Scholars discuss uncertain future
The campuses of Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo (UW) definitely felt a larger presence this week, as 7,000 scholars from across the country flooded the Waterloo community for Congress, an annual convention that discusses the academic fields of the social sciences, liberal arts and humanities.
Congress 2012, which was also put together by the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, is arguably the largest academic conference in Canada.
“I’ve talked to a large number of people, as far as I can tell, most of everyone’s experience has been positive,” said Michael Carroll, the dean of arts at Laurier and the co-chair of the conference. “It’s a unique experience, because what you have over the course of eight days are 7,000 people from a variety different disciplines.”
Sheldon Pereira, the project coordinator for Congress 2012 since May of last year, felt that the hard work is beginning to pay off.
“It is going tremendously well. You plan, you plan and you plan and then you get to a certain point where planning doesn’t help you anymore, you just need to have the event,” Pereira explained. “Here we are in the middle of it and it couldn’t have been going better.”
According to Pereira, Congress will have a beneficial impact on the two hosting universities as well as on the community. The Waterloo Region tourism office estimated that the region will make $7 million because of the visiting delegates.
“We’ve had a concerted effort to involve the community in our planning, to bring them on as engaged partners and to have them work on committees, so it’s a mutually beneficial outcome,” added Pereira.
The convention, which started on May 26, will run until June 2. On Friday, at the press conference that officially opened the conference, WLU president Max Blouw and UW president Feridun Hamdullahpur stressed the importance of the arts even though their respective institutions’ reputations have swayed towards the fields of math, science and business.
“It’s a big misperception,” clarified Hamdullahpur. “Yes, Waterloo is known for many things and one is leadership in innovation and technology. But our largest faculty is the faculty of arts. There’s always been a very strong connection with the faculty of arts. So this is very important to us.”
Blouw echoed Hamdullahpur’s remarks, “We are known for our school of business and economics, but I think equally we are known as a liberal arts university.”
Carroll believes that, even though funding is moving towards different faculties, employers are searching for liberal studies graduates with critical thinking and writing skills.
“A liberal arts education, first of all, is valuable because it imparts valuable thinking, communication and writing skills, and those are skills [that] are in demand,” he asserted. “We need informed and engaged citizens that have the world view, ability to see things from [the perspective] of other people, the willingness to become engaged in the importance of social issues over time.”
With the theme of the convention being “Crossroads: scholarship in an uncertain world,” many of the lectures have and will continue to discuss this notion of a declining emphasis on liberal studies in the post-secondary sector.
On Tuesday afternoon, well-known Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood spoke at UW about how storytelling — and the teaching of it — is still important, despite the fact there is less of an emphasis on it today.
“That’s how we understand our world, through the stories we tell ourselves and one another about it,” she said.
Governor General and former UW president, David Johnston, spoke at the Laurier campus on the opening day of Congress and called for the global expansion and democratization of knowledge, and noted that Canada should be in a leadership role in terms of education.
“This is the best time in history to be scholars,” Johnston told the audience.
According to Johnston with the rapid expansion of technology, the social sciences and humanities will be more accessible to the public; it’s just a matter of those disciplines now adopting those principles.
But academics and researchers cannot forget about the importance of teaching.
“If you’re only going to remember three words from what I say today, they are ‘cherish our teachers’,” said Johnston.
Congress 2012 also included a lecture from Canadian author Jane Urquhart, who put a huge emphasis on the role of libraries in today’s society. Other prominent academics will lead panels for the remainder of the week.
– With files from Justin Fauteux