06:24:15 pm on
Tuesday 20 Nov 2018

A BA in Conjuring Arts
David Simmonds

The advertisement was nestled in the business section of the paper. That’s where you find the usual dull ads announcing open positions for professors of business studies and deans of dentistry. This one, which caught my eye, invited applications for the “Allan Slaight Chair for the Study of the Conjuring Arts” at Carleton University.


Earn a degree in Conjuring Arts from a major university.

You bet ya! A quick search, of Carleton University website, located the press release to confirm the job offer was real. Perhaps anticipating some heat, the University has come out with its dukes up. The conjuring arts, the University insists, is a “respected and growing academic area of study.”

 According to the University, the position represents a “ground breaking and exciting opportunity to develop a new interdisciplinary academic programme.” Related fields include psychology, history, literature, communication, religious studies and theatre. Research topics range from the history of warfare, the use of political persuasion, neuroscience and psychology to the study of literary genres and devices, mathematics and game design. That’s quite a plateful that Sociology was wise to dodge.

You are a candidate for the chair if you have a PhD and a strong teaching or research record as well as having taken an interdisciplinary and innovative approach in your work. If you get the position, you will have some spending money for research, travel, visiting scholars, conferences and student support. In return, the University will expect you to put Carleton “at the forefront of this dynamic area of education and research” and to go out and tout the university as a “unique international resource for collections and artifacts related to magic.” Anthropology, of course, already does this in a way.

The man behind the chair is retired Canadian broadcasting executive Allan Slaight. He has put up $2 million and the university has matched it. His Foundation has also donated over 1,600 texts on deception to the university.


Carleton University received an incomplete collection from Allan Slaight.

The university didn’t get everything in the Slaight collection. The Foundation donated a collection of rare magic posters and Houdini ephemera to the McCord Museum, in Montreal, which is fitting, considering Houdini’s fatal connection to that city.

Slaight became hooked on magic as a child. He has been a practising magician since he was a teenager. He has written on magic. He hosts an annual conference for magicians. His Foundation has also contributed $250,000 to support awards for excellence in magic. Slaight and the Foundation have a record of generous philanthropy that includes donating $18,000 to refurbish a piano belonging to Fats Domino, which Hurricane Katrina damaged.

Who might be both qualified for this challenge of a position to Study the Conjuring Arts. She is bound to be a somewhat unconventional person, as the essence of conjuring is deception, which, on its own, embraces a number of unconventional ways to make a living. She must also have the flair to pull off the ambassadorial part of the job.

Yet, the successful candidate must possess sufficient discipline to have earned a doctorate and demonstrated enough academic rigour to mollify those who, perhaps with a little envy, might sniff that the conjuring arts are not exactly science. The only potential candidate who comes to mind is Robertson Davies, the author of “Fifth Business” and founding master of Massey College, at the University of Toronto. Unfortunately, he has long since shuffled off this mortal coil and no amount of deception is going to bring him back, unless the search committee wants to dabble in séances with the spirit world, in which case it would really have a hard time defending the appointment.

There are two issues, with this offering, that worry me. First, the advertisement doesn’t offer any assurance the programme will run in compliance with the code for magicians. That code says magicians don’t reveal the secrets behind their tricks to the world and put other magicians out of work. Secrets pass only to the extent necessary to keep it alive and then only to trustworthy associates that have sworn to keep the faith. It would be a shame to think that academics were poking their noses into things we would really rather not know. Yet, if they don’t tackle the mysteries of deception head on, aren’t they just nibbling round the edges of their subject?

Second, how will a candidate go about satisfying the committee he or she is familiar with the conjuring arts? Is she or he be expected to perform some act of prestidigitation, such attempting to saw the secretary of the search committee in half; letting pigeons escape from his briefcase or removing the contents of the wallets of committee member wallets, which is what they do at student registration.


Do you believe in magic?

Good luck to Carleton University. By the time this search ends, you’ll no doubt be wishing you had been looking not for a chair in the conjuring arts, but a dean of dentistry. This is true, unless the members of the search committee have a magical touch.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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