Honors seminar explores identity and community through performing arts

Among the dozens of first-year Honors seminars offered this fall includes one involving a partnership with the Lied Center for the Performing Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “Creating Connections” is taught by Honors faculty fellow Darren Canady and co-instructor Emily Gullickson. The goal of both the seminar, and the broader initiative of the same name, is to use forms of performance to study complex ideas of personal identity and community inclusion.   

“The class is a place where students can not only get more in-depth engagements with the invited artists, but also do some exploration of how the arts get into conversation with identity-formation and community building here on KU’s campus,” said Canady.  

Canady is uniquely suited to lead such a course. Currently professor in the English Department, Canady has significant professional success in theater prior to joining the university.  He earned his undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon in 2004. He then completed a Master’s in Fine Arts from New York University in 2006 and an Artist’s Diploma in Playwriting from The Julliard School in 2007. 

Along with Lawrence and Kansas City venues, his plays have been performed in theaters in London, Chicago, and New York, among others. Canady is originally from Topeka and came back to KU to teach and continue his creative work.  

“I remember that the first day I walked into class, Prof. Canady was excited to get into the topic,” said Neha Sridhar, a freshman in the seminar.  

“Each week in our class he leads discussions on incredibly important topics that deal with diversity, equity, and inclusion, which can be deeply personal to talk about. Even though he takes these topics very seriously and is incredibly professional about them, he also makes sure to bring a bit of light and levity to the situation.”  

Sridhar said she was especially excited for the performance poetry trio, Mayhem Poets.  A slam poet herself, Sridhar regularly writes and performs pieces.  

“I was expecting to enjoy their performance, but I was still surprised by the way they worked together as a team to perform and support one another, as I’d always viewed slam as a somewhat solitary act before their performance.” 

While the seminar’s topic would naturally attract prospective theater students, it also benefits those outside the arts. Sridhar is studying Linguistics and says the course was an opportunity to branch out of that curriculum. She says Creating Connections has genuinely shaped and changed her understanding of the world.  

“I intentionally chose this course to be one outside of my area of study, as I felt like the intention of the honors seminar courses was to bring in different perspectives that I wouldn’t normally get in my path of education.” 

Another performance featured in the class was given by Amir ElSaffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble. The musical work uses techniques from both jazz and maqam— a musical form that has ancient roots stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. This blend of genres invited students to broaden what a contemporary, Midwestern young adult normally listens to.  

“The students really rose to that invitation and challenge and had some great insights into not only how well they were able to pick up on what the ensemble was doing as performers, but also how different cultural practices affected their ability to get inside the music and go along for the ride,” said Canady.  

One function of the Honors seminar is to introduce first-year students to opportunities available on the KU campus.  Seeing performances at the Lied Center and having conversations with visiting artists reinforces for students that learning can also take place outside the formal classroom. Offering this type of experience often requires partnership with other campus units, which is one way that Honors strives to deepen and enrich students' learning.