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Vol 40  No 1
August 9, 2007


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Humanities program a passionate family affair

MPhil in the family
by Leslie Vryenhoek

James Butler (left) was so impressed with Memorial’s master’s of philosophy in humanities program, he helped recruit his daughter Tianna and son Evan into the program. (Photo by Leslie Vryenhoek)

James Butler always tried to instil a love of learning in his children. Now, that passion has brought them together in the master of philosophy in humanities program at Memorial.

As James is completing the interdisciplinary MA program, his daughter Tianna is gearing up to start it in September. She’ll join her brother Evan, who is halfway through the program.

All three Butlers were attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the MPhil in humanities and the broad options it offers, and while they’re heading toward the same degree, their projects are as different as their backgrounds.

Having their father in school at the same time isn’t unusual for the Butler children: “On my first day of kindergarten, he started college,” Tianna laughed.

Ironically, it was Tianna, the youngest, who first finished an undergraduate degree – a BA from St. Thomas University, where she studied honours English with a minor in religious studies. In 2004, she completed a B.Ed. at Memorial, and has been substitute teaching on the west coast while also raising twins.

James took a longer, more circuitous route to arrive here. In the’60s, the west coast native studied computer science at the technical college in Stephenville. Busy with work and family, it wasn’t until 2000 that James began an honours degree in communications at the University of Calgary.
“Once I went back, I loved being in school, and I loved it especially at that age – 53,” he recalled. “I was ready.”

He wasn’t searching for a new career, but for a chance to expand his knowledge. “I’ve always loved learning; I’ve always been very curious.”

In 2005, James discovered the MPhil program on the Memorial website and applied.

A year in, he was so impressed with the program that when Evan told his father about a photography project he had conceived, James immediately arranged a meeting with philosophy professor Dr. Peter Trnka, then the coordinator of the MPhil program.

Now, that multimedia project – a visual exploration of how outside influences impact rural communities – is taking shape. Specifically, Evan is looking at Stephenville.

“In Dad’s generation, the U.S. Air Force had just opened a base, so the American influence began. In my generation, it was television and radio. Now the younger people are influenced by the Internet, so it’s more international,” explained Evan, a visual artist who had completed a degree at NSCAD University in Halifax. “My project is very narrative. A lot of what I do is telling stories.”

Storytelling is an aspect all their projects share. For his, James shot a documentary film about Sandy Point in Bay St. George. Once a large commercial centre on the west coast, the town has disappeared – but James found it holds a kind of mythological allure in the memories of former residents, some of whom are Butler relatives. In drawing together diverse stories and voices, he wanted to ensure the place was remembered.

Tianna plans to utilize the family’s strong storytelling roots in her project, for which she will examine how common morals are found in an increasingly secular society.

The main project of the MPhil in humanities, however, is a journal. This can take the form of a traditional thesis, or be closer to a series of creative works. Writing, discussing and defending one’s ideas is a huge requirement of the program.

James feels the advancement in his critical thinking and writing abilities has been profound, and Evan agrees. But, he cautions, it’s hasn’t always been an easy process.

“The first year is like boot camp. You’re so immersed in so many ideas; you have different professors coming in to do seminars from so many different disciplines: history, philosophy, genetics, physics,” James asserted. “You feel your brain is just soggy with ideas, and you have to get them written down before they leak out.”

He points out that broad range poses another risk: “If you come in without a focus, you can get lost. It’s not for dilettantes. If you’re a dabbler, you won’t survive.”

“The biggest benefit to the program is its flexibility. There are dozens of different ways to look at any topic,” Evan added. “Every topic you take on becomes very rich.”

All three Butlers benefited from School of Graduate Studies’ fellowships. James also received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in his second year, and a research grant from the Faculty of Arts Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) to help finance his film.

After the MPhil, the Butlers’ paths will diverge again. James is returning to the University of Calgary to start a PhD in cultural studies; he wants to delve into how genealogical research on the Internet is changing the definition of family.

Evan plans to head to Asia after completing his master’s to continue exploring how electronic media are influencing rural communities. And Tianna hopes to move directly into a PhD program – though where that will take her isn’t yet clear.

“We’re a nomadic family,” Evan laughed.

“And we’re definitely all thinkers and talkers,” Tianna added.

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