Why Makayla Sault was allowed to die

Published Jan. 27, 2015, in the Toronto Star

Like many Canadians, I was saddened to hear about the death of Makayla Sault, the 11-year-old girl who died after choosing traditional aboriginal medicine over chemotherapy to treat her leukemia. Unlike the majority of commentators in the media, however, I was not outraged by her death or by the refusal of the courts to choose provincial legislation over Aboriginal rights. Instead, this outcome was simply the logical product of how Canada has chosen to balance and protect different and competing individual and group rights.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives all of us a set of individual rights by virtue of being citizens of Canada. At the same time, some Canadian citizens enjoy additional rights that accrue to them on the basis of their membership in one or more demographic or cultural groups. For instance, French-speaking Canadians have the right to communicate with the federal government in French whereas I, as a Filipino-Canadian, do not have the right to use Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, to do the same.

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Francophone rights are not the only group rights protected by our constitutional and legal order. Others include gender, religion and Aboriginal rights, all of which seek to protect historically vulnerable groups in ways unique to each case.

Aboriginal rights have particularly complex origins, rooted as they are in the many historical and modern treaties signed with the Crown, but also in a number of pre- and post-Confederation constitutional documents like the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Constitution Act of 1982. As a result, Aboriginal rights empower their holders with a unique legal and moral basis to protect their traditional and evolving cultures, customs and internal constitutional orders in a myriad of ways. In Canadian law, we refer to this basis as Aboriginal self-government or self-determination.

So, in the case of Makayla Sault and other similar situations, legislation like the Child and Family Service Act can rightly and justly be ignored by Indigenous community leaders and members. The special group rights that Indigenous groups have through Canada’s Constitution and through their treaties with us means that they have the right to make unilateral decisions affecting their communities and members within the confines of their traditional and evolving customs and practices.

In many ways, then, the death of Makayla Sault is not as outrageous and illogical as most mainstream commentators portray. Instead, it very accurately reflects a legal and political reality that is consistent with Canada’s approach to human rights. Our country recognizes that all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples, have individual and group rights, and that different groups, by virtue of their inherent differences, also have different or asymmetrical sets of rights.

Some Canadians may chafe at this analysis and see it as being the root of the “Aboriginal problem” in this country. All of us, however, need to realize and accept this logic if we hope to build a respectful and just relationship with Indigenous peoples. This is especially true if we believe that the multicultural and multinational character of Canada is worth protecting.

Ideology and Political Science: Diversity Matters!

I hate ideology.  Or at least, I’m suspicious of people who are extremely sure and confident about their ideological beliefs.

The discipline of political science is very ideological.  I know from first hand experience that academics like to sort different scholars into different ideological camps, usually based on superficial information (e.g. where you went to school or who you co-authored with) or the reading of only one publication.  Where do I fall? Most believe I’m a hard core right-winger, based on my association with Tom Flanagan (because he was my MA supervisor and we co-authored some books and articles in the past). Yet, the reality is, I’m ideologically confused! Continue reading

People are usually very surprised to hear that.  They would rather have you fall neatly into one of three ideological camps: left, right, or centre (the latter of which my buddy Chris Cochrane will show in his forthcoming book, is not the middle position that people assume it is!).  Last year or so, I participated on a panel for Steve Paikin’s, tv show, The Agenda.  One of the panelists was a very popular and well-known Aboriginal scholar.  Throughout the taping, this person was very cold and detached towards me, right from the first time we met.  By the end, however, he had warmed up considerably, even remarking to me that “you weren’t quite what I expected.”

In any event, I don’t trust ideological certainty and indeed, I value scholarly uncertainty because it facilitates meaningful knowledge production.  Indeed, in my view, an ideal scholarly environment is one where you are surrounded by people who inhabit all parts of the left-right divide but who are open to discussion, debate, and, dare I say it, changing their mind in the face of empirical evidence and logically-sound argument. Surprisingly, however, not all departments agree.

