From the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between: Ten defining moments of Congress 2016

The big news in the Canadian academic world at the moment is Congress 2016 (on Twitter: #congressh), taking place right now at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Congress – or to name it in full, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – is the annual gathering of 75 Canadian scholarly associations, with around 8,000 researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the public converging on a university site for a week every year to:

…share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow. (source:

As you can imagine, it’s a huge undertaking for the organizers, the host university – and also for participants navigating their way around the many different associations (most people are connected with one or more society but in principle are able to attend sessions organized by other groups) as well as Congress-wide events.

This was my first experience at Congress, and specifically as a member of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education Conference (Twitter: #csshe2016). The CSSHE conference organisers did a fantastic job, so a big thank you to Kathleen Moore and Michelle Nilsen.

This post is an attempt to distill some of the ideas, conversations and experiences of the past few days. Here goes…

1. Listening and learning

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Social cartography in action

What a wealth of presentations at CSSHE! I learnt about nurturing professional identities, mental health support at Canadian universities, the implications of league tables for the structure of university systems, elite interviewing, the sociology of expectations, quality assurance, immigrant pathways, “alt-ac” (alternative academic) career prospects, the ethics of employing graduate research assistants and much, much more.

One session I found really stimulating was Vanessa Andreotti’s presentation of research undertaken as part of a cross-national ethical internationalism in higher education (EIHE) project. I loved how they’d used social cartography, a visual technique to represent multiple ways of seeing and knowing. I thought it was ingenious to use social cartography not just for the research but amongst the team to map out their own perspectives. This is a really innovative way of working with discomfort and dissonance.

2. Sharing what I’ve been doing

Me in action (my hands are very demonstrative!)

I gave two presentations at this conference, one (pictured) on connections between universities’ histories and their contemporary engagement with their local communities, the other with my supervisor on our recent research project investigating the public policy framework on international students in four countries.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about these projects, to share what’s been in my head these past months and see what others think about what I’ve got to say.


3. Becoming a better writer and thinker

Writing your “tiny text” aka abstract… your ten minutes start now…

Just before the CSSHE conference, there was a full day of sessions for graduate students covering important topics from teaching to publishing, and surviving your PhD along the way. George Veletsianos‘ use of memes made the somewhat more serious topic of crafting your research agenda that much more palatable!

This set of topics were substantiated by Congress-wide sessions on skills development, such as “How to write that journal article in seven days” – the room was understandably packed for that one. Here I would particularly highlight the wealth of contributions made by The Thesis Whisperer, also known as Dr Inger Mewburn. What a privilege to make a 3D connection after following her blog for so many years!

PS For those of you who were not at the journal article writing session, the title of this blog post is a tongue-in-cheek attempt at trying out one of Hartley’s “12 types of title” that Inger talked about. Category: definitely a bid for attention of some sort!

4. Random encounters

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Deanna Rexe skilfully employing historical images to illustrate interview methods

Of course, these meetings are not entirely random when you start off in a conference of other researchers… But within that frame, I talked to and swapped ideas with some fascinating folk. Critical race theory? Governance in Kazakhstan? Employing photos from the Calgary stampede to illustrate methods? Yes to all of them.

Best of all was the five minutes spent talking to the people sitting next to me at Inger Mewburn’s journal article session. I don’t know who they are or what they research, but they offered me a couple of incredibly useful insights for an article I’m working on at the moment that will help me substantially improve it.

5. Building virtual communities

Canadian humour on the #congressh Twitter stream

As well as the face-to-face encounters, there was a great buzz on the CSSHE and Congress Twitter hashtags. I believe we were even “Trending in Calgary” at one point (though I’m not sure what the competition is…).

As well as being able to share images and soundbites with colleagues not at the conference, it was exciting to see what other people were doing and thinking. And also indulge in some of the less serious commentary, as the picture accompanying this point shows…

6. Dreaming up hashtag projects

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A candidate image for the (already in existence) #refreshmentswillbeprovided hashtag

Speaking of Twitter, and inspired by Inger Mewburn’s #phdemotions project, we had a lot of fun thinking up new hashtags that might be popular. OK, I know hashtags aren’t going to save or change the world, but there is a little bit more to this than just photos of food.

Using and sharing hashtags is another way to bring people together, which for PhD students working by themselves and possibly not even on campus very much can be an easy and lighthearted way to connect with others and overcome feelings of isolation. And if you’re into ed tech research, it offers a mine of potential data to play with! See, I told you this wasn’t all (totally) irreverent…

7. The Mayor of Calgary’s purple shoes

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Look carefully at that footwear

Being at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities meant not just sharing space with 8,000 other delegates but the chance to attend some cross-disciplinary lectures.

Hence the chance to hear Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary and something of a local legend. He is a great storyteller. And he wears purple shoes.


8. The vibe in Calgary

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Can you bear it, Calgary? Bear made of felt roses, Glenbow Museum.

Canadians are generally pretty friendly people, and the friendliest Canadians I’ve met (so far, at least) can be found in Calgary. The University’s volunteers stood out in rain and sun to help conference delegates; members of the public we spoke to downtown were similarly happy to assist. I even heard a bus driver apologise to a passenger that she couldn’t taken him where he needed to go!

I was also very taken by the University’s speedy and holistic response to supporting evacuees from the devastating fires further north in Fort McMurray. As well as housing 1,400 people (and countless pets) on campus, their sports department is organising courses for children, their food services team are packing lunches every day, and their nursing and social work faculty and students are providing support for physical and mental health needs. Oh and the vet students are getting some hands on experience with all those pets!

9. Marvelling at the campus

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Looking up, or: how to present concrete in novel ways

I do love a good 20th century modernist/brutalist building, especially if there’s exposed concrete or Soviet-esque public art (see David Trilling’s photos or my own from Kyrgyzstan) involved… So I very much enjoyed indulging my passion for buildings at the University of Calgary.

PS Before anyone from Calgary writes in to complain, I should point out that they also have some delicious new builds on campus as well.

PPS This might well be where my next hashtag project is headed…

10. Touching at the edges of something bigger

Back from the ridiculous to the sublime with this last point.

Every now and then, during a presentation, in a conversation or at a lecture, there was a spark of something touching on some of the sector’s big questions: What is higher education for? What is our role in societies? Where do we go from here?

Rightly, nobody was offering easy answers – these are huge philosophical and practical questions – but it was exciting to sense the atmosphere and think that we have all, in our very different ways, taken on responsibility for breaking down those questions and looking for ways forward.

One thought on “From the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between: Ten defining moments of Congress 2016

  1. Ulrika Punjabi

    Thanks! It looks like a fab Congress. Great photo of you & I love the mayor’s purple shoes!! X

    Sent from Samsung Mobile on O2


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