Chad Gaffield visits Mount Royal University

Chad Gaffield, PhD, the president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), made his first visit to Mount Royal University on April 9, 2013.

President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Chad Gaffield.

Hosted by the Faculty of Arts, Gaffield embarked on a full day of meetings that included a discussion with Mount Royal President, David Docherty, as well as sessions with students, faculty and administrators.

A highlight of his visit was the lecture called Understanding People in the Digital Age that Gaffield delivered to more than 75 students and faculty gathered in the Jenkins Theatre.

He describes his lecture as a call to “embrace the challenge of using new understandings of human thought and behaviour to create more vibrant, robust, 21st century campuses that really take advantage of the digital age.”

In an interview with Face Time following the lecture, Gaffield talked about the “deep conceptual changes” that are making certain technologies more important.

“One of those changes is our notion around creativity,” Gaffield says. “We spent a few centuries thinking that a small number of creative people — often a preordained group — did the creating, and the rest of us applied that knowledge.

“Now we know that creativity is everywhere. We’ve moved from an Encyclopedia Britannica, written by a small group of experts, to Wikipedia, written by everybody.

“What we hear is that somehow the technology is making us do things or is changing us, rather than trying to understand why this technology is becoming so important,” Gaffield says.

“I would argue it connects to those deep conceptual changes — like new ways of thinking about creativity and a new understanding of how people learn.”

Universities transformed

Gaffield’s talk also touched on how the digital age is transforming universities.

“One of the challenges right now is that so much of the debate about higher education is around things like tuition rates or funding formulas,” Gaffield says.

“Those things are important, but they must be addressed within the context of what we are trying to do now in higher education. Let’s shift the focus to addressing the trends, opportunities and challenges of our times with a view of what the future holds.

“This periodic re-thinking explains why universities are amongst the most enduring institutions since the Middle Ages. Universities do keep reinventing themselves and we’re in one of those periods now.

“My hope is that we’ll be able to back off from a focus on the details of how we’re going to fund universities in order to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s embrace a 21st century version of this and then address how can we make that add up properly.’”


Teaching informed by scholarship

One of Canada's foremost historians, Gaffield has been president of SSHRC since 2006. Before that, he had a distinguished 20-year career at the University of Ottawa, where he held a University Research Chair and was the founding director of the Institute of Canadian Studies.

He also served as a mentor to countless students — including the dean of Mount Royal’s Faculty of Arts, Jeff Keshen, PhD.

“In many respects, Chad is the perfect person to come to Mount Royal,” Keshen says. “He is committed to community, and many of the awards he’s won are about his community outreach. He’s also an exceptional teacher who has won many awards while remaining an active and successful researcher.

“He’s really a symbol, I think, of what we try to promote at Mount Royal — his research informs his teaching.”

Keshen says this visit from the president of Canada’s most important funding agency provided an opportunity for students to learn about scholarships for graduate studies and was helpful for faculty who are thinking about applying for research grants.

And, he says, it was also an affirmation of Mount Royal’s growing scholarly profile.

“I wanted Chad to come here as a symbol of our progress as a university,” Keshen says.

For his part, Gaffield says he jumped at the chance to visit Mount Royal.

“What’s interesting at Mount Royal is that there are a number of initiatives underway in terms of embracing a different model of education,” Gaffield says.

A different model of education

“[Today’s] undergraduate degree is, in many ways, a research degree because students are not just expected to sit there and memorize information and regurgitate it back,” Gaffield says.

“Rather, students have become participants and contributors to the learning process.”

Gaffield says one of the key things he discovered about Mount Royal during his visit is how new ideas about universities in the digital age are being embraced by students and faculty.

And, he says, he encouraged students, faculty and administrators alike to look at the digital age as an opportunity to share their work outside the classroom.

“I talked with some Mount Royal students who are doing original research. One of them is giving a paper at a conference in Victoria and I suggested she develop a website to get her work out there.

“At SSHRC, we have a storyteller initiative we hope that you can build on here,” Gaffield says, explaining that the initiative challenges students to use creative ways — podcasts, video, infographics and others — to explain why specific research projects matter to Canadians.

“Universities are in the process of learning better how to let the world know what we’re up to and to engage with the larger society,” Gaffield says. “It’s an exciting time.”

— Nancy Cope, April 11, 2013