The Desert Leaf — October 2015
Change Language:
A Confluence Of Creativity Inquiry
Craig Baker

In the midst of the tall buildings, expansive lawns, 56,000-plus seat Arizona Stadium, and multimillion-dollar renovations underway at the University of Arizona, some of the biggest ideas coming out of the institution today are finding support from a most unlikely location: a tiny remodeled bungalow on Helen Street. The edifice is home to a small but spirited research incubator known as the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry (CCI), and though meager in size, its effect on university culture and research activities is not to be overlooked.

When the Great Recession hit, near the end of 2008, it shook our national economy. (Former chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke later said that the 2008 crisis was worse than the Great Depression launched by the stock market crash of 1929.) Naturally, officials at academic institutions across the country—the University of Arizona included—were bracing for the inevitable aftershock. It was out of this environment in the spring of 2009 that then–University of Arizona Provost Meredith Hay gathered a group of professors from the schools of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social and Behavioral Sciences and told them to “do something big,” recalls Arizona Regents’ Professor Emerita of Music Dr. Paula Ya-Mei Fan, who became the first senior fellow at CCI.

In an academic climate that seemed to provide innumerably more funding opportunities for projects that fell under the umbrella of S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), those working in the so-called soft sciences were well aware of the increasing pressure to find additional sources of money in a financially challenging atmosphere. And though it hadn’t yet managed to craft the most publicity-friendly of monikers, the Provost’s Strategic Advisory Council on Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences awarded its first eight interdisciplinary faculty grants to professors from the three schools of focus, in the fall of 2009.

By the following spring, word about the new collaborative group and the available grant money had spread, and when the provost’s council put together a day-long workshop to plan the forthcoming Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Institute that would be the final result of the previous year of discussion and debate, more than 100 faculty members showed up to participate.

The council spent a summer scrutinizing the fruits of that workshop and came up with a proposal for something called “Confluence: A Center for Creative Inquiry,” which was later shortened to Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry. Even the name of the center itself—from the Latin confluere, meaning “to flow together”—evolved to represent the group’s larger mission, to help problem-solve for humanity by encouraging open interdisciplinary dialogue.

Before it obtained its current space on Helen Street—which by UA standards is at least a decorative water fountain and a full story short of what others on campus might label as “modest”—CCI was operating out of Executive Director Javier Duran’s minuscule office in the Modern Languages building. Duran says, although CCI is not unique in its establishment as a humanities institute, he thinks it was the first of its kind to include both the fine arts and social sciences in its mission. He adds that the university’s commitment to the project, especially in a time of particularly tight budgets, “was a very strong signal … to the people in these areas that their work was being valued, that their future was being taken into account, and that CCI was worth investing in.” According to Duran, this assurance created somewhat of an environment of optimism among faculty of the arts and liberal sciences, which led to a number of interactions and advancements that might otherwise not have been possible. “It’s hard to solve a problem if you’re only looking at it from one perspective,” he says.

Associate Professor Bryan Carter of UA’s Africana Studies Department Program and Professor Kelland Thomas of the schools of Music and of Information were recent recipients of a $15,000 faculty grant from CCI to continue working on a virtual reality project, Virtual Harlem—.a virtual representation of Harlem, New York, as it existed during the 1920s Jazz Age. “I think faculty members really are wanting to explore the outer reaches of their traditional research, because we’re in nontraditional times,” says Carter. “It enhances what you do when you can think outside of your traditional disciplinary area of expertise and look at all the ways that additional fields may inform what you do, in different and more creative ways.”

With the grant from CCI, Carter hopes to put the elements of his virtual world in their accurate geographic locations for the first time in the project’s history, and this most recent advancement has earned the project attention from both The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Atlantic.

Since its official inception in 2010, CCI has given out more than $2.1 million to more than 200 different projects across the UA campus. Its Contemplative Traditions Working Group was responsible for the introduction of a Buddhist studies minor at UA that begins enrollment this fall, as well as a lecture series that brought notable experts like Buddhist scholar Bill “Red Pine” Porter and famed sports psychologist and meditation expert George Mumford to campus last year.

