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Sally Hickson and the fly on Mike Pence’s head

When the School of Fine and Art and Music’s Sally Hickson posted on social media about the role flies play in art, on the occasion of a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head during the US vice-presidential debate, I immediately leapt in to ask if she’d consider writing something for The Conversation. What’s The Conversation, she asked. I explained and she said, sure.

Now a week later, I open my inbox to find an email from Scott White, of The Conversation Canada.

He writes, “While millions across North America tuned in to last week’s vice-presidential debate via traditional TV or online streaming, my oldest daughter was in a remote part of northern Ontario and only had access to satellite radio. So she heard the debate, but she didn’t see it. And that’s why I texted her when that fly landed – and stayed and stayed and stayed – on Mike Pence’s hair. She’s also a journalist and so we both knew the fly would probably get more attention than the issues discussed between Pence and Kamala Harris. (Saturday Night Live proved our point.) News outlets everywhere made reference to the incident. But no one – and I mean no one – had the same idea as Sally Hickson. She’s an art historian at the University of Guelph and she quickly pitched us a unique story. “Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art,” she wrote. “When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.” Her wonderful story explained how flies have “long held symbolic meaning in the history of art.” From Renaissance portraits to surrealist Salvador Dalí, flies have made appearances in art for centuries. Prof. Hickson worked with our Arts Editor Susannah Schmidt to pull the story together quickly and our readers loved it – more than one million views within the first 36 hours of its publication. If you haven’t read it yet, I would encourage you to do so.”

‘Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family,’ c. 1470, by an artist from the German (Swabian) School. (Wikimedia Commons)CC BY

I just checked now and Sally’s piece has been viewed 1,229,608 times.

In these strange times I know serious academic writing and research can be hard. The pandemic is stressful and I’m having a hard time focusing on my own work. Our teaching is also more time consuming and we’re working to help our students who are struggling themselves. There is a lot going on and we’re all busier than usual.

Writing for a public audience can be fun and rewarding. It’s certainly less stressful than most academic writing. How often do you get to go from posting an idea on Facebook to publication in a couple of days? How many things have you written that have more than a million views. I’m not suggesting it here to add one more thing to anyone’s to-do list. But for some of us, this kind of writing can be pleasurable. If that’s you, consider pitching your ideas to The Conversation. Sandra Sabatini, our research and communications manager, is happy to help faculty members draft pitches.

It’s great for the College of Arts to get our research out there and let people know that the University of Guelph improves life not just through animal health and agriculture (though we do that very well) but also through History, Art, Philosophy, Languages, Theatre, and Music.

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