Magic and conjuring arts come to Canadian university

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OTTAWA, Ont. – Carleton University has announced that it is seeking an appropriate candidate to be the inaugural holder of the newly created Allan Slaight Chair for the Study of the Conjuring Arts. It will become part of the faculty of arts and social sciences.

The university campus is located in Canada’s capitol city, Ottawa, alongside the picturesque Rideau River and historic Rideau Canal. It is also a short distance from Parliament Hill, the epicenter of Canadian federal government.

Carleton University [Wikimedia Commons].

Founded in 1942, Carleton’s standout programs include public affairs and policy management, sustainable and renewable energy engineering, and health sciences. More than 29,000 full and part-time students participate in undergraduate and graduate programs.

When news of this job posting hit social media, it caused a stir within Pagan, Heathen and Witchcraft communities. Some readers wondered if their experience as practitioners of Pagan spirituality would qualify them for the job, some speculated about how magic will be studied at the university level and others rolled their eyes at the Harry Potter references in the mainstream press announcements.

It is the nebulous use of the terms “conjuring arts” and “magic “ in the title for this position that has some interested people wondering.

The new chair was made possible by a $2 million leadership gift from the Slaight Family Foundation, and is being matched by the university. It is being named after philanthropist and family patriarch Allan Slaight, who made his fortune as a Canadian media magnate.

Slaight began his successful career as an on-air personality at a small radio station in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and went on to own 53 radio and two television stations, which he sold in 2007 for $800 million.

Alongside the traditional style of philanthropic endeavors such as donating millions of dollars to hospitals and cancer research, the Slaight Family Foundation, recognizing Allan Slaight’s lifelong interest in music, has also made notable donations in support of journalism, the National Ballet of Canada, and a long list of artistic and humanitarian causes.

Allan Slaight [courtesy].

It is Slaight’s passion for stage magic that has prompted the establishment of the new chair at Carleton.

At the age of eight, Slaight became fascinated with the tricks and illusions of stage magicians, after seeing the legendary children’s magician Johnny Giordmaine performing behind his magic counter in the toy department of the Eaton’s store in Toronto.

In the 1940s, as a teenager, Slaight toured the country as a mind reader named “Will Powers.” He later changed his act to a magic show under the name “Slaight & Co.”

Even after building his career in media and broadcasting, Slaight maintained a keen interest in magic, and wrote often for stage magic publications. He also wrote The James File, a sprawling multi-volume set, reputed to be the largest work ever published on stage magic. It is based on the work of the highly skilled Canadian magician and illusion innovator, Stewart James.

Now in his eighties, Slaight is still enthusiastic about practicing stage magic. He co-hosts an exclusive annual invite-only conference called 31 Faces North, which features some of the world’s top magicians. His family foundation also sponsors the Allan Slaight Awards. These awards recognize excellence in magic, and nominations for work completed in 2017 are open until March 15, 2018.

The scope of what will be included in “the study of conjuring arts” is very broad, and details are vague. In a press release, topics considered to be related to conjuring arts cover a lot of territory including “the history of warfare, the use of political persuasion, neuroscience and psychology to the study of literary genres and devices, mathematics and game design.”

In the posting for the position, the university states that it is looking for a candidate who can “develop a new interdisciplinary academic programme and centre for multidisciplinary approaches to the study of magic and the conjuring arts.”

Nowhere in the job posting or media release for this program is magic as a religious or spiritual practice mentioned; it is instead linked to illusion, perception and deception. Magicians are cited as being among history’s greatest performers and influences.

During an interview with CTV Morning Live, Carleton University president Alistair Summerlee stated: “The serious side of this is that what we’re going to be asking somebody to do, is to use magic as an entree into the world of perception and deception, and that’s the piece that for me, I find really exciting because when you think about it, there isn’t anything that doesn’t involve the idea of deception and how on earth does that happen? How do people get taken in? So for me, this is a really exciting opportunity.”

There will be three main areas of responsibility for the new chair. The first will be to take the lead in developing Carleton’s position as a unique international resource for collections and artifacts related to magic. The university’s archives and research collection already holds a copy of Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, signed by Harry Houdini, and also the Art Latcham Memorial Magic Collection, comprised of 300 books, magazines, and ephemera related to illusion, sleight of hand, and related subjects.

The chair will also need to take the lead on research into perception and deception in a wide range of fields, such as science, politics, communication and media.

The third core responsibility will be for the chair to develop courses for the program, including such subjects as the history of magic, the history of performance and aspects of perception and deception.

The position has been posted since late February. An interdisciplinary search committee featuring faculty members from history, music, psychology, and film studies, among others, are working with an international search firm to find an ideal candidate to fill this unusual role.

Applications are being assessed as they are received, and will continue to be accepted until a successful candidate is found. Summerlee expects that the first chair for the Study of the Conjuring Arts should be in place by the summer of 2018.