This year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences will feature more speakers and panelists from the United States and Europe, as organizers seek to broaden the appeal of the event and attract more international delegates to Canada’s largest interdisciplinary academic conference. Some 70 academic associations hold their meetings during Congress, which will take place May 30 to June 5 at the University of Ottawa.
The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the organizer of the event, has scheduled symposia and keynote speeches designed to appeal to a broad audience, including one on climate change and another on children’s rights. It has lined up logistical and financial support from several embassies in Ottawa.
The changes reflect the fact that the problems facing Canadian society and the research questions that scholars are addressing are increasingly global in scope, said Antonia Maioni, political science professor at McGill University and federation president. “Our scholars are playing in a global landscape in terms of their research and in terms of the networks they are forming with research partners from around the world,” she said.
About 10 percent of delegates attending this year’s meeting are expected to be from outside Canada, up slightly from last year, according to Jean-Marc Mangin, the federation’s executive director. The organization wants to gradually boost that share to between 15 and 20 percent. “We are opening up Congress to a broader audience and breaking down silos between disciplines,” said Mr. Mangin.
That’s important because much of today’s research is interdisciplinary and collaborative, said Michael E. Sinatra, associate professor of English at Université de Montréal and co-president of the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities. Funding agencies worldwide, including Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, have introduced joint grant competitions that require international collaboration. “I think Congress has become a centre for these conversations,” providing an opportunity for scholars to network and to meet potential new research partners, said Dr. Sinatra.
For the first time, the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities and the U.S.-based Association for Computers and the Humanities will meet jointly at Congress. About 100 papers will be presented at the society’s three-day event, up from 60 last year. The federation is encouraging other Canadian academic associations to co-host meetings with their counterparts from other countries at Congress, as another way to increase international participation. Mr. Mangin said at least one major association is considering doing so but he declined to identify it, saying it’s likely several years down the road.
Some Canadian scholars are finding it difficult to attend, however. Jason Haslam, associate professor of English at Dalhousie University and president of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE), one of the larger scholarly associations, said a drop in travel funding and fewer full-time, tenure-track positions make it more difficult for scholars to attend Congress and other international conferences, such as the annual convention of the U.S.-based Modern Language Association. “What that does is restrict access,” he said.
ACCUTE paid for the travel of its contract academic faculty members to attend the 2015 MLA conference, held in Vancouver in early January. “We try to fill the gaps, but the gaps remain,” Dr. Haslam said. Still, these gatherings are important to researchers; ACCUTE received more proposals to present papers at this year’s conference than at last year’s, said Dr. Haslam.
Congress remains popular with the Canadian academic community because of its longevity and its interdisciplinary nature, added Dr. Sinatra. The MLA traditionally has been a venue for job interviews and, since there are fewer academic positions available, has “lost a bit of its veneer,” he said.
“Congress hasn’t suffered from that because it was never about jobs. I think the move to internationalize Congress [reflects] the reality of today’s research and the interests of researchers more than it is a gimmick to try to get extra people in.”
Dr. Sinatra would like to see the federation work more closely with the Association francophone pour le savoir (known by the acronym ACFAS), the French-language society of scholars in science as well as social science and the arts. Many Quebec researchers attend the ACFAS Congress, set to take place May 25 to 29 at Université du Québec à Rimouski. Their attendance at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences tends to fluctuate depending on where it is held, rising in the years when it takes place in Quebec, he noted. “A tighter integration between the two societies is something I would encourage Congress to look into more actively.”
The federation is working to broaden participation, not only at Congress but also within its own membership. Two years ago it amended membership rules to allow colleges to join. Several have expressed interest and the federation is now considering ways to revise its fee structure to accommodate them, said Mr. Mangin.
The changes are coming about just as the federation prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary this year with an annual conference, separate from Congress, also scheduled to be held in Ottawa, but in the fall.