Congress 2012: Where Do the Big Thoughts Leave Us?

From May 26th to June 2nd, 2012, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo hosted the Congress, Canada’s largest gathering of humanities and social sciences academics, organized annually by the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS). The theme of the conference was “Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World.” In addition to dozens of academic associations, each holding their own sessions, a series of “Big Thinking” lectures related to the overarching theme was open to all delegates as well as the general public. While these talks could have been better advertised as free to the public (especially given an emergent emphasis on community engagement throughout the week), there were signs that Congress 2012 had rightly perceived the significance of social media and new technologies in a changing communications landscape. Consequently, Congress organizers were both live streaming and live tweeting the public lectures, which are now posted on YouTube (we have linked the names of speakers below to their videos).

'Big Ideas' Margaret Atwood lecture, May 29, 2012 (Photo: Alexandra Epp)

Janine Brodie’s talk on “Social Literacy and Social Justice in Times of Crisis” provided a thoughtful framework for the overarching Congress theme by saying that scholarship for an uncertain world is charged with both giving meaning to the overlapping crises we face and pointing the way to a more equitable and sustainable future. The attitude of today’s society, she suggested, is that social and humanistic disciplines are momentarily tolerated, but viewed as ultimately expendable.  It would seem, then, an appropriate response to negative public perceptions of these fields, and higher education in general, would be to engage—to articulate diverse perspectives and ways of knowing (as well as the importance of rigorous scholarship) in public forums and to enter the public discussion about the most pressing crises we collectively confront, be they environmental, social, ethical, cultural, or technological. Congress 2012 has not provided all the answers regarding how to conduct scholarship that can sustain the public value and mission of higher education—and certainly less so for advancing social justice (there was a disappointing lack of discussion about what is currently happening in Quebec)— but it did start to generate some important questions. And it has most certainly challenged humanities and social science scholars to participate in the beginning dialogue about the future of their disciplines, the university, and the world.

Canada’s Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnston, spoke about democratizing education for the benefit of society. He emphasized that in a democratic society people need to know enough to govern themselves. However, his talk did not touch on the issue of higher education’s growing financial inaccessibility, a particular topic deserving of consideration given the ongoing Quebec student strike. Instead, the Governor General spoke of the engagement of academia with the not-for-profit sector. He laid out a challenge to the audience to connect research, teaching, and service to the community, thereby embracing the potential for universities and colleges to become forces for democratizing broader society. In the follow-up panel discussion, Reeta Tremblay spoke about the co-construction of knowledge with community partners through reciprocal exchange—however, it was this structure of reciprocity that Mary Eberts later suggested was incompatible with the current institutional formation of the university.

Eberts began by proposing a definition of citizenship for the academic context—one in which academics work toward ensuring that everyone has the knowledge and skills to understand and engage with the main pillars of our society—which resonated with David Johnston’s vision of a democratic society. However, Eberts’ exhortation of the professoriate to assume their civic responsibilities included a strong critique of the institutional barriers that prevent professors from doing so. She argued that the funding structure of higher education encourages quietism, rather than civic and political engagement (which for those individuals with real civic commitments may mean walking away from university). Sidonie Smith also presented a case for institutional reform by critiquing institutional standards for doctoral education in the humanities—particularly the thesis-as-monograph component—and suggested alternatives intended to stimulate and encourage a younger generation of scholars to engage in collaborative work and speak to multiple audiences inside and outside of the academy. Ebert’s critique of the university was firmly directed at systemic factors rather than individuals, whose actions could be explained by the “professionalize or perish” mentality that decades of narrowing institutional policies and practices have promoted at the expense of other community-oriented or pedagogical innovations. Eberts explained how professors in the current institutional environment can only ensure their own career success by being “the least objectionable to the most people.” Community engagement or outspoken political beliefs are, unfortunately, often objectionable to funding panels, said Eberts, and most young academics do not have time to be engaged in their communities because applying for grants is such a time-consuming process. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada(SSHRC)—the primary funder of research in these disciplines—drew many of Eberts’ criticisms, though this national funding body must itself deal with invisible cutbacks to its core budget in the proposed 2012 federal budget, which also mandates priority funding areas that may eventually siphon off public dollars from universities toward for-profit private industry research initiatives. The emerging funding environment (imposed without broad consultation by the current government) conveys an idea of the harsh future landscape that will be navigated by Canadian universities over the next years and decades. Combining these new developments with Eberts’ overview of the typically detrimental impacts of funding systems on academics and we were left with an image of a bleak, yet plausible, reality: higher education’s most intelligent and capable people stepping back from the community as voiceless, apolitical citizens.

