Monkeys, Men, and Model Cadets: Is Nothing Sacred?
This past Wednesday, April 8th, the RMCC English Department held its annual English Undergraduate Colloquium. Once the audience had nestled themselves into the famously cozy chairs of Massey 313B, they had the opportunity to see what the three students of Dr. Chantel Lavoie’s ENE 492 Advanced Professional Skills course had been labouring away at all semester.
OCdts Lauren Van Veen, James Heard, and Alex Manderson completed a research paper on a topic of their choosing, while also preparing a twenty minute seminar presentation. This course is a mandatory credit for all English students enrolled in the honours program, preparing students with a variety of advanced skill-building exercises and assignments aimed at research, writing, and speaking. After a brief introduction from Dr. Lavoie, OCdt Van Veen began the afternoon with a presentation titled, “I Am Not A Monkey!!”: The Evolutionary Advantages of Humour Through the Lens of South Park.
This presentation discussed the evolutionary advantages conferred upon the human species by humour, through the lens of the popular animated series South Park. Beginning by first defining exactly what is meant by the term humour, a number of benefits gained by our species both through the creation and reception of humour were elucidated. If geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s statement “Nothing in biology makes sense except for in the light of evolution,” is taken to be true, our current proclivity to humour must stem from some kind of utility, or evolution would not have selected for it. The benefits of humour discussed ranged from communicating advanced cognitive function to potential mates to navigating difficult social situations, resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. The presentation drew upon a number of studies that have emerged from the field of evolutionary psychology to support these theories; however, many of these studies allow us to understand the evolutionary advantages of humour only from the vantage point of an outside observer looking in on a pre-historic hunter-gatherer group or a family of chimps. In order to determine how these same benefits continue to have a significant effect on society, the presentation explained how each of the benefits is conferred by either the creation or viewing of a modern comedy series, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “South Park”. The presentation demonstrated that the evolutionary advantages of humour do influence our daily lives, and that there is potential to further harness our proclivity for humour in a positive way.
The second presentation of the colloquium moved away from South Park and the evolutionary role of humour and examined modern Western masculinity. OCdt James Heard presented a paper entitled “The Lonely Tough Guise: The Isolation of Males by Competitive Masculinity.”
This paper discussed the phenomenon of the “Tough Guise,” a prevalent concept of masculinity based on toughness, physical prowess, and gaining respect from others through acts or threats of violence. The paper explored how various facets of the popular culture in the Western world such as the mass media and sports culture have contributed to the proliferation of this competitive masculinity. The paper also related how the competitive, hierarchical stratification of males resulting from the “Tough Guise” inevitably leads males to become solitary and socially-isolated, to the detriment of their physical and psychological well-being; references to acts of gun violence and school shootings demonstrated that this isolation and loneliness renders males unable to conform to the “Tough Guise” more likely to harm themselves or engage in acts of violence against others. The paper concluded with a description of how the modern “crisis of masculinity” has remained invisible in considerations of the motivations for violence, and suggested that more varied depictions of masculinity may alleviate the loneliness afflicting many boys and men.
The third presentation of the colloquium diverged from evolutionary humour and masculinity and probed the ambivalence of the influences that officer cadets are conditioned by at the Royal Military College of Canada. OCdt Alex Manderson presented a paper entitled “Truth, Duty, Valour (Don’t Get Caught): Dichotomy in Identity-Forming Influences at RMC.”
This paper examined the issue of dichotomy in the identity-forming influences at RMC. Through the lenses of fiction, non-fiction, and the author’s lived experience, the paper discussed the demands that cadets face which compete not only for their time but also for their loyalty. John-James Ford’s Bonk on the Head (2005) traces a cadet’s journey from eager recruit to disillusioned near-dropout, chronicling the protagonist’s struggles with the incompatible expectations of his father, his peers, his superiors, and himself. This tension between expectations extends beyond the realm of fiction, as magazine articles and recruiting materials all contribute to a romanticized, idealized, and exaggerated idea of RMC. Expectations informed by literature mix with reality in the lived experience of each member of the Cadet Wing, and the author’s own experience was used as primary source material, speaking to the effect of grappling with dichotomy and competing influences as a new cadet, as well as his role in shaping the identities of others as a senior cadet. The author argued that cadets negotiate difficult terrain every single day, pulled one way by their superiors’ demands, the college motto, and the ideals of officership while being pulled in the opposite direction by messages reinforcing the ideas that certain rules are made to be broken, that effort is uncool, and that protecting one another from corrective training is the highest form of virtue. The author concludes that, while there is value in having cadets grapple with moral ambiguity and competing pressures early in their career, the value lies in their ability to examine competing influences critically.
Guests had the opportunity to ask questions, and all three of the Q&A sessions quickly became heated discussions. The composition of the crowd, which included staff and students from many different academic departments, as well as several other guests from outside the Cadet and Academic Wings, may have had something to do with the variety of ideas and opinions that contributed to the discussion. Additionally, the broad representation from across the various organizations in the college speaks to the widespread interest in the study of literature. The scholarly spirit of the evening lingered on in the room as the conversations initiated or inspired by the three presenters quickly began again, with guests staying behind long after the event had ended.
A special thank you is extended to Dr. Chantel Lavoie, who oversaw this event and without whom it would not have been possible.
Ocdts Lauren Van Veen, James Heard, and Alex Manderson.