A Digital Commons for the Humanities and Social Sciences

May 13, 2022
Lisa Semchuk, Acting Policy Lead, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Congress 2022

“We are facing the cultural equivalent of the climate crisis; it is a slow collapse of the system of words and images we use to talk to each other and understand our world, and it has made vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.” 

In a presentation at Congress 2022, Julia M. Wright, George Munro Chair in Literature and Rhetoric and Professor of English at Dalhousie University, painted a picture of an eroding information environment exacerbated by technological advances. Over the past two decades, libraries have closed, class sizes have increased, many barriers are still present to university access, and there is chronic underemployment of people with doctorates — all of which contribute to an educational desert. Social media has emerged as a new digital public square, but it is built on an attention economy promoting distraction and poor impulse control. On social media, scientific knowledge can be quickly reduced to memes or cartoons that are shared rapidly, but lack academic rigour. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the challenges of demanding citizens quickly get up to speed on and comply with a particular branch of knowledge. More must be done to promote curiosity, nuance, and genuine reflection. Researchers, as well as the general public, need spaces that are safe, ethical, and have good ‘information hygiene’ practices (in other words, that go beyond fact-checking to critically evaluate sources of information). 

Dr. Wright stated that scholarly research should be focused on the notion of a ‘commons’ and collectivity – knowledge should be shared with a community for public benefit. Researchers should develop more robust examples in order to better share research beyond academic communities. Researchers also must have greater awareness of the tools we use to talk to each other, as well as how they can be weaponized.

A primarily digital public sphere; declining trust in researchers; and the rapid adoption of remote work, education, and research are defining challenges for scholars in humanities and social science (HSS) disciplines today. But this is also an incredible moment of opportunity, as digital modes of connection create new types of relationships between researchers and non-academic communities.

Gabriel Miller, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, suggested three ways to move forward: 

  • It isn’t an either/or when it comes to digital platforms. These tools have huge potential to expand and amplify the reach of scholarly research.  We cannot ignore the power that these tools can give HSS researchers to connect and expand participation and inclusion in their work. 
  • Invest in and build community. Technology can help facilitate, but cannot replace, genuine commitments to sustain relationships.
  • Embrace this moment, and the role that HSS disciplines have in confronting and navigating these challenges. Our institutions need to be leaders in understanding how digital tools can amplify our research in safe and ethical ways.

This conversation was hosted by the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) Partnership at Congress 2022, featuring presentations by Julia M. Wright (George Munro Chair in Literature and Rhetoric and Professor of English, Dalhousie University) and Gabriel Miller (President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences), and moderated by Leslie Weir (Librarian and Archivist of Canada). The discussion was centered around the notion of a ‘commons’ that brings together people from across disciplines, across Canada and other countries, and across academia to an engaged public. You can check out the Canadian HSS Commons, a resource in development by INKE in partnership with the Canadian Social Knowledge Institute, CANARIE, Compute Canada, the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Modern Language Association, and others, at: https://hsscommons.ca/You can read more about the HSS Commons here.

A teal, blue and purple wave pattern make up the Congress 2022 logo, with English text reading “Congress 2022 of the Humanities and Social Sciences” and French text reading “Congrès 2022 des sciences humaines”. The theme name reading “Transitions” sits at the bottom of the logo.| Une forme de vague bleue sarcelle, bleue et violette constitue le logo du Congrès 2022, avec le texte en anglais « Congress 2022 of the Humanities and Social Sciences » et le texte en français « Congrès 2022 des sciences humaines »

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