, sustainable, delicious and culturally appropriate food is more accessible. Food studies or the study of food and society is crossing disciplinary and epistemological boundaries between scholarship, knowledge mobilization and activism. Destabilizing these boundaries work towards the decolonization of knowledge, policy and practice. Theorizing from practice is integral to the field, particularly food sovereignty, which began as a peasant farmers' advocacy movement in the Global South. Learning from and supporting food sovereignty movements has the power to transform Eurocentric notions of who holds expertise and how change can happen. Our multidisciplinary team of food studies scholars, environmental geographers, historians, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and public health specialists are theorizing the food sovereignty movement building with practitioners globally, such as the Ghana Food Movement, Cocina Poderosa (Peru), Thanal Trust (India) and Feed Scarborough. This theorization is useful for explaining how diverse organized social resistance is responding to the unprecedented global hunger crisis and supporting them in their efforts. The main objectives of this Working Group are to support food sovereignty organizations by developing public-facing knowledge outputs that promote their local strategies globally; to evolve north-south research partnerships by connecting universities and practitioners from Canada, Peru, Ghana and India; and to contribute to the digital food archive at UTSC via cases of scholar-activism in academic publications.

Thinking Infrastructures in Global Asia: New Perspectives and Approaches (new)

  • Julie Yujie Chen, UTM Institute of Culture, Communication, Information & Technology
  • Sabrina Teng-io Chung, Ph.D. cand., East Asian Studies
  • Qi Hong, Ph.D. cand., East Asian Studies
  • Hongyun Lyu, Ph.D. cand., History

Infrastructures, in anthropologist Brian Larkin’s (2013) opt-cited definition, “are matter that enable the movement of other matter” and “the relation between things.” From hardware (such as railways, pipes, dams, and telecommunication networks) to multiscalar structures that condition the production of aforementioned hardware (including architectural blueprints, computational languages, digital platforms, and electromagnetic waves), infrastructures have served as an important object and analytical lens for scholars to understand the historical transformations of societies in terms of circulation, mobility, and connectivity. This working group aims to facilitate new conversations and collaborations among scholars and students who are interested in adopting the lens of infrastructure to study Asia in global contexts. Across various disciplines and the tri-campus of the University of Toronto, we gather as a group to reflect upon the possibilities and limits that the recent “infrastructural turn” in the humanities and social sciences can bring to the production, circulation, and transformation of knowledge about Asia in its global dynamics. Moving beyond the popular and instrumental understanding of infrastructures as a means to modernity, we seek to draw attention to the agency of infrastructures and their power of world-making. Such an intervention is urgent as it enables us to not only historicize Asia’s emergence as a site of global infrastructure production and capital circulation and accumulation. It also helps illuminate how infrastructures and their contestations can sustain and remake lifeworlds in Asia, both in material and immaterial, human and non-human dimensions. By putting infrastructures and global Asia in relational terms, we aim to contribute new perspectives and approaches to academic debates on racism, modernity, de/coloniality, materialism, and environmentalism.

Toronto Jesuit History Research Group (renewal)

  • John Meehan, SJ; Director, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, Trinity College
  • Andreas Motsch, French
  • Jean-Olivier Richard, SMC Christianity & Culture

Toronto Jesuit History Research Group (TJHRG) is an interdisciplinary hub for Jesuit studies. In 2022-2023 we will focus on informal round tables, talks with respondents, moderated conversations with guests, and, circumstances allowing, workshops, film screenings, and field trips. Possible topics include the Jesuits’ role in the TRC; the intersection of Jesuit and native spirituality (syncretism, colonisation of the imaginary); Jesuit missions in China, Japan, and modern film; Jesuit contributions to cartography, theatre, and Baroque art.

