A Congress of Academics and the inevitable Controversy

shooting fish

The Globe’s Margaret Wente (not exactly as illustrated) Credit: http://yuzahunter.deviantart.com

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences takes place every year in late May, early June. It is the premier gathering of Canadian academics in those areas – sharing their research and scholarship, discussing the state of the academy, and engaging in passionate debate. The scheduling of the Congress is a major challenge: over roughly two weeks, approximately seventy societies meet, some of them generalist and some specialist. An academic may belong to several societies and want to attend sessions or present at all of them. This year it is Ottawa which is swarming with scholars with large nametags, looking for wifi and seminar rooms and colleagues and possible research partnerships and the best party.

In addition to the societies’ meetings, there are public lectures, receptions, book launches, tours, poster sessions, film festivals, book expositions, and, yes, the occasional party.congress logo

Our English faculty are well represented: Dr. Green, as chair of the department, attended the Canadian Association of Chairs of English. In addition, she was a participant in the intriguingly titled discussion “Peripatetic Explorations of Monuments and Moose Droppings in Ottawa,” under the aegis of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research.

Dr. Fraser organized and chaired a panel called “Ghostwritings” for ACCUTE: the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English; Dr Macfarlane presented “Zombies and the Viral Web” as part of the “Digital Stories” panel, also at ACCUTE. She also organized and chaired a joint session with the International Gothic Association on “Gothic Fathers,” and another joint session (this time with the Margaret Atwood Society) on “Margaret Atwood’s Children.”
As predictable as the meeting of Congress is the media focus – in addition to serious attention paid to the work of Canadian scholars, there is always a cheap shot or two from a columnist who finds the wonderful titles of presentations impossible to resist. For example, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente took aim at Congress on June 1st:

“Who needs another boring monograph about Jane Austen? Time to break new ground. The presentation called ‘Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction’ does just that. It is not atypical.”

She provoked the usual range of responses.

“Margaret Wente takes aim at the same old fish in the same old barrel. Every year, pundits cherry-pick a few papers or presentations …that appear, by virtue of their titles alone, to be goofy. It’s an easy game to play. … English literature programs in high schools and universities continue to teach the works of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Austen, Dickinson, James, Joyce, Beckett etc., but they look at other cultural artifacts as well.” (Dale Churchward, June 3) The writer is an English teacher at Upper Canada College in Toronto.

Stephen Toope, the president of the Federation of the Humanitites and Social Sciences, remarked: “Seemingly without talking to any of the nearly 9,000 researchers at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Margaret Wente decided to single out descriptions of conference sessions that she deems silly.  In doing so, she ignores the tough, often uncomfortable questions being raised at congress about who we are and where we may be heading as a society.” (June 4)

Colin Norman, on the other hand, agreed that “Margaret Wente has it right about the state of English studies. They used to be about the best that has been thought and said; now that approach is replaced by twaddle of the kind she describes.” (June 4) Norman is retired from the English Department at Queen’s University, Kingston, and sounds as if he is relieved to be so!

For more, visit the Globe and Mail opinions or the Congress website.

book expo

The Book Expo at Congress


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