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Electric tension

Between the academic and the artistic: Social Work professor awarded poetry prize

Teaching and Learning

By Danielle Devereaux

From posters to PowerPoint presentations, academics present their research to the world in a myriad of methods.

Poetry, though, is not typically among them.

Dr. Bren LeFrançois, professor and University Researcher Professor in Memorial University’s School of Social Work, recently won the 2023 Priscila Uppal Award for Poetry.

The winning poem, [untitled], will be published in issue 14 of Canthius.

“[untitled] meditates on place and how we place ourselves when we feel ‘the inability to speak,’ wrote the awards judge. “The poem captures how a map may express place through lines, yet we also remember the ‘raging river crying loud’ and how remembering is resistance. In a final gesture of tenderness, the poem offers a place in which to grieve. Its language is musical and gliding, somehow heavy and light. Mostly, I want to say nothing of it at all except listen, look.”

University research professorship

Dr. LeFrançois’ interdisciplinary academic background is in psychology, nursing and social work.

They were granted the rank of University Research Professor at Memorial in 2021.

The prestigious award comes with a lifetime designation, an unrestricted research grant of $4,000 each year for five years and a reduced teaching schedule.

The professorship enabled Dr. LeFrançois to turn their scholarship toward creative writing and research-creation; they say it allowed them to find time to not just create scholarship, but to also open up space for them to learn new ways of engaging in it.

They say they are “always embedded” in teaching and learning simultaneously, and continuing education remains important to them so that their scholarship doesn’t become static and repetitive.

For that reason, Dr. LeFrançois, the University Research Professor, became the student: signing up for creative writing courses taught in Memorial’s Department of English.

[untitled] was a poem that I wrote while taking a creative writing poetry course with Dr. Michelle Porter,” said Dr. LeFrançois. “I have learned so much from Michelle, as well as other colleagues and students in the English department. Without that learning, I would not have been able to shift my scholarship to the extent I have, to what I consider ‘my turn to the literary’.”

Artistic or academic? An electric tension

Dr. Porter teaches creative writing courses at the graduate and undergraduate level.

Michelle Porter, a white woman in her mid 40s, stands against a white backdrop
Dr. Michelle Porter
Photo: Submitted

A multidisciplinary academic and artist, Dr. Porter holds a PhD in geography but is an assistant professor in the Department of English.

She has published a collection of poetry, two books of creative non-fiction and a novel, in addition to various scholarly publications.

“Arts-creation can bring the two ways of knowing together.” — Dr. Michelle Porter

She says she’s heard from other professors that they’d love to take a class on how to tell academic stories creatively.

“Time is an issue, I think. But academic research is itself a creative art in my experience, and most academics are incredibly creative. All it takes is coming to a new form with the ability to not be afraid, to not get it for a while. Bren was really good at this — very open to the process.”

Although Dr. Porter says there can be tension between the academic and the artistic, she sees that tension as a productive space.

For her, it’s where “the electricity happens.”

“Sometimes in creative work, the academic’s desire to know for certain and the artist’s leap of faith toward the unknown are at odds,” she said. “I think that this is even more so when working with poetry because, as many writers say, poetry is often approached as an expression of emotion and emotion is often absent from academic inquiry. Arts-creation can bring the two ways of knowing together.”

An image with red, pink and blue swirly lines on a black background with two small beads of light in the centre. THe blue lines are diffused and the red and pink are defined and thin.

Academic specialization

Internationally renowned for their scholarly work, Dr. LeFrançois’ research focuses on mad studies, critical disability studies and critical childhood studies, they have taught courses primarily in social theory, mental health and child abuse.

They are co-editor of the foundational anthology Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies and a long list of other academic publications within these fields.

Their creative writing, which includes fiction and poetry, hones in on themes found in their research and scholarly publications.

These include ideas related to disability and madness, violence, resistance to oppression, and the importance of community.

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