Chad Gaffield at Congress 2011

Chad Gaffield’s talk to the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences inaugural conference on March 26 is available on Vimeo. Chad is the President of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. His talk was titled, “Re-imagining Scholarship in the Digital Age.” Click more for a summary.

Chad started by talking about change. We live in a time of change. 60% of faculty were hired since 2000. The digital natives have arrived on campus. The library is changing.

There are pressures on campus. Prof/student ratios have gone up. We see increasing expectations about the social sciences and humanities. There has been a recent focus on the economy and people are looking to the SSH for ideas.

Chad proposed a different way of thinking about the technological era we are in. He believes that there are deep changes that driving the technological change. A better way to think about it is that we are rethinking what it is to be human.

Chad focused on three types of deep change: Complexity, Diversity and Creativity. Complexity: We no longer think that complexity can be analyzed down to simple issues that then can be added together. Now we see deep complexity. Diversity: Diversity was seen as a problem to be solved. Now we see it as a source of strength and resilience. There is a deep conceptual change as to how we think of uniformity and diversity. Creativity: We used to think a small number of people would be creative and the rest of us would enjoy the fruits of their work. Now we see that creativity is needed everywhere.

Chad then shared an interpretation that is at the heart of the title of the talk. For him, we have to redefine teaching, research and the campus. The deep conceptual changes are affecting the redefinition of scholarship and our idea of campus. In all three of these areas the humanities is playing a special role. He pointed out that we are continuing to attract students which for many is a bit of a puzzle given the attitudes towards the humanities. Chad believes that students are still enrolling in the humanities because they want to think through the deep changes that affect them.

The redefinition of teaching it towards learning. From the push of teaching to the pull of learning. This is coming from the research into the nature of learning process. Also important is research around the social construction of knowledge. He talked about how digital media allow students to learn about history in ways they couldn’t before. It enables them to construct and reconstruct interpretations. Similar redefinitions are taking place across the humanities. He added that we haven’t yet told people about the change in teaching to learning.

The redefinition of research is going from an epistemology of specialization to multiple epistemologies. The digital humanities is asking how we can interpret a million books.

The third aspect is the change in campus relations. We have gone from a service model to one of engagement and mobilization. We have alliances with the community.

He commented that we now have to get beyond the old dichotomies like pure and applied research or qualitative and quantitative. This re-imagining is at odds with many of the structures and incentives in our institutions. We have a lot of work to do to create the future non-linear webs of inquiry. We have been contributing to the redefinition and the good news is that there is interest in this redefinition.

He ended with a prediction. The twenty-first century will become the century when we really take seriously the challenges of understanding human thought in the past and the present. He argues that we haven’t put much effort into understanding humans. Before the 1960s, the entire sum of attempts to understand historical change was done by a tiny group of scholars with very little evidence. The great men working on this were few and that group lacked diversity. For Chad this understanding is not something for retirement, but at the heart of the changes we are experiencing. He talks about this as people-centred innovation and argues it is important to all walks of life. He believes there is a paradigm shift for which the humanities are central. This century is going to be one in which we say “lets get serious about about trying to understand what it is to be human.”

He closed by saying that he has the best job. The privilege of promoting the social sciences and humanities. We can say we did all we could to build successful societies.

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