This year’s awards include, among others, grants for the “Barrio Stories Project,” which, in collaboration with local Borderlands Theater, aims to document and theatrically interpret the history of Barrio Libre (the historic neighborhood that was demolished for the construction of the Tucson Convention Center); “Border Cowboys,” which will record U.S./Mexico borderland ranching history; and the fall launch of a website connecting a global network of human rights experts and activists called “Global Human Rights Direct.”

In addition to supporting the undersupported arts and sciences, CCI has also tasked itself with serving as an interface between the university and the greater public. Jamie Manser has worked for the last 15 years with entities like Zócalo Magazine, the Downtown Tucson Partnership, and Second Saturdays; she now serves as CCI’s communications and events coordinator. Manser says that among some of her contacts in the downtown community there is a “perception of stuffiness or elitism” regarding the UA. She adds that CCI’s public-centered events such as the monthly Show & Tell at the Playground Bar & Lounge—held on one Monday each month—help break down that impression, “because people don’t want to be lectured to,” Manser explains. This month’s presentation, “The Arizona Earworm Project,” takes place on October 7.

Moving into its fifth year, CCI is facing challenges like those facing similar centers, with “funding being key to [its] survival,” says Fan. And with the monies provided by the UA set to run out in the next few years, CCI will have to get creative in finding ways to keep itself financed. Duran points out that, unlike the colleges CCI represents, for instance, the center has no alumni to call upon for Moving into its fifth year, CCI is facing challenges like those facing similar centers, with “funding being key to [its] survival,” says Fan. And with the monies provided by the UA set to run out in the next few years, CCI will have to get creative in finding ways to keep itself financed. Duran points out that, unlike the colleges CCI represents, for instance, the center has no alumni to call upon for those all-important donations, a situation that could present a unique set of challenges for CCI.

“We’re not going back to the time when the state of Arizona was giving the University of Arizona 40 to 50 percent of its budget,” says Duran. “That time is gone. So in order to sustain excellence, in order to sustain accessibility, in order to sustain opportunities, it’s become important for the faculty to become active agents of change.”

And, for many of them, that change starts with a step outside their comfort zones in the quest for inspiration.

More information on CCI and a schedule of its upcoming events can be found online at

Craig Baker is a local freelance writer. Comments for publication should be addressed to

Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry Events

In meeting its mission to create boundless possibilities for excellence through innovation, collaboration, and community engagement, the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry offers the following activities for the public this fall and winter.

Show & Tell @ Playground: A multimedia learning experience with UA faculty and affiliates. Admission: Free. Location: Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St.

Contact: (520) 621-4587,,

Wednesday, Oct. 7, 6–7:30 p.m., “Can’t Get You Out of My Head!”

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head that won’t go away? That’s an “earworm,” or “involuntary musical imagery.” Over 90 percent of people experience earworms weekly; many experience them several times each day. Why do earworms happen? Why are they an ideal subject for scholarly examination and documentation? Learn about the Arizona Ear Worm Project, with UA professor of music theory Don Traut; Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences professor Andrew Lotto; and Dan Kruse, an ethnomusicologist and graduate of the UA School of Music.

Thursday, Nov. 12, 6–7:30 p.m., “Don’t Buy, Share!”

The sharing economy is a rapidly growing and disruptive force within the retail sector, with global revenues predicted to be well over $300 billion by 2025. That’s not surprising when you consider 76 percent of Americans think sharing saves money, 72 percent think sharing builds relationships, and 64 percent think sharing lowers environmental impact. So how can you, as a consumer and community member, start sharing instead of buying? Learn about the Sharing Tribes app and related research by Professor Anita Bhappu of the UA’s Retailing and Consumer Sciences Program.

Wednesday, Dec. 2, (time TBA), “Playground Games”

In cooperation with other UA units, Confluencenter hosts a live game show– like event—think speed dating meets Shark Tank, but with an academic spin— on the roof of downtown’s Playground Bar & Lounge. Four teams compete to win one of two grants designed to facilitate interdisciplinary research among professors in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and other communities across campus.