The issue of the public role of academics and universities raised by Eberts resurfaced again in a panel discussion focused on imagining Canada’s future. Don Tapscott, Dan Gardner and Diana Carney each offered their opinions about what Canada might look like in thirty years into the future. Don Tapscott spoke about digital culture, something he expanded on in his keynote address on “Macrowikinomics.” The Internet is a technology that we have not yet fully tapped into, but one that could be a platform for change through collaborative networking—wikis, Twitter, and other social media. Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and Tapscott both pointed to the need to change institutional paradigms rather than work within them. Gaffield boldly stated that Canada’s current education systems fly in the face of human beings’ preferred modes of learning. Key among the panel’s recommendations was moving toward more openness, transparency, and knowledge-sharing, along with the development and institutionalization of collaborative learning processes. An alleged resistance to change within academe, given the broad technological and societal shifts outlined by Tapscott and others, may ultimately require institutional and cultural transformation in order to be resolved. A source of hope for Tapscott was the reality that globally we have reached “a turning point in human history” where technology has made it possible for individuals to intervene effectively, organize in collectives, and substantially alter the course of human history in ways unpredecented and unknown to previous generations. Indeed, the growing complexity of the global problems we face as a species—also addressed by Thomas Homer-Dixon—will require nothing less than the development of multistakeholder networks that are robust and resilient enough to “fail safely” as they experiment with new ideas and forms of social innovation. Self-isolation and naval-gazing among institutions of higher education will ensure their future irrelevance, when in fact they are faced with an unparalleled opportunity to be dynamically involved in shaping an emergent global reality.

Chris Hedges, Congress 2012, Waterloo, Ontario (Photo: Alex Epp)

Renowned journalist Chris Hedges, like Eberts,also issued a call to action for his audience. He outlined the ways in which the neoliberal state has destroyed the liberal class over the last four decades of neoliberalism’s ascendancy, and offered some insights into the movements opposing the neoliberal stranglehold on democratic institutions. Hedges encouraged the audience to get out in the streets with Quebec solidarity movements, Occupy movements, and more. He offered no predictions, for social movements like Occupy are complex systems that are not predetermined or predictable, but cautioned demonstrators to stay peaceful. Possibly not lost on those listening to Hedges were the circumstances of the day just preceding his talk, when solidarity marches for the Quebec student strike took place across Canada—in Kitchener-Waterloo there was a turnout of roughly 200 people. A handful of academics stood up and expressed their support at the demonstration, but most of the people present were local residents. Despite a week-long emphasis on engaged citizenship in the academy, an opportunity for Congress delegates to make a public statement about how those working in humanities and social sciences feel about the issues raised by the Quebec strike was passed by. Surely, the fact that so very few of the more than 7,000 Congress delegates were present at this demonstration underscores the need for public intellectuals like Eberts and Hedges to issue remonstrances to disengaged administrators, academics, and institutions. What else is needed to spur individuals and groups within the university toward collective action?

