Most learned society conferences are dull affairs, enlivened only by a handful of outstanding papers and the occasional spat. In my experience there is relatively little outrageously bad behaviour of the kind parodied by David Lodge, though I suppose there are plenty of minor put-downs. But they are closed and stuffy events, with a narrow audience of largely like-minded participants.
But not at Canada’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. These are large scale annual gatherings, which are hosted by a different university every year. As their name suggests, they are multidisciplinary, involving over 70 learned associations, and they last for seven days.
So the Congress is an unusual event in several respects. But even more remarkable is that it opens its programme up to the public, allowing local people to hear and discuss the ideas and studies that are presented. And the event is organised with non-academic audiences in mind, including a series of presentations branded as Big Thinking, as well as a clutch of events with a focus on reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.
The host university is far more than simply a place to meet, offering a series of events open to all registered attendees and the general public. This year, Ryerson held the usual programme of lectures, cultural events and debates, including ‘social justice walks’ arooung Toronto, a discussion on ‘Open borders, open minds: Academia in an age of growing isolationism’, and something intriguingly called a ‘blanket exercise’.
Am I right in thinking that this is pretty unusual for an academic conference? Or have learned societies around the globle been opening their proceedings to the public for years?
If they have, I’ve missed it up till now, and only found out about this one thanks to a Facebook message from my friend Gavin Moodie, who describes the Congress as an academics’ Glastonbury. I heartily approve, and hope that more associations decide to do the same.