Recently, a number of prominent psychologists published a piece in Behavioural and Brain Sciences that confirms many of my beliefs on this topic. Although the authors are talking about social psychological science, my hunch is that their findings also apply to the discipline of political science in Canada.  Below is the abstract:

Abstract: Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity—particularly diversity of viewpoints—for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: 1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years; 2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike; 3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and 4) The underrepresentation of nonliberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

Check out the article here.

Teaching Canadian Federalism: A “Flipped Classroom” Lesson Plan

My goal in PO 263, which is the introductory course on Canadian political institutions, is to add one new active learning unit every year I teach it.  Last year, I introduced a flipped classroom activity on the Supreme Court of Canada, which I’ve blogged about previously and will be using again in two weeks.

The new activity I added this year was for my federalism unit.  Prior to class, students completed two readings (e.g. a textbook chapter and a journal article), a tutorial discussion, and an online quiz on the textbook reading.  In class, I lectured for an hour (interspersed with “top hat monocle” activities) on the various forces that have placed stress on our Canadian federal system.

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After the break, I divided the students into groups of five or six and told them the following:

“You have been hired by the government of Canada to recommend a wholesale redesign of Canada’s federal system. You have been given complete freedom to make whatever recommendations you wish to make. Reflecting on the knowledge you have acquired about Canadian federalism and how it has developed over time, how would you redesign the Canadian federal system?”

The groups were given 40 minutes to draw up and email me a proposal for how they might change our federal division of powers.  They were also to provide a one minute presentation summarizing their main changes and why.

Incentives in the form of classroom participation and bonus marks were also added to encourage students to participate.

The results were pretty fantastic.  All of the students were involved in the discussions and the proposals they generated were very interesting, but also a useful launching pad for a class discussion about some enduring themes in the course: e.g. the dynamics of institutional change and institutional design. We also discussed whether the diversity in the proposals reflected the impossibility of designing a federal system to accommodate all interests and thus separatism is inevitable, or whether the diversity combined with the resilience of the Canadian federation indicates that federalism is the solution to managing countries like Canada.

At the end of class, lots of smiles and energy. During class, lots of good discussion in the groups.

It’s certainly a activity I’ll use again in the future but maybe add some additional steps, such as having students vote on proposals or “vote with their feet”!

UPDATE: Another thing I would do next time would be to tell the class about the activity before they completed the various homework activities (e.g. the readings, tutorials, and online quiz) and attended lecture.  I think if the students knew what was coming, the quality of the proposals would be much better.  As well, recent research suggests that “problem-based” learned activities are effective mainly because they force students to do more prep work which in turn results in more successful learning.  Interestingly, the “problem-based” activity itself seems to only have a limited impact on learning outcomes.  At least that’s the finding reported in a recent PS: Political Science and Politics article. Check out that article, written by Robert P. Amyot (Hastings College), here.

UPDATE PART2: Here is the activity sheet for anyone who wants to use this activity and here are the slides I used to introduce the activity.

Something Old or Something New? Territorial Development and Influence within the Canadian Federation

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Authors: George Braden, Christopher Alcantara, and Michael Morden.

Published in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011, edited by Nadia Verrelli.

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Description: Copy of chapter available here.

Learning to School: An Interview with Author Jennifer Wallner

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Dr. Jennifer Wallner is assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. She has published articles in many of the discipline’s leading journals, such as Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Comparative Political Studies, the Peabody Journal of Education, and Canadian Journal of Political Science. Her new book, Learning to School: Federalism and Public Schooling in Canada, was recently published by University of Toronto Press and explains how and why the Canadian provinces have achieved a remarkably coherent system of elementary and secondary education, without the intervention of the federal government.