Quebec solidarity march, Waterloo, Ontario, May 30, 2012 (Photo: Alex Epp)

The calls to action expressed by the week’s eminent speakers were inspiring, but were also cut across by a number of tensions. All seemed to agree that the university, and the humanities and social sciences in particular, is facing a crisis of authority and legitimacy. Tensions surfaced in the discussions regarding the barriers that currently hinder civic engagement by university scholars. The important and privileged role that universities play in providing education and producing knowledge was acknowledged; however, speakers and audiences appeared divided over whether or not the responsibility for civic engagement should fall on the shoulders of faculty members, some of whom are already actively forging alliances with community partners and entering policy discussions, or if initiatives should be emerging from institutional and nation-wide processes (e.g., SSHRC’s direction of funding toward priority areas). Regarding the degree of change required from institutional processes, a question could be posed as to whether all that might be required is a slight adjustment on the part of higher education to move from inward-gazing to outward-perceiving and hearing, or if a larger transformation might be required? That is, it was unclear whether people felt that universities, apart from a handful of exceptional professors, currently possess the institutional capacity for effective community engagement at all? Rewarding those with desirable individual capacities might help promote a slow cultural change within the university, but what of the need for wholesale institutional reform?

Smith and Eberts both argued that overspecialization in one’s own discipline as a graduate student and junior faculty member is exacerbated by university’s own criteria of what makes a “good” academic (driven by and in turn reinforcing the exclusive pursuit of funding, tenure, and promotion). Such pressures limit the time faculty need to gain a general awareness of social trends and participate in civil society, especially as social justice advocates. In such circumstances, community engagement has been reduced to a form of voluntarism that not only draws away time for “legitimate” scholarly pursuits, but may also damage one’s prospects for success within the existing model of the university. Tapscott called for a renewal of leadership within the university, where he suggested many current leaders appear resistant to change. He suggested these leaders needed to be retrained, in order to “relearn how to learn from the learners.” Tapscott, like Hedges, was interested in how a younger generation of scholars and activists could play an important role in advancing institutional change, if given the opportunity to act as “reverse mentors” to those who have previously mentored them. Certainly, if engaged scholars of all ages (who now act from a sense of personal integrity and belief in the greater good) are notgiven such opportunities—along with the necessary institutional support, recognition, and resources—to educate students, faculty, and administrators, then the university will have a bleak future indeed. But, as Eberts importantly pointed out, there is little motivation for established scholars and institutional powerbrokers to divert the current course of the university by altering either the formula for what constitutes “success” or the managed funding environment which was responsible for promoting them to their current positions of power.

Quebec solidarity march, Waterloo, Ontario, May 30, 2012 (Photo: Alex Epp)

Somewhat ironically, the one stakeholder left out of the conversations about the future of the Canadian university was the public itself. Although public intellectuals such as Tapscott and Hedges undoubtedly serve as bridges between academe and larger public spheres, one might ask if Canadian universities’ historic lack of public accountability—despite being a system that relies on taxpayers’ dollars (and increasingly on student tuition) for the bulk of its funding—should and can be addressed by the institutions themselves, in the absence of public input? It is, after all, higher education’s “go it alone” attitude that might be best and most thoroughly reformed through asking the opinions of those who once entered its hallowed halls and then left. In the absence of a government-led, nation-wide strategy for higher education, such discussions could begin, for example, by engaging the Quebec students who walked off their campuses in order to reclaim meaningful democratic expression and have their voices heard in public spaces beyond the classroom.

Janine Brodie, at the end of her talk, left the audience to ponder a quotation from Northrop Frye: “The fundamental job of the social imagination is to produce out of the society we have to live in, a part of the society we want to live in.” How can a vision of democratic renewal be achieved if scholars of the social sciences and humanities refuse (because turning away cannot be attributed to ignorance) to engage with the issues that are currently happening? It seems that we can identify the problems and tensions very well, but we still fall gravely short of proposing and evaluating effective interventions. Don Tapscott summed this up brilliantly when he said “the future is not to be imagined, it is to be achieved.” Occupy, Quebec, the Arab Spring—these are achievements rooted in an acknowledgement of our individual and collective agency to make the future into one that we want, one which Canadian universities are just now beginning to imagine.

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By Alexandra Epp and Grace Pollock

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