June 14th, 2013
I am actually at home and in my cluttered office this week, but missed last week’s blog because I was far away in Victoria, B.C. and the whole time zone wonkiness wouldn’t allow for the blogging deadline. The occasion was the annual Congress of humanities and social sciences learned societies. About 7500 scholars showed up for a week on the sunny campus of University of Victoria to present papers and share in some big thinking. Every day was full of surprises and inspired conversations, but some highlights were dynamite addresses by notables such as Louise Arbor and Daniel Weinstock. At rich moments like those I always wish there were some smart journalists in the room who would get why it is well worth pursuing humanities and social science programs. Both speakers make strong cases for the value of agile, critical thinking. There is nothing more pleasurable than hearing someone make good lucid sense about the mess of the world in the most elegant, articulate and helpful ways. I’d go to Congress every year all over again just to hear talks like those.
Above is a shot of the pond behind the campus university club, where faculty can sip a cold one after, er, a hard day at the desk—not too shabby. On the day I was downing some well-chilled BC wine and snapped this photo, turtles were frolicking nearby while herons swooped in and out of view. Wish we had something similar here on our campus on the other coast. We need a generous, satisfied retired faculty member who has made a lot of money to donate to a faculty or university club building. Doesn’t have to be fancy—just supplied with a good kitchen and bar and a view of one of our own ponds. We would name it after the donor and give him/her one night of free drinks weekly. Sure, I know it’s not a high priority, but think of the morale-building potential, not to mention the dazzle it would afford visitors. I was pretty impressed at UVic, for sure. They have also recently built a stunning First Peoples building on campus, a sign of just how sensitive the west coast is to its native heritage—quite different from the near invisibility of native presence on our and other east coast campuses. Legendary folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie gave a free outdoor concert to about 2500 people right on campus in the middle of the week. Hard to imagine that happening elsewhere.
I was reluctant to travel again after so much of Air Canada in the last month but I had been invited to participate in what Congress calls Career Corner. Everyday a panel of experts discussed topics for graduate students and post-docs, such as résumé or grant writing. About a third of the Congress delegates are grad students and so the interest in these subjects is intense. I had not expected more than a dozen or so people to show up at 9am on a Thursday of Congress to listen to a presentation on how to fill out a fellowship grant application, but, go figure, the place was packed. Questions were intelligent and focused. I had the feeling that everyone in that room was going to be a successful applicant. It was all very heartening, and helped juice up my poor sleep-deprived body. Even though everyone in Victoria seems to go to sleep at five after eleven I managed to find both old friends and late-night watering holes. Someone told me the place wasn’t fit for anyone over 6 or not retired. I could see that. They drive about 20k an hour—everywhere.
I have been going to Congress for 33 years, almost continuously. That’s a lot of travel to a lot of Canadian cities. Indeed, that includes every provincial capital and major campuses, such as Saskatchewan, Laval, or Queen’s. For me, Congress is like returning to family, a large, diverse and sometimes quarrelsome family, but a family nonetheless. It feels like Glee for grown-ups—and without the bullying. Okay, maybe there’s some intellectual bullying, but I won’t mention the fields or disciplines. You know who you are.