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Wallner about her new book via email in 2014.
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Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Wallner: Well, as you know, one big practical motivator for writing a book is the fact that we need to publish to get tenure! But, more substantively, this book evolved from my PhD dissertation. A student of federalism and public policy, I wanted to understand the ways in which the constituent members of a federation manage to craft coherent yet differentiated policy systems despite institutional fragmentation and societal diversity. I picked the education sector because it is critical to the success of any state and one of the most important services it delivers. What is more, in federations, the responsibility for schooling falls to the substate governments – or provinces in the Canadian context. This institutional design creates, on the one hand, unique opportunities for policy experimentation but, on the other hand, also ushers in the potential for incoherent and unequal schooling systems to emerge as the provinces pursue different practices. As I PhD student, I wanted to understand the evolution and management of the provincial elementary and secondary schooling systems.

Alcantara: So how different or similar are educational policy systems across provinces and territories?

Wallner: Before answering that question, I have to clarify something. Because of major differences in the respective institutional and economic capacities of the provinces and territories – let alone their historical independence and autonomy from the federal government – I decided to focus on explaining and understanding the evolution of the provincial systems alone. So – if we look at the provinces, in the main, the core components of their respective education systems demonstrate far more similarity than difference. I show this in three ways. I track the relative investments that are made, the achievements realized, and the substantive content of the policies themselves. To unpack the content, I break the schooling sector into five dimensions (administration, finance, curriculum, assessment, and the teaching profession) and detail what each province is doing. This is not to suggest that the are exact replicas or copies of one another – obvious differences include separate Catholic school boards in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario and the unique transition years between secondary and post-secondary schooling in Quebec, known as CEGEP. But – taking a broad view, the schooling systems are remarkably similar across the federation.

Alcantara: That is really surprising! As you know, the old school federalism literature talks about how federal systems are advantageous because they permit policy experimentation and so it’s somewhat surprising to hear how similar the provincial education systems are. So is this a case where the systems have always been similar right from the beginning? Or did the systems evolve and converge through policy experimentation and learning?

 Wallner: I was definitely surprised by the results! Once it was clear that there was convergence, I wanted to see if provincial similarity was a more recent phenomenon driven by such things as globalization or US influence. So, I decided to take a long view and adopt an historical approach and went all the way back to the 1840s when then-colonial governments of British North America began to enact policies for public schooling. It turns out that at first some interesting differences appeared among the colonies – and what would later become the provinces – as officials in the different areas pursued different options. However, following Confederation, provincial officials were keenly aware of the fact that they needed to meet and exchange information on their different education arrangements and so formed the Dominion Education Association. Teachers and school board officials also got into the mix by the 1920s and created their own associations that brought together representatives from coast to coast. This activity set down a tradition of dedicated information exchanges that helped facilitate what public policy people like to call ‘policy oriented learning’. And so – by 1945, many of the differences that had originally marked the provinces were already disappearing thanks to experts and officials learning from one another and adapting practices to fit within their respective jurisdictions.

Alcantara: How did these policy learning processes and networking exchanges become so permanent and robust and resistant to differentiation and the forces of change (e.g. economic shocks, international and local/regional labour trends, and the like)? Were they institutionalized in some manner?

 Wallner: I should clarify something – it is not as if in 1945 all policy experimentation stopped and all the provinces looked alike with the education systems as we know them today. In some ways I wish it had been that simple. Instead, some provinces always continued to experiment often in response to many of those factors you mentioned above like economic shocks and labour trends. When new practices popped up in one province, the others could watch to see if they worked – like university-led teacher education programs, that started in Alberta and then spread across the rest of the country. So, what contributed to the permanence and robustness of the learning network? One of the major things that contributed to this was the creation of the Council for Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) in 1967. This is an organization for education ministers and their senior deputies alone. They have regularly scheduled meetings and a permanent secretariat based in Toronto that helps keep things going – even as governments change hands across the provinces after elections. I am not saying that everything is channeled through CMEC – but the Council helped to institutionalize the learning network and offers a focal point for information exchanges thus facilitating the necessary communication from coast to coast.

Alcantara: So what are the implications of your research findings in terms of a) what we should expect to see from provincial education policy in the future; and b) what policymakers might learn from your work?

