Congress 2018: A snapshot from three perspectives

By Somayeh Bahrami, Sandie Dielissen, and Reema Faris, PhD Students

June 18, 2018

This year PhD students Somayeh Bahrami, Sandie Dielissen, and Reema Faris, along with faculty members from SFU’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS), attended Congress 2018 at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Treaty 4 land, the territories of the Nêhiyawak, Anihšināpēk, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda nations, and the homeland of the Métis.

Congress, in its 88th year, is the annual meeting for over 70 scholarly associations in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is a large gathering where scholars, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners engage in an exchange of ideas. They also forge connections for partnerships and collaborations, linking theory and practice, to benefit communities across Canada. The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences ( organizes Congress and it attracts over 8,000 attendees annually. A different university hosts the event each year.

With their answers to this list of seven questions, Somayeh, Sandie, and Reema share their Congress experiences and provide a three-perspective look at one of the year’s most prominent academic events.

1. Have you attended Congress before?

SB: I have attended many conferences since I started my Masters Program in 2012. I learn and gain so much by attending and I recommend that graduate students take part in such events as soon as they can rather than leaving it until the later stages of their studies.  

SD:  This is the second time that I’ve attended Congress; I attended the first time at University of Calgary in 2016 so I felt a bit more prepared this time for the volume of activities and the large number of scholars attending from around the world.

RF: This was my first year at Congress. I had heard of the event before and I remember checking out the website last year, but this is the first time I was able to participate. Being a year and a half or so into my PhD programme, I also felt like it was a good time to go and immerse myself in this celebration of academia.

2. Why did you choose to attend Congress this year?

SB: Attending a conference is a rewarding experience.  It helps to get to know other scholars and to be known in academic circles. Through my participation in such gatherings, I learn from others, improve my own skills, and deepening my knowledge of my field and others. I engage with related work, listen to presentations, ask questions, and converse with other scholars and researchers.  The opportunity to meet other academics, many of whom share my interests and goals, is motivating and it inspires me to overcome my fears.

SD: I had a number of different reasons for attending Congress.  As the registrar for the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA), I attended in my “official” capacity to ensure the association’s membership had what they needed for the annual gathering.  More importantly, and a lot more fun, was attending to learn and to participate in various association conferences with themes related to my PhD research and the opportunity to network with established and emerging scholars in Indigenous and feminist studies.  Since many of the key-note addresses for the associations were open to the public, it was also a chance to hear from renowned scholars and knowledge keepers on an array of topics.  Congress, as a whole, is an excellent opportunity to learn about recent developments and on-going debates in a host of inter-related disciplines.

RF: Over the years, I’ve attended conferences, workshops, and a variety of professional development events. I’ve always found them helpful and I thought it was important to go to Congress this year to familiarize myself with the academic version of such a gathering. I also thought it was important to get to know other students, scholars, and researchers from across Canada in order to get a sense of the academic work that they are pursuing and the ways in which they do so.

3. What did you take away from the sessions you attended at Congress and your experiences there?

SB: This year, I attended the annual meetings of three associations: the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), Women's and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes (WGSRF), and the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE). The CHA sessions were of particular interest to me.  Listening to presentations informed me of what others are doing (sometimes more clearly than the paper), exposed me to different styles of presentation, and enlightened my way of thinking about the field of study. The presentations helped me to understand the many different aspects, themes, and solutions of each discipline.  I learned how to frame one’s work to convey how interesting it is. This is an important skill not just for a single conference but also more generally. Plan the pitch, practice it with friends and colleagues, and then further refine it through interactions at the conference!  I also learned that sometimes scholars are trapped in knowing the work “so well” that it does not sound interesting or that they cannot tease apart the interesting picture from the details!

SD: One of the biggest take-away messages I received at Congress, is that there is room for everyone!  Novice researchers and students, published and experienced academics, community members and consultants, all have a place in broadening our understanding of the world around us.  I attended portions of both the ILSA and the Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Feministes (WGSRF) conferences, and despite not having the expertise of many of the presenters, I felt encouraged to contribute, to ask questions, to make connections, and to follow-up on ideas and discussions I would not otherwise have considered.  For me, the biggest take away was the importance of identifying mentors (across disciplines) willing to share their experiences and knowledge so that I can grow my own practice.

RF: That there are a lot of very smart people working in Canadian universities! In terms of scholarship, it was a chance to learn about new terms and phrases, theoretical approaches, research methodologies, and explore content, new and old, in provocative ways. One of the topics that came up in a session on oral history, for example, was the way in which consent, control, and authority ebb and flow in personal interviews. One of the challenges at Congress is that association conferences are scheduled in ways that tend to silo knowledge although open events are one way to break through the boundaries. However, the experience reinforced my belief that the academic community must work to broaden interdisciplinary opportunities as well as to carefully consider the ways in which academic know how becomes real world can do.

4. How does the experience of attending Congress inform your personal, professional, and academic endeavours?

SB: I am often surprised with how much I learn from meeting people from different cultures and dispositions who are unique in their approach to life. It is amazing!  I learn a lot by listening, keeping an open mind, and trying to deeply understand not only the research related themes but also the personal and emotional patterns. Also, like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia. This is the way to be invited to join collective research projects such as edited books, special issues in peer-reviewed journals, and collaborative funding applications.

