What I learned as academic co-convenor of Congress

May 4, 2015
University Affairs staff ; James M. Skidmore, University of Waterloo

I’ve been going to the Learneds for so many years that I still call it the Learneds. Of course it’s the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and I accept the need for the updated name. “Learneds” is musty and fusty and not a little aloof, though I’m still not sure about a title that invokes images of party apparatchiks approving the next five-year potato production plan.

Congress 2012 was a whole new experience for me, however. I was the University of Waterloo’s academic convenor, and along with Wilfrid Laurier University’s convenor, the impressive Eleanor Ty, I experienced Congress from the inside. Convening Congress is a lot different than attending Congress.


Like most delegates, I viewed Congress as being about my scholarly association, and I usually didn’t venture much beyond those meetings, except perhaps to visit the book expo or the beer tent. I read about the open lectures and other activities with interest, but I rarely attended: either an event conflicted with my own earth-shatteringly important presentation, or the exciting stuff was taking place during the days my association wasn’t meeting.


In 2012 I attended over 40 events: cultural happenings, meetings of no fewer than five different associations, the flagship Big Thinking lectures, even a few regrettable small thinking lectures. Associations wove the Congress theme into their sessions, and a great many of the Big Thinkers actually talked about “Scholarship for an Uncertain World.” I was frankly surprised by this; in the past I haven’t really paid attention to the Congress theme. But then, like I said, I haven’t often left the comforting confines of my own discipline.


As convenor I also got involved in the logistical side of Congress. It takes a village to mount Congress, and I’m not talking about a hamlet of hobbits here, but a devoted group of people numbering about 1,000: Federation employees, university employees, student workers hired for the occasion and the hundreds of student and community volunteers who looked like walking Hi-Liter pens in their neon-coloured t-shirts. During Congress Sheldon Pereira, our project coordinator, convened the heads of the main support departments from both universities for daily meetings at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. To ensure a good delegate experience, these professionals bent over backwards in ways that I’ve only ever seen attempted by my yoga instructor. One employee made an unexpected three-hour trip to get the right filters for the gargantuan coffee machine that Laurier had rented to keep Canada’s humanists and social scientists wired. Another staff member worked overtime without claiming compensation because he would have been ashamed if everything wasn’t “perfect” for the delegates. It’s a humbling experience to work with employees and students who dedicate a portion of their lives to make sure that I and my colleagues can sit around and talk.


I can also put to rest a long-standing myth: Congress is not gouging its delegates. I know, the registration fee seems high, and what do you get in exchange? Well, more than we all realize. The Federation hires about 100 students to work during Congress, in addition to the dozen or so employees who decamp there every year to spend a glorious two weeks living in a dorm. A handful of employees at the Federation work year-round to plan Congress. There are travel costs, communication costs (e.g. the one or two conference calls a week that I participated in), printing costs, Big Thinking lecture fees, registration area set-up costs – I could go on, but you get the idea.


And no, the universities aren’t getting rich on Congress either. I think we broke even on audiovisual rentals (yes, the classrooms have pre-installed equipment, but the army of operators we hired to help us technically challenged academics turn on PowerPoint doesn’t come cheap), and if the catering seems expensive, remember that on an average day in the summer, U of Waterloo catering has about 10 events to cover but during Congress it had 50-60, and extra staff and equipment are needed just to keep things moving. I do wish the Federation would give delegates a better glimpse into the financial side of Congress – some snappy pie charts in the delegate guide would do the trick – but everyone can rest assured that Congress is not a trough for fat cats. This is Congress, not Parliament.


Another aspect that flies under the radar of most delegates is the massive media and public relations campaign that the universities and  Federation mount to promote the importance of our scholarship. We spent hours courting national and local media to explain what Congress is (not the easiest of concepts for civilians to grasp) and how the research of Canadian social scientists and humanists contributes to our society. We tweeted and blogged and whatever else one does in this new information age. It’s hard to compete with demonstrations in Quebec and body parts in the rest of the country, but we did reach a large audience, and hardly any stories were of the variety that keeps Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente employed. But I realized during Congress that we academics are too dependent on the media to give us the occasional sound bite or other meaningless morsel. Today, the means to communicate our stories to a broad public and to influence our culture have never been more easily accessible to us. We have to start making serious use of them.


Years ago I stayed in residence while at Congress. Early one morning, as I was in the communal washroom attending to my daily toilette, a man walked in who, at that time, was the stereotypical “Learneds” delegate: Birkenstock sandals, socks, boxer shorts, no shirt, grey beard, and a Tilley hat. This year, one thing that struck me was that I saw far fewer Tilley hats. It was a much younger crowd of scholars in attendance, with the pendulum swinging perhaps a little too far to the hipster end of the range. Certainly this opinion is a function of my increasing age, but I took it as a positive sign that the humanities and social sciences can still inspire and excite the young.


Would I organize Congress again? Did Michel Foucault have a full head of hair? It has been one of the best experiences of my professional life, and for that reason I wouldn’t do it again – I want others to learn as much from it as I have.


Dr. James M. Skidmore, who earned the moniker Mr. Congress, is an associate professor of German at the University of Waterloo.


Credits: Image by University of Waterloo.