 Wallner: Great questions! For many people, one issue that is already getting considerable coverage is the declining math scores in all provinces, except Quebec. I hope that officials are going to capitalize on Canada’s comparative advantage and draw lessons from Quebec to help improve things in the rest of the jurisdictions. Moving beyond what I covered in my book – another issue that receives considerably less attention but is one that needs to be addressed is the quality of schooling for Aboriginal children, and the new autonomy that the territories have over schooling in their respective regions and what that will mean for provincial and territorial cooperation in education.

On the lessons learned – I hope that three things come out from the book. First, and this is something we did not have a chance to get into here but schooling systems are in fact a collection of policies and practices that are often developed in isolation from one another. For example, some area of the bureaucracy will specialize in curriculum while another focuses on administration. Decisions in administration, however, can influence things in curriculum and so it is important to recognize the interconnections among the different dimensions of education policy. Second, interprovincial communication is critical and must happen regularly. It is only through actively exchanging ideas that we learn from one other and make overall improvements to our schooling systems. Third and most importantly is that provincial policy makers can build remarkably effective policy systems – like education – without the direct intervention of the federal government and without expecting each province to do exactly the same thing.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what are you hoping to write about next?

Wallner: I am turning my attention to other Anglo-American federations – Australia and the US – to unpack the different trajectories of the schooling systems in those two other countries. Both cases are fascinating in and of themselves and in comparison with Canada. Did you know, for example, that more than 30 percent of Australians attend private schools that are supported by public funds? Or that many US governors have little authority over schooling policy in their states? Both countries are also in the throws of considering some major changes to the way that schooling is managed, specifically with respect to the role that should be played by the Commonwealth and Washington respectively. Bottom line: this makes great fodder for political science and public policy research!

Explaining the Emergence of Indigenous–Local Intergovernmental Relations in Settler Societies: A Theoretical Framework

Authors: Jen Nelles and Christopher Alcantara.

Published September 2014 in Urban Affairs Review.

Abstract: There has been growing interest among practitioners and academics in the emergence of intergovernmental relations between local and Aboriginal governments in Canada. Initial research has focused on describing the nature of these relations but has yet to develop any theoretical expectations regarding why some communities are more likely to cooperate than others. We address this lacuna by developing a theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of cooperation between Aboriginal and local governments. After identifying a set of variables and specifying how they are likely to affect the propensity of communities to cooperate, we conclude with a discussion of how future researchers might use this framework to investigate cooperation and noncooperation between Aboriginal and local governments in Canada and in other settler societies.

Saving Canada’s “marriage”

Published Sept. 17, 2014, in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Aboriginal leaders often quip that modern treaties are like a marriage, but that Ottawa treats them like a divorce.

Recently, a new constellation of respected aboriginal leaders, politicians, judges of the highest rank, experienced civil servants, philanthropists and others came together to try to help save the marriage. Its brightest stars include two former prime ministers and several high-profile First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders.

Calling themselves Canadians for a New Partnership (CFNP), they declared in their founding declaration they would “bring a new energy and reconciliation to the project of building a better Canada.” In their view, government and civil society have so far failed to “embrace the notion of partnership fully and place it at the very heart” of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

Click here for more…

Death of Research Papers? Maybe. Death of Long Assignments? Definitely Not!

My colleague, Derek Hall, responds to my blog post about the death of research papers at the undergraduate level.

As usual, he’s written an excellent, and well-reasoned response to my blog post.  When I interviewed at Laurier in 2008, I didn’t know him at all except he was the “shrimp” guy (he wrote a number of academic papers on shrimp farming in East Asia). As a colleague, I’ve come to appreciate not only his productivity and research interests (which sometimes and surprisingly dove-tail with mine, although he approaches these topics from a political economy perspective), I’ve also come to appreciate his interests in zombies and board games, oddly enough!

Enjoy!

Guest Blog Post by Dr. Derek Hall. 

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So I’m the guy who went through all of our department’s syllabi a couple of years ago to see what kinds of assignments we’re giving our students. (I was our undergraduate officer then – I hope that excuses this weird behaviour.) Chris asked me whether I’d like to respond to his suggestion that the “death of the term paper may not be such a bad thing.” I’ve enjoyed thinking more about this topic and will try to put a few arguments together.

