School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Reimagining cultural diplomacy – Meet Ben Schnitzer

PhD candidate in Cultural Studies 

by Phil Gaudreau, April 2020

Amy Cleaver

When you hear the term ‘cultural diplomacy’, your mind may conjure up pictures of finely dressed diplomats and businesspeople meeting up at the ballet or a fancy gala.

Ben Schnitzer would have agreed with you prior to starting his doctorate in Cultural Studies.

“Government has a place in cultural diplomacy but we’re all diplomats…we need the skills to effectively communicate with one another to help navigate cultural complexity and political polarization” he says. “Cultural diplomacy has a lot to do with using cultural encounters to relate to each other, to listen, take in new perspectives, cultivate empathy, and raise awareness of power dynamics.”

Ben’s path to Queen’s began with his background as an opera singer. To help pay the bills, the Winnipeg native took a Master of Public Service and got a job with the federal Department of Canadian Heritage working on cultural policy. As his career progressed, Ben became interested in learning more about the forces that have shaped cultural policy in Canada with the aim to better understand longstanding tensions.

“From my time working for the government, I had questions about why policy was being developed the way it was.” Through his now-husband, a Queen’s professor, Ben learned about the Cultural Studies program. It seemed like the ideal place to continue his studies. “Cultural studies goes to the heart of why policy is the way it is,” Ben noted. “It offers the flexibility and freedom to be critical of the structures and forces that have shaped Canadian cultural policy and international relations.”

He began his doctorate three years ago and, in that time, Ben has been able to explore that ‘why’ from several different perspectives, notably as a member of the Queen’s-based North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative (NACDI), a research community led by his doctoral co-supervisor Dr. Lynda Jessup. NACDI links academics, policymakers and practitioners from North America and beyond to advance cultural diplomacy as a critical practice. 

Through NACDI, Ben has connected with scholars and artists from around the world, organized events and contributed to a report on cultural diplomacy commissioned by Canadian Heritage.

In 2019, Ben also participated in a Mitacs-supported internship at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in where he learned more about the roles museums play in cultural diplomacy.

“They have connections with other museums, which make them able to able to navigate quickly within their networks and create opportunities between countries and peoples,” he says. “They can also provide space for meaningful and potentially transformative dialogue between different groups.”

Ben’s research also spans other areas where he can draw on his experience as a musician to contribute to policy development. He is currently a Research Assistant on a SSHRC-funded research study led by Dr. Julia Brook and Dr. Colleen Renihan at the Dan School of Drama and Music that looks at how music schools prepare students for the world of work in culture–a pertinent topic for Ben as he considers what he will do following his doctorate.

“I am learning a set of skills in my PhD which can be applied to contexts outside of academia,” he says. “I can see how the research, analytical, and critical thinking skills will be helpful.”

He has developed a taste for teaching through the opportunity to teach a course on Canadian cultural policy at the School of Policy Studies. The teaching allowed Ben to bring both his professional and research experience to bear on an issue he is passionate about.

Outside of the classroom, Ben is continuing his singing locally. He recently performed as part of a Queen’s faculty artists’ series at the Isabel Bader Centre, and continues to lay down roots and build community in Kingston.

“In a world where you’re constantly stimulated, Kingston provides a quieter place that offers the time and space to reflect,” he says. “I can go down to the Isabel, look at the water, think about my research, and go for a walk all while remaining close to home. To be able to do that in a place with high quality researchers is the perfect combination.”

Learn more about the PhD in Cultural Studies program.