Transformative Sustainability Pedagogies (renewal)

  • Michael Classens, A&S School of the Environment (Note: leadership is shared among all group members)
  • Hilary Inwood, (Lecturer) OISE Curriculum, Teaching & Learning
  • Liat Margolis, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design
  • Nicole Spiegelaar, School of the Environment and Trinity College Sustainability Initiative
  • Sarah Urquhart, Ph.D. student, OISE Curriculum, Teaching & Learning

Centring sustainability at the University of Toronto requires critiquing and re-imagining the ways that teaching and learning occurs in higher education. This JHI working group has brings together UT faculty, staff, and doctoral students from different programs, faculties and campuses to discuss and critically analyze the what and the how of teaching sustainability. Comparing and critiquing the development of pedagogy, we've explored transformative and intersectional approaches to sustainability teaching across the university. Through online webinars, in-person retreats, and lunch forums, the working group collaboratively engages with faculty, staff and doctoral student members in exploring transformative pedagogies to engage their students in cognitive, affective, and embodied forms of learning. Key to this is centering Indigenous worldviews and ‘Land as first teacher’ in sustainability teaching; when combined with transdisciplinary, equity-focused, and place-based education, transformative pedagogy provides learning that is relational, community-engaged, justice-forward, and action-oriented.

Uncertain Worlds: Comparative Perspectives on Risk (new)

  • Seth Bernard, A&S Classics
  • Emily Nacol, UTM Political Science

Risk has long been understood as a ubiquitous feature of modern life, actively shaping institutions, individual behaviour, social relationships, economic activities, and cultural practices. Scholarship on how we think probabilistically about the future and plan for what we might find there has recently exploded. The field of Risk Studies is highly interdisciplinary, including research in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Together, risk researchers endeavour to understand how we plan for contingent events like hurricanes, pandemics, market collapses, and political upheavals. This work holds a sense of urgency and purpose, as scholars think about how to prepare for and cope with disasters, and how to make our modern world more resilient to future events. In spite of these promising foundations, however, Risk Studies often operates within temporal and geographical limitations, focusing on risk as a characteristically modern feature closely related to Western capitalism. Scholarship often assumes that risk became a problem for human beings when modern life began; risk-mitigation practices or technologies like insurance or statistical reasoning are linked to the emergence of the European industrial age. Risk is thus often treated as a new way of confronting an unknown future, replacing alternative or earlier concepts like fate, chance, and fortune. Meanwhile, scholars studying other or earlier societies have also contemplated the role of risk, but the work of bringing these different perspectives into dialogue remains to be done. Our working group hopes to lay the groundwork for a more complete story of risk. We gather together scholars working on a range of places and periods and using an array of different approaches. Thus, the project leverages the existing interdisciplinary nature of Risk Studies, while expanding its spatiotemporal boundaries. Participating scholars work across disciplines, from political science to history, statistics, archaeology, environmental science, and beyond. The diversity of intellectual backgrounds will showcase risk’s usefulness for interdisciplinary inquiry into human behaviour. Our project will reveal how widely and deeply past and present societies confront uncertain futures, and how they understand that terrain as marked by threat and opportunity.

Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North (renewal)

  • Isabelle Gapp, Centre for Environment & Biodiversity, U. Aberdeen
  • Ivana Dizdar, Ph.D. cand., Art History
  • Matthew Farish, A&S Geography & Planning

This working group brings together interdisciplinary perspectives on Indigenous, environmental, and settler pasts, presents, and futures around the Circumpolar North to examine the complex visual and textual cultures of this region. With a greater number of group members at different career stages from the Departments of Art History, History, Geography and Planning, Architecture, Cinema and Film Studies, and English, we will work towards understandings of ‘visual culture’ as what Giorgio Agamben calls “the life of images” at the crossroads of visual culture, Indigenous studies, and the environmental humanities. VCCN encompasses the extensive research interests of our members: northern landscapes, borders, and environmental histories; settler colonial expeditionary narratives; contemporary and historic militarization and defence; cinematic and curatorial manifestations of north; and Indigenous arts, modernisms, and cultural heritage across Canada and the wider circumpolar north. The environmental focus of this group extends the work of previous WGs – notably Building Environmental Humanities at the University of Toronto – and tessellates with the goals of the ongoing International Doctoral Cluster in the Environmental Humanities, with whom we look to continue to work. It also aligns with UofT’s institutional and tri-campus initiative to join UArctic to establish a larger, transnational, multi-institutional, and interdisciplinary conversation on the Arctic. Confronting north-south dialogues and divides, we draw attention to the cultural, social, and environmental dynamics between Indigenous communities and settler populations across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, the Nordic countries, and Russia.