I should say first that going through all those syllabi left me impressed by the range of assignments we ask our students to do. We have definitely left behind the days in which the default grading scheme for an Arts class was midterm-paper-final-participation, and I think that’s fantastic. I try to mix things up in different ways in my own classes, including through frequent use of my favourite assignment – sets of analytical reading response questions (the burpees of social science). I also agree with Chris that moving towards more assignments that prepare students for the kinds of writing they’re likely to have to do in the workplace is a good thing, and it’s something we’re doing already.

I should also note that the main goal of my survey of syllabi was to see whether we were still asking our students to do relatively long pieces of writing of, say, more than 4000 words. Longer assignments don’t need to be term papers; students can build some of the same skills doing policy reports, say, or critical literature reviews. But I do think that the research essay specifically is something we should hold on to – that is, I think that a student coming out of an Honours BA in Political Science should have had to write at least a couple of research essays of over 5000 words. That’s so for a bunch of reasons, but I’ll mostly focus here on ones that relate to what I think it means to prepare students for the workforce.

It’s easy to assume that shorter forms of writing like policy briefs and opinion pieces are simpler and less involved than longer forms like research essays, and that asking students to take on the more baroque form is unnecessary if what they need to learn is how to deal with the simpler ones. I’m not sure that’s right. A good op-ed or policy brief is going to be the distillation of an enormous amount of focused and organized research. The grad students I teach in Laurier’s International Public Policy MA write policy briefs, and one of the things I try to convey to them is that pretty much every sentence they write needs to have a paragraph or more of thinking and analysis behind it. Put differently, a 3000-word policy brief written by someone who only has 3000 words to say on the topic is not going to be very good. Writing a strong brief presupposes that you can absorb, integrate, and structure enormous amounts of information, and that you can grapple in a convincing way with both empirical and argumentative nuance and complexity. It seems to me that the best way to learn to do those things is to do them – that is, to write the kinds of longer pieces in which you go through those exercises.

I would also argue that putting together a research paper, rather than being a more involved exercise than writing a policy brief, is actually a sub-component of writing one. A policy brief needs to have at its heart some kind of causal model of how things work in the relevant policy area – of what the effects of past interventions in the area have been, and what future interventions are likely to do. This model will need, again, to be comprehensive and nuanced enough to convince people who know the literature that you know what you’re talking about. Here too, then, writing a research paper involves learning to do this stuff – identifying precise questions, reading widely, assembling evidence and structuring information, making an analytical argument, dealing with counter-arguments and alternative explanations – by actually doing it, and doing it on a canvas that is broad enough that you can’t avoid coming to terms with nuance and complexity. Again, if your policy brief doesn’t have all of that behind it, it will show.

Put more generally: Even if we assume that our job as professors is to prepare students for the workforce, it doesn’t follow that we do that by asking them to write exactly the kinds of things that they might be asked to write on the job. It’s a standard feature of learning to do complex things that you spend a lot of time on training exercises that aren’t themselves the thing that you want to learn to do. Great 10k runners don’t become great 10k runners by running 10k as fast as they can every day; they mix up all kinds of speeds and distances (including ones much longer than 10k), along with form drills, stretches, and cross-training.

Writing policy briefs may work the same way – that is, it’s possible that you don’t develop the “real world” skill of writing a policy brief by writing policy briefs over and over again. I see my analytical reading response question assignment as a very short example of this kind of skills-building, and as fitting in with Chris’ emphasis on the very real benefits of more and shorter writing assignments. The assignment asks students to work on critical thinking in a focused, intense way, and I think that it helps students to develop these broadly relevant skills despite the fact that our graduates will never have to write reading response questions in the workplace. Term papers work the same way – they’re just longer than policy briefs rather than shorter.

