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Pop culture research paves road to Killam professorship for Bart Beaty

English professor shares passion for comics with students and community

University of Calgary English professor Bart Beaty works tirelessly to bridge the gap between academia and pop culture in his scholarship and in the classroom. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Heath McCoy
July 4, 2016

One of the pillars of teaching and research excellence at the University of Calgary is the Killam Annual Professorship — an honour awarded to faculty members for outstanding teaching, mentoring and research activities, but also for contributions to the larger community. This week, UToday celebrates the real-world impact of these Killam professors on solving global challenges such as improving treatments for stroke and kidney disease, developing innovative building materials, exploring new ways to think about science, and understanding the cultural significance of comic books. The five-part series begins today with look at how flunking out helped Bart Beaty find his passion for pop culture scholarship.

Bart Beaty first determined he wanted to become a professor right around the time he was “tossed out” of university. He looks back on this and laughs now.

“Western University just wasn’t a good fit for me,” explains the noted comic book/pop culture scholar, a former head of the University of Calgary’s Department of English. Beaty recalls he had yet to find his academic focus at Western and he felt out of step with his business-oriented classmates. “I was put on academic probation and, basically, I flunked out,” he says.

Luckily, he saw a light on the horizon at Carleton University’s film studies program, the perfect place for Beaty’s pop culture-consumed intellect. There he thrived, keeping up the momentum as he went on to complete his PhD in communications at McGill University, where his groundbreaking thesis on the cultural backlash against comic books gave rise to what would become Beaty’s greatest area of academic focus.

A long way from the grim days of expulsion

Today, Beaty is recognized as an international authority in comics studies, a burgeoning field that he has helped to pioneer as the author, editor and translator of 16 books. This is one of the many reasons that he now finds himself receiving the prestigious Killam Annual Professorship Award.

Supported by the Killam Trust, Killam professors are selected for demonstrating excellence in research and teaching, while serving their community outside the university. Beaty is one of five University of Calgary faculty members to be named Killam professors for 2016. The other recipients are: Brenda Hemmelgarn and Andrew Demchuk, both in the Cumming School of Medicine, Raafat El-Hacha, Schulich School of Engineering, and Barry Sanders, Faculty of Science.

“The University of Calgary Killam professors are transforming the lives of our students and shaping our community,” notes Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president (academic). “In recognition of their dedication to teaching, research and service, the Killam Trust professors stand out as exemplars of the incomparable value of academic mentorship within an environment of research excellence.”

Since coming to the University of Calgary in 2000, Beaty has excelled in all of these areas.

Academic convenor of mammoth Congress 2016 

Most recently, he fulfilled the community obligations of a Killam professor with the mammoth undertaking that was the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted by the University of Calgary from May 28 to June 3 as a hallmark of its 50th Anniversary celebrations. As academic convenor of the 2016 Congress  which saw over 8,000 scholars from around the world descend on campus to present, debate and learn  Beaty was responsible for overseeing programming and supervising the team that provided logistics support for the event. The community outreach was outstanding, with more than 130 free lectures, performances and presentations offered to the public during the week, some of them shattering Congress attendance records for the 85-year annual event.

But Beaty’s community service is not limited to such mega-events. He’s rarely too busy to give time, advice and encouragement to everyone from students to fledgling junior comic creators like Jane McNeil, a 13-year-old artist who posts her own cartoons online.

Jane’s mother approached Beaty last year after hearing him being interviewed about his book Twelve-Cent Archie (a critical study of Archie Comics in the 1960s) on CBC Radio. She wondered if he might have any wisdom to impart to her comic-creating daughter. She knew it was perhaps a long shot that the busy professor and author (then knee-deep in Congress preparations) would be able to make the time.

Beaty gave a generous part of his afternoon to MacNeil. “He didn’t treat me like a kid,” she recalls. “I just wanted to get into his head and hear his opinions on how comics work, anything I could use to improve my skills of how to make a good comic. He acted like a mentor, happy to share this knowledge.”

Well known for bringing passion to the classroom

This commitment to mentorship certainly extends to his students. The three postdoctoral fellows Beaty has supervised, including the acclaimed, rising star graphic novelist Nick Sousanis, have all gone on to achieve tenure track positions in other universities. As well, Beaty has made them co-investigators on his projects and he’s helped them secure research funding. He currently holds two different Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants in which his former postdocs are co-investigators.

Beaty is well known and loved for the passion he brings to the classroom. His comic book class is consistently the highest enrolment undergraduate course in the Department of English, consistently hitting its 150-student cap.

“I get the sense that … he sees every one of us, no matter where we’re at in our studies, as potential colleagues in the making,” says Jonathan Chau, a first-year MA student.

Beaty confirms this assessment. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” he says. “When I meet students I want to know if I can bring them in on the various projects I’m working on.” Indeed, he anticipates having contributions from a dozen or more students, including undergraduates, for his next project on the history of the comic book format, in which he will be analyzing over 5,000 comic books.

Beaty prides himself on trying to mould his classes, playing to the individual strengths of his students. A business major taking a class on comics for a necessary humanities credit, for example, may not have the essay skills of a typical English student. Rather than assigning that student an essay, Beaty might allow him or her to draw on their own skills, perhaps doing a project on the business end of the comics industry.

'Let's see what we can all bring to the table'

“That’s where our English majors might get stuck, but an economist might say ‘I know what we’re looking for here. Let’s set up the spread sheet and figure this out,’” says Beaty. “I like asking my students questions that I don’t necessarily know the answer to.”

He adds, “I don’t see myself as a traditional humanities scholar. Truly, research is an act of discovery and I see the classroom as a lab-based space, ideally, where everybody  postdocs and undergraduates alike  will be discussing a project and figuring out how we can work together. Let’s see what we can all bring to the table.”

Despite his love of collaborative research, however, Beaty is also driven by an intense competitive streak. “At the end of my career, I want them to say he was the greatest comic book scholar that ever lived,” he says. “Maybe somebody will come along, work harder than me, and beat me  and that’s fine. But I think you need to pick something and say ‘I want to be the best at this.’ And that’s always a defining goal for me.”

The University of Calgary is proud to be one of only five universities in Canada supported by the Killam Trusts. Established in 1965 by Izaak Walton Killam and his wife Dorothy J. Killam, the Killam Trusts fund scholarships at the graduate and postgraduate levels. These are among Canada's most prestigious awards for lifetime achievement in Health Sciences, Natural Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences and Humanities.

The pressures of our rapidly growing global population are driving unprecedented changes in our social, political, cultural and natural systems. The University of Calgary’s Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy is addressing our need to understand how we adapt to rapid change, to ensure our security and quality of life.