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Abracadabra! Carleton establishing a chair for the study of conjuring arts

Last Updated Dec 20, 2017 at 5:20 pm EDT

OTTAWA – Carleton University students will soon be able to study magic.

The university announced Thursday that it’s establishing an academic chair for the study of conjuring arts with a $2-million donation from the Slaight Family Foundation.

Carleton’s interim president Alastair Summerlee says magicians have historically been influential figures, and it’s important for societies to understand how they might be deceived.

There’s never been a better time to study conjuring arts, he adds, citing the proliferation of “fake news,” political spin, and the rejection of science.

“If you think about the whole idea of magic, it’s all about perception and deception,” Summerlee says. “What is it that people see? What is it that you can fool people with? What is it that you make people believe in?”

Summerlee stresses the focus of the research position will be on social and political applications of trickery, not on magic as a performing art.

“One only has to look south of the border to think about … the influence of the individuals who are making changes, who are capturing people’s minds and hearts to influence them,” he says.

“And then you can think of individuals in history who have really been significant magicians in being able to convince people to do sometimes terrible things. If we could understand that, maybe we wouldn’t fall into the trap so much.”

The university says the newly appointed chair will work with students in the arts and social sciences department, and that several courses will be offered in conjuring arts. The classes will span a variety of academic subjects, including psychology, political persuasion, literature, and the history of warfare.

A great deal of what we understand about war comes from constructed myth rather than pure fact, Summerlee says.

“We have been telling histories about the colonization of Canada that are in fact not correct,” he says.

“We have created a really strong sense of where Canada comes from, and completely convinced people that this is the case, when of course it has a very different history from the Indigenous Peoples’ perspective.

“How do you build enough momentum to make people see things in a different way? Which is exactly the same as happens when a magician is doing a conjuring trick.”

The chair is named for philanthropist Allan Slaight, who has had a lifelong interest in magic. He recently donated a collection of magic posters and Houdini paraphernalia to Montreal’s McCord Museum, and at 81, continues to practise magic.

Carleton says a search committee will begin recruitment for the new position in early 2018. Summerlee hopes they’ll find a chair by the next academic year. He says the university is excited about the development and hopes students will be as well.

“In terms of undergraduate students who we’re recruiting at the moment, almost 200 per cent of them will have been Harry Potter-ites when they were younger,” he says. “I think there’s a societal interest.”

— By Maija Kappler in Toronto