It’s possible, then, that the fact that students are unlikely to be asked to write research papers in the workplace is an argument for, not against, our asking them to write them in university. If the experience of grappling with a really big, analytically focused, empirical assignment builds critical work-related skills that employers are unlikely to give you a chance to develop, then surely we need to give our students that chance while they’re still in school.

More on the Sessional Instructor Debate: Some Thoughts

In a previous post, I provided some perhaps unpopular observations and arguments to a debate surrounding the pay and working conditions of sessional instructors.

Recently, my colleague, Dr. Karen Lochead, provided some important counterarguments to my original post. Let me respond in kind.

Below, I’ve reproduced her comments, with my responses.

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Lochead: Whether a sessional instructor (or Contract Academic Staff – CAS – as they are called at WLU) is interested in a future tenure-track position is really besides the point. The working conditions and pay scale of CAS are unacceptable.

Alcantara: I think it matters to some extent in that some jobs are meant to be part-time (and short-term/medium-term positions) and some are meant to be full time careers, and so the pay and working conditions created by the employer reflect that underlying idea.  But I agree that the working conditions are generally unacceptable. The pay scale, however, is somewhat reasonable if we realize that sessional instructor positions are not tenure-stream, salaried positions.  Sessional instructors are hired on a year by year, course by course basis and are not employed by the university to do research and service. They are hired to be course instructors only.  Period. Some may do other things, and that’s there prerogative.  But when it comes down to the actual, paid duties, CAS are paid to teach the courses to which they have been hired.

Lochead: Although CAS are being increasingly relied upon to provide courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, CAS have no job security. It is true that there are some CAS who enjoy the flexibility of contract-by-contract employment, but a much larger number regularly feel the strain of being unable to predict how many courses (and which particular courses) they might be teaching in any given semester and over any given academic year.

Alcantara: I agree that CAS have no job security, much like how supply teachers at the high school, middle school, and primary school levels, don’t have job security.  This sucks.  No question.  But that’s nature of the position.  It’s very clearly a contract by contract system and nobody gives candidates the impression that life as a CAS is anything but a temporary employment opportunity.   The CAS system fluctuates according to enrollment needs and tenure-stream sabbaticals and leaves.  Individuals may decide they want to pursue a career as a sessional instructor, but then that requires realizing the nature and the vagaries inherent in the job.

Lochead: This also means that unlike tenured/tenure-track faculty who generally teach the same complement of courses year after year with only occasional modifications, many CAS are regularly teaching a new complement of courses. As a result, CAS are regularly required to dedicate a significant amount of UNPAID time to developing new courses from scratch, reviewing and selecting course materials for such new courses as well as for courses they haven’t taught in a while, organizing tutorials/labs, preparing courses syllabi, developing tests, exams and assignments, etc.

Alcantara: Why is prep time considered unpaid time? For full time faculty, 40% of our paid work is teaching. Teaching not only means classroom time during the term, but also the prep involved beforehand and afterwards.  So, again, let’s consider the $80,000 tenure-stream example.  In this example, the tenure stream faculty members is getting $32,000 to teach four courses.  The sessional is receiving $28,000 for his four courses.  In both cases, that portion of the salary includes prep time, right?

It is true that sessionals have to teach many more new courses (although that rapidly becomes less true every year that a sessional teaches in a department because they build seniority in certain courses and therefore get them everytime they are advertised).  But it’s also misleading to say that full-time faculty members do only “occasional modifications” to their existing courses.  That may be true for some, but for most young and mid-career faculty members, course curriculum is constantly changing even when the same course is taught by the same tenure-stream faculty, given new research finding, new teaching technologies, new pedagogies and new insights into how we learn, etc.  This year marks the fifth time I’ve taught PO 263 but the course structure, lectures, tutorials, assignments, and even pedagogies have changed dramatically every year as I seek to incorporate all of the things mentioned above.

Lochead: Making this situation even more unacceptable is the fact that CAS contracts are only extended 2-4 weeks before the start of each semester. This means that all of this important course prep work has to be accomplished in a very short amount of time AND well after the final submission date for textbook and coursepak orders. Consequently, it is much more difficult