Hob-(s)knobbing with the high nabobs of academia

A University of Calgary-hosted conference puts a spotlight on the academic world and its connection with the general community

CALGARY, Alta. May 27, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Are the big thinkers of today’s academic world more in tune with the community around them? We’re about to find out.

For 85 years, Canadian scholars in the humanities and social sciences, which used to be called the arts, have been congregating to present the results of their research to one another. In the old days, one might also listen to senior scholars reflect in a general way about the subject matter of a lifetime of study: politics, literature, history and so on. This used to be called the annual meeting of the Learned Societies of Canada, the “Learneds.”

This year, the University of Calgary is hosting the successor to the Learneds, called Congress 2016. It starts Saturday and continues for a week. A lot of it is free and the public is welcome.

Calgarians should come up the hill to the university, since the community pays the freight for much scholarly work. This is a wonderful opportunity to see what your taxes support.

But pay attention, there are two conferences going on.

The official one, Congress 2016, aims to be practical. This is a major change from the elegant and generally useless scholarship that the Learneds used to celebrate.

The home page of Congress 2016 announced that the purpose of the meetings was to bring academics and others together to “share findings, refine ideas and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow.” The participants include “luminaries, researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and students” whose discussions will have a “direct importance for Canada and the lives of Canadians.”

The details of this apparent practicality suggest something else. Always start with the administration: the provost said Congress 2016 is an “opportunity to showcase” the U of C, described as “Canada’s leading next-generation university,” by highlighting the importance of the arts “in the context of the Eyes High institutional plan.”

In keeping with administrative priorities, there are “professional development workshops” where you can learn how to advance your academic career, market your research and, even more practical, find out about careers outside the academy. These are called “career-transition strategies.”

A specialized workshop is available to those concerned with the tactics of exploiting leadership opportunities, which sounds like a provost recruitment program. Another promises instruction on how to write a journal article in a week. If such productivity were even possible, it would amount to at least 50 articles a year, which is more than many of my colleagues publish in a lifetime.

The theme of Congress 2016 is “energizing communities.” Its two parts reflect an intentional ambiguity. First, there is a day-long tour of Calgary, including a visit to a brewery and the Enmax District Energy Centre. That’s pretty clear: Calgary is energized by beer and electricity.

The metaphorical energization is part of the practicality of Congress 2016. Universities, no longer ivory towers, “energize relationships across communities, leading to new connections, engagements and ultimately new ways of thinking.” This energizing is captured in a lecture series for everybody called Big Thinking.

The big thinkers will present “forward-looking research, ideas and solutions to the critical questions and issues of our time.” Big thinking “luminaries” include a local politician, some famous eastern public intellectuals, journalists and lawyers. Their big thoughts are equally predictable lamentations of credentialed victims: persons suffering from “gender insecurity” and other “wounded ones” suffering from the legacies of colonialism.

Beneath the glare of official, practical and politically correct Congress 2016, there will be some genuine scholarly discussions about real questions. So by all means, come to the U of C. See if you can find what the reality of scholarly existence actually entails. It is a rare experience in today’s university.

Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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