SD: Attending Congress is a reminder of the terrific array of theory, method, and practice that academics engage in and that there are opportunities to expand how I think about my own work. Academically, I felt challenged to think more deeply and critically about presenting research in an accessible way, and also to engage in alternative methods of representing my work, something I hope to incorporate in my doctoral research.  Like Reema, I also learned more about choosing an appropriate style for presenting material that demonstrates the contributions our research makes to the discipline and the discourses we engage in. Like many graduate students, my personal, professional, and academic endeavours often overlap, but participating in Congress showed me that finding balance between these realms is an essential part of our overall well-being and supports the goals we set for ourselves.  Congress is as much a place of celebration, parties, award ceremonies, gala events, as it is about making new friendships and allies, and revealing our knowledge.

RF: Congress is a great opportunity to build community and to network although I probably did not explore this avenue as much as I could have. From an academic perspective, it really helped to see what others were working on and how they were approaching their work. It’s also always instructive to glean tips on how to present material in different settings. From well-established scholars, I learned about the questions one asks of existing work if not iconic pieces of scholarship and from newer researchers, I learned about the potential perils and pitfalls of research as well as the meaningful contribution research can make by making the unspeakable speak able and giving voice to those who’ve been cloaked in silence.

5. What common themes or trends did you see emerge from amongst the various disciplines and fields?

SB: In addition to diverse ways of recording, understanding and archiving narrated memories, analysis, and distribution of history, I learned much about the key components of community history, identity, and cultural differences, and how/why these are important means by which non-academics can actively participate in “making history”. While sometimes there are tensions between academic and community history, the commitment to inclusiveness is essential and scholars must make the effort to avoid narrow professionalization.

SD: Indigeneity. Indigenize. Indigenous.  Scanning the Congress schedule and the programmes for several associations there is an undoubtable interest in examining and understanding relationships with Indigeneity, what it means to Indigenize for academics, and the challenges in conducting meaningful work that occurs for, with, and by Indigenous Peoples.  Much of this interest, I believe, is due to the current rhetoric on Reconciliation and Decolonizing practices in our disciplines and fields. There is certainly an increased trend to include Indigenous perspectives, but, as many scholars testified, there is still much work to be done. Interestingly, I noticed that many of the associations I looked at included participation in some way by First Nations community members and non-academic practitioners.

RF: One of the central themes I saw reflected at Congress – a perpetual one rather than new – is that connections and linkages between universities and communities are topical concerns. The issue of knowledge production and distribution must be continually examined and reassessed if universities and scholarship are to remain relevant and to ensure that a wider audience does not consign them to a dustbin as elitist or dismiss them as impractical. I also learned to always question one’s assumptions, even when dealing with historical material and subjects, because scholarship is about dynamic processes and not static proclamations.

6. What tips and suggestions do you have for others who may be planning to attend Congress for the first time next year?

SB: It can be intimidating to try to meet famous scholars, the big names in a field or discipline! It’s helpful if an advisor or a colleague can facilitate an introduction. But don’t be shy. Step up and listen to the conversations they are having with others and join in the dialogue if possible. Ask a question – most scholars, whether well known or just at the beginning of their careers, are happy to share their work and their insights with you. And you will always learn something from each interaction.

SD: Sign up for Congress notices.  As it gets closer, you will receive emails that remind you of deadlines for early registration (which can save you money) and let you know about events and opportunities to plan for.  Consider presenting your research, even if you are still at the planning stages, to get insights and feedback that can help direct your work. Since most of the SSHRC associations have smaller memberships, the sessions aren’t as intimidating as some of the large, international associations that hold their own conferences.  Seek out opportunities for poster presentations – these were some of my favourite times to have close conversations with researchers and presenters. If you are on a shoe-string budget think about volunteering so that you can save registration fees to spend in the book fair! Students can also apply for travel awards from Congress; they are available to local students as well as those travelling great distances. And don’t forget to plan for socializing amidst the wealth of sessions you hope to attend.

RF: For visitors from other parts of Canada and other parts of the world, June is a great time to visit Vancouver – it’ll be tough to focus on the conference – so I would suggest, if feasible, that they allow time to explore the city and its surroundings. For students and scholars, I would encourage them to support their associations, but to broaden their horizons by catching sessions from other associations, too. Examine the schedule thoroughly knowing that you’ll have tough choices to make and that you can’t catch every session. If there is a presenter whose work you admire, make an effort to catch them in person. And, finally, be sure to set your book budget and stick to it before you visit the exhibitors’ booths!

7. Do you plan to attend Congress 2019? What will you be looking forward to there?

SB: Yes definitely. Next year’s congress theme, Circle of Conversation, is another great opportunity to create a safe, challenging, and supportive environment that helps us to engage in meaningful conversations, expand learning, heighten our own achievements, and support others in theirs.

SD: I’m already looking forward to Congress 2019, and the fact that it will be close to home means I will be attending as much as possible.  I’m also curious as to how the theme, Circles of Conversation, will be explored and interpreted by participants, particularly as it relates to Indigenous, feminist, and gender studies. I am also excited for the opportunity to reconnect with the people I met in Regina and to meet new folks.

RF: As a UBC grad and a resident of the Lower Mainland, I have ever intention of attending Congress 2019. The theme, Circles of Conversation, also resonates with me and I look forward to the various interpretations that presenters will offer. There are various events open to the public, too, and I urge everyone to watch for the programming details as they become available.

Congress 2019, Circles of Conversation, will be hosted by the University of British Columbia (UBC) from June 1 to 7 in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. For more information, see: