Building Collaborative Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences: The UTM/JHI Seminar

March 6, 2023 by Kimberley Yates

On Thursday March 2, I climbed into the UTM shuttle bus to moderate an event at the west campus of the University of Toronto. I hadn’t been out to UTM for a few years, and it was nice to see the humanities building that had been under construction then, in full use now. Students were comfortably ensconced around tables in a huge and airy atrium in the new Maanjiwe nendamowinan building. There was lots of space and light and air, and the mood was relaxed. I could see sky and trees outside the huge windows. The downtown roar of traffic, construction, sirens, and rumbling subways was noticeably missing.

The Collaborative Digital Research Space (MN3230)—charmingly pronounced as cedars—is a large and enticing space furnished in bright, warm colours. A technician was busy setting up a camera and sound system that would both livestream and record our event. Everything worked. There was even a nice lunch for us. The space is extremely mobile and can be configured in many ways.

The discussion I moderated was with the four previous leaders of the UTM/JHI Seminar.  Each had used the $15,000 of support to build a unique series of events, and I wanted to ask how their plans had played out, what they’d learned, and what kinds of benefits had come out of each Seminar, then and later. The discussion was engaged and interesting.

The most recent seminar, “Mediating Race/Reimagining Geopolitics”, led by Professor Elizabeth Wijaya (Visual Studies), had extended over two years in response to pandemic conditions, the CAUT censure of the University, and a family leave. Although she’d planned for in-person events, most were remote. This turned out to have unanticipated advantages: her participants came from all over the world, and she connected with researchers in Asia and Europe whom she could never have brought in person at that time, developing long-term working relations and the seeds of new projects in the process. She’d applied because, as a new faculty member in 2020, she wanted to meet colleagues and students, and it worked. Unlike so many who suffered from isolation during the pandemic shutdowns, she connected with a widening circle of researchers and film lovers. She noted the flexibility of this funding package, which allows for a great deal of adaptation and adjustment, and its comparatively low demands: monthly meetings, two public events, and a short report.

Martin Revermann (Historical Studies) is a Classicist and Theatre Studies scholar, and his seminar, “Dealing with Fragmentary Evidence from Graeco-Roman Antiquity” in 2019-20 brought UTM’s Classics researchers together. This seminar had a four-person leadership team, and I asked about the dynamics of shared leadership; he said that academic entrepreneurship and distinguishing between administrative leadership (which was allocated to one member of the four-person core group) and intellectual leadership (which was shared by the four classicists) had been the key to success. The classicists of UTM are still in close conversation and this seminar remains active, having morphed into the UTM Annual Classics Seminar (UTMACS) which continues to host invited speakers from all over the world to give seminars four times every semester. 

Moving back in time, Ajay Rao (Historical Studies; Vice-Dean Graduate) discussed his 2018-19 Seminar, “Culture and Critique in South Asia”. This one did everything on a grand scale: a leadership team of seven faculty and three staff members, collaborations with multiple community organizations and across many disciplines, and events in multiple formats.  I asked him about the challenges and rewards of working at this scale, and the answer surprised me.  “Spend the money” he said – money attracts more money, and momentum comes on its own when something big is underway. The UTM/JHI Seminar can be combined with other sources of funding, and if your plan includes an RA or two, you can make all kinds of things happen. His topic was appealing to many community organizations, and his events enabled him to develop the kinds of community engagement that respond directly to the University’s objectives.

The very first Seminar was co-led by Jacob Gallagher-Ross (Chair, English & Drama), whose team explored “Digital and Mixed Reality Performance” in 2017-2018. AI is constant news now, but this team had the benefit of five years of advance notice, and many of the pedagogical innovations that are now coming into play in the English & Drama department, such as a new minor in Gaming Studies, have grown from this Seminar, which helped its participants to prepare for a changing technological landscape.

It's clear that the Seminars have benefitted every leader who has undertaken to run one: promotions, larger research endeavours, and an impressive number of publications have been generated. The UTM/JHI Seminar is a powerful and flexible funding tool that can be used to build friendships, scholarly collaborations, public partnerships, and enhanced disciplinary power. They have benefitted their home units, and the University of Toronto Mississauga, as new units and programs have emerged.

UTM is blessed with excellent staff and technical support, a quiet and lovely environment, and fantastic facilities: the beautiful CDRS space we met in is available for Seminar events.

A Seminar can be vast and ambitious, or small and discipline focused; inward or outward looking. It may be online, hybrid, or in-person, or all three. A forty-minute ride is not that long, and Seminar funding could be used to rent an event-specific shuttle bus, cover a restaurant meal, or bring a significant speaker in to meet the faculty and students at UTM.  Any faculty member can apply: tenure or continuing track, pre- or post-promotion. Think of the possibilities…

The recording of our conversation is now available and application instructions are on the UTM website. If you have an idea for a Seminar that you’d like to discuss, please feel free to email me. The deadline for proposals is Friday, April 28, 2023.