Ice cubes clink. Booze flows. Happy hour is in full swing at a downtown nightclub where locals can sample a smorgasbord of ideas served up by University of Arizona professors.

On a wall behind a dimly lit bar, video footage of America's first famous sex-change recipient, 1950s icon Christine Jorgensen, casts a glow over the crowd amid the thump of electronica music.

Tucsonan Garey Bussey is focused on UA's Susan Stryker, director of the Institute for LGBT Studies, who's giving patrons at Playground Bar & Lounge a preview of her latest film project.

"I think it's very cool that they're showing this type of film," says Bussey, 27, nursing a pint of India pale ale.

"They seem to touch on topics you generally don't hear about. They're not afraid to step outside the boundaries of ordinary discussion."

That's the whole point, says Javier Duran, director of UA's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, a project that aims to expand minds both within and outside academe.

Why hold university events at a nightclub?

"The idea is really to engage the community," said Duran, a professor of Spanish and border studies.

"We're offering opportunities for scholarship to be discussed in different places in a relaxed way, to promote a culture of access to knowledge and ideas."

The center doesn't hold all its events in nightclubs.

Many are held on campus, and one lofty session entitled "Culture, Symbolism and What it Means to be Human" recently took place at the elegant Arizona Inn.

But once a month, scholars, students and members of the public belly up to the bar at 278 E. Congress St. for multimedia events billed as "Show and Tell @ Playground."

In December, they discussed the cultural significance of lowrider vehicles, complete with a car show in the nightclub's parking lot. It was hosted by a UA professor of Spanish who has written a book on the topic.

Next month the event will feature clips from a recent documentary on Tucson's historic El Casino Ballroom.

The nightclub events typically draw between 50 and 100 people, said Yvonne Ervin, the center's development director.

The center was created in 2010. Duran said the impetus was the realization that UA lacked a humanities institute, a common feature at many other universities.

In addition to holding public outreach events, the center works internally at the UA to promote collaboration between the colleges of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The center has a tiny office on campus, a handful of personnel and a $600,000 budget, about half of which is used to fund peer-evaluated research projects.

Some who show up for nightclub events are UA alumni, like Meli Engel, who earned a master's degree in higher education administration in 2006.

"I like the concept and I support what they're trying to achieve," said Engel, who attended this week's screening of the Jorgensen film.

Others, like Bussey, have no UA ties. They stop in for happy hour and end up staying to hear the professors.

"They're making knowledge accessible to people outside the university," said Bussey, who works in construction and technology.

"To me that's a very happening thing."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at or at 573-4138.

On StarNet: See more photos at

If you go

Go to to see a list of events held on and off campus by UA's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.

They seem to touch on topics you generally don't hear about. They're not afraid to step outside the boundaries of ordinary discussion.

Garey Bussey, on UA's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry