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Humanities and social science scholars need more visibility: CFHSS

Federation’s goal is to make highly relevant research better known.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | APR 04 2011

At a time when humanities departments are under pressure the world over, the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences – an umbrella group that acts as a national voice for these disciplines – is making the increased visibility of its scholars and their research a top priority.

The federation’s board was expected to ratify, at its annual meeting in late March, a new strategic plan that emphasizes raising the profile of the federation and its members, as well as expanding the group’s international connections. “If we aren’t visible, then there’s a mystification about what research we do,” said Noreen Golfman, the organization’s outgoing president who is an English professor and dean of graduate studies at Memorial University.

Increasing the visibility of its members and their research has always been a goal of the federation. But now there is a greater urgency, said Jean-Marc Mangin, executive director of CFHSS: “Our task is to make sure that we move from desire to implementation.” The federation’s limited resources make this a challenge, he added, but the group hopes to capitalize on new technologies and to partner with non-profit and other groups outside academia to achieve its goal.

A recent effort was the federation’s first-ever annual conference held to coincide with its annual general meeting in Ottawa. The conference, co-sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation, was introduced to attract a broader audience of CFHSS members to the meeting. The public was also invited to attend, free of charge. The theme of the event, which included a full of day of lectures by well-known academics and authors, was a timely one: “The humanities paradox: more relevant and less visible than ever?”

Humanities departments are “under a great deal of pressure,” either shrinking or closing altogether at many institutions in Canada and abroad, said Mr. Mangin. “We have to make the case much more forcefully about the relevance of these disciplines in the modern world.”

One way the federation does this is through its “Big Thinking” lecture series, held six times a year on Parliament Hill. The lectures are by leading scholars on public policy issues, and they bring researchers in close contact with politicians and senior bureaucrats and with the policy-making process, explained Mr. Mangin. “It’s still a work in progress,” he said. “I think we could do a lot more there.”

The federation represents more than 50,000 students and scholars. Its most prominent activity is the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the largest multidisciplinary gathering in the country. It also administers the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, supporting the publication of 180 academic books a year, and it awards annual book prizes.
More than 6,000 delegates are expected to at-tend this year’s Congress – the federation’s 80th – co-hosted by the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University in Fredericton. The week-long event, which kicks off in late May, is an opportunity for scholars to give and attend presentations about the latest research in their field (most of the 72 disciplinary associations that are members of the federation take part). This year’s event includes an emphasis on diversity, climate change and Aboriginal education, and keynote speakers include former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo and former lieutenant-governor of Ontario James Bartleman, who will speak about Canada’s residential school system. Keynote speeches are open to the public and will be posted online.

Congress has come a long way from the days when it was routinely mocked in the media, said Dr. Golfman. It now attracts national and international reporters and generates front-page stories. “But we always feel like we can never take any of that for granted,” she said. “We’re always seeking ways to be more visible, more accessible, more relevant, more exciting and more meaningful.”

Still, making the case for increased funding for the humanities and social sciences will never be easy in the face of the seemingly more tangible achievements of the science, technology, engineering and medical fields, she conceded. These fields have always tended to get the lion’s share of media attention and research dollars.

On the other hand, society’s interest in the work of humanists and social scientists has never been greater, and the federation has played a key role in that, observed Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and a past president of the CFHSS. It has become an “outward looking organization,” he said.

One of the federation’s new priorities is raising the profile of its annual book prizes – two in English, two in French, each worth $2,500 – to be announced at the Ottawa conference. “Canadians love book prizes and we have this hidden gem that I don’t think we’ve been trumpeting loudly enough,” said Dr. Golfman.

To help it achieve its goals, the federation wants to draw on Mr. Mangin’s international expertise and networks. Appointed executive director a year ago, Mr. Mangin, 47, previously worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, the United Nations World Food Program, and several non-governmental organizations. He was executive director of CUSO and, most recently, executive director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action.

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