The first time Rita Hansen Sterne came across the sprawling academic get-together known simply as Congress in 1986, she remembers thinking, "These people have got their heads in the clouds." But she doesn't think that any more.
At the time, Ms. Sterne worked as a conference co-ordinator. Now in her late 40s and working on a PhD in management at the University of Guelph, she attended the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences as one of 7,300 delegates this year and was swept up in the energetic mass of ideas cross-pollinating and spilling outside the seminar rooms.
The University of Victoria, this year's host, "did an incredible job of bringing community to the campus," she said.
The 2013 instalment closes Saturday, and many judge it a success. Congress has evolved from the days when it was known as "The Learneds" and delegates were content to keep it cloistered. Organizers have worked to shed its esoteric reputation, opening more events to the wider public and nudging the 68 associations taking part to mingle more. But there is still much work to do to showcase the continued relevance of arts and social sciences.
"There are a lot of myths out there … about what we do and the value of what we do," said Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at McGill University and president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS), which organizes Congress. "And I think it's time for us as a community to step up to the plate and say this is actually what we do, this is how we contribute, this is why it matters."
UVic staged a multicultural festival in its main quadrangle to attract the wider community. It mounted a Big Thinking lecture series open to the public, with talks by human rights leader Louise Arbour and novelist Joy Kogawa, among others. And although some of the week's 4,500 presentations still have titles that can seem soporific to outsiders – such as "Misrecognition: The Role of Hegel's Critique of Kant's Transcendental Idealism in Adorno's Ethical Thought" – many tackled subjects of pressing public concern, such as mental health or cyberbullying.
"There's a lot more effort to reach out to the community," said Laura Davies, a delegate who teaches English at Red Deer College in Alberta. "There's still a long way to go. I think we're still kind of finding our way in how to do that. We know it's important."
So important, in fact, that the CFHSS re-branded itself last fall under the slogan "Ideas can…" partly as "a call to action" for members to be more vocal about telling the stories of their research, Dr. Maioni said.
Jean-Paul Boudreau, Ryerson University's dean of arts, spent last week scouting Congress 2013 and said it was "fantastic." But he is also bidding to host the gathering in 2017 with an ambitious plan to push more events out into the city. "You can't just say to the community, come in and listen to, uh, Jean-Paul's arguments on how he's rethinking 17th-century French texts," he said.
Dr. Boudreau describes Congress as "a beautiful, overflowing fountain of ideas" – its massive scope makes it attractive, but also impossible for any one visitor to grasp more than a few drops of the overflow.
He imagines a map for Congress resembling Toronto's subway routes, but with "idea stops" that can be navigated through the delegates' smartphones, allowing them to find interesting events and tag them to watch later as podcasts if they can't make it live. He wants to reach out to alumni from the business world and "bring them home" to Congress. And he hopes to partner with cultural hubs like the Art Gallery of Ontario or Royal Ontario Museum, which can tap "their networks in the city."
"Let's create a real funky exchange of ideas that create new opportunities that really excite and motivate the academic as well."