Five 2013 Vanier scholarships for UVic, including a top spot

- Tara Sharpe

The 2013 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships were announced Sept. 23, 2013, and UVic PhD student Tim Personn (English) is ranked first of all social sciences and humanities recipients.

This year, there were 165 PhD students (including four more from UVic; see sidebar below) selected by the three granting agencies—the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Personn is ranked first among 55 recipients within the SSHRC stream of this nation-wide competition.

The scholarships program was created in 2009 to attract and retain world-class doctoral students. Worth $50,000 per year for three years, it is available to Canadian and international PhD students studying at Canadian universities.

Candidates are assessed based on three criteria: academic excellence; research potential; and leadership (personal achievement, civic engagement, volunteerism and involvement in academic life).

The Ring sat down with Personn to discuss his research, his interests and the vision of what he wants to accomplish.

Q: Tell us about your research at UVic. When did you arrive here and where are you in your PhD program?

I am right on the cusp of getting ready for my doctoral dissertation. I am currently in the third year of the doctoral program in the English department, with a special concentration in Cultural, Social and Political Thought (CSPT).

I arrived at UVic in 2011 from Germany, returning to academia after being a freelance writer and an educator. I had also pursued an eight-year program (2002-2010) at Universität Hamburg, with an additional qualification to teach English and philosophy.

My dissertation, “Morally Passionate, Passionately Moral: Affect and Philosophy in the New Avant-garde,” analyzes the works and lives of a new generation of primarily American novelists engaged with philosophy and science. I’m calling them the “New Avant-garde” and they have carved out a space for today’s novel in a post-9/11 world by highlighting sincerity and empathy over postmodern cynicism.

These writers include David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith.

Q: What is “highlighting sincerity and empathy over postmodern cynicism"?

Postmodern cynicism is often very removed from its subject matter. It teaches us to read in an ironic, a distant frame of mind. But irony is useful primarily as a means of critique. Postmodern cynicism suggests aloofness for reasons of style and status, not criticism. Writers like Franzen and Foster Wallace defined the task of literature as overcoming this pose, and they hoped to find a cure for loneliness in the return to one of the novel’s traditional strengths: empathy, which is the capacity to connect, to imagine other minds. However, their return to empathy displays an awareness of the limits of ever truly knowing other minds. Much of my fascination for their work is due to this ambition of combining traditional storytelling with cutting-edge philosophy.

This new generation is heir to the old avant-garde, a generation of writers such as Ezra Pound and Bertold Brecht, who grappled with some of the same problems as Foster Wallace and his contemporaries: what role do politics play in art; what are the dangers of didacticism; and what is the proper place for entertainment?

I believe that the category of postmodernism falls short of adequately describing this younger group of writers. Since they have taken up the old avant-garde’s call for the artist to lead, not follow, I have decided to revive the term ‘avant-garde.’ But I do not mean it to refer to leaders in the strategic, militaristic sense. These writers are leaders in the sense of imagining different possibilities for literature and life. They want to lead literature into a new and also very old understanding of itself, as a sincere dialogue about the big questions, and their reflections touch upon other forms of communication, even including social media.

Q. What would you say to today’s generation about new media vs literature?

There are engaging stories in all forms of media. But the novel has still not been replaced, and I think this is because it combines particular characters and situations with universal types. Fictional characters like Madame Bovary or Huckleberry Finn are close enough to our lives to be understandable, but they also express something universal. Readers who empathize with these characters can compare them with their own lives and in the process gain a hopefully significant degree of self-understanding. I don’t think that many home videos aim at a similar combination of the particular and the universal.

Q: What would you say to your fellow students about community outreach and leadership, and how civic engagement can help influence our experiences?

It does not take a leadership badge to be a leader. We are always leaders and educators, in everyday situations, in our families and peer groups. This informal understanding of leadership has guided my adult life. I was an informal cultural ambassador between Germany and North America for many years before coming to UVic.

I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany and lived in Vancouver in 2010 after being a high school exchange student in Westbrook, CT with “Youth For Understanding” and a Fulbright scholar in Boston, MA in 2007. But it was during my training as a bilingual teacher in Hamburg that I realized it’s imperative to begin cultural change from the bottom up. Imagining your work and life as part of something larger is a liberating experience. In my opinion, it can enrich even the most normal daily situations. I had this experience when I joined the international peace education organization “Children’s International Summer Villages” in 2009. At a camp I helped organize in Prague, I realized that leadership is not a matter of age or status, but that it takes listening and mutual learning. I try to follow a similar philosophy in the classroom today.

Q: What brought you to Canada and to UVic?

Canada is highly regarded in Germany for its progressive culture and abundance of natural spaces. I had a tremendous year in Vancouver. I really like the lifestyle here. I appreciate the tranquility. In Canada, there is a more organized approach to graduate education and more resources and support than in Germany, and I realized that I wanted to pursue my career in academia here. I applied to many schools in the area and UVic was the most enthusiastic of the offers I got. I know now that I made the right choice.

Q: What are you doing when not conducting research?

I’m in good company here on the West Coast as one of the many guitarists and songwriters. Being a musician is a really important counterweight to academia for me.

I also like cooking, watching movies, going to shows and hiking.

UVic has five recipients again this year

There were five UVic students in total last year for the 2012 Vanier graduate scholarships, and the same number was attained again this year. Kudos go to Tim Personn and the four other UVic PhD students selected for the 2013 Vanier awards:

  • Justin Karr (psychology);
  • Chong-Su Kim (political science);
  • Aaron Mills (law); and
  • Leigh Wicki-Stordeur (neuroscience).



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Keywords: qa, tim, personn, 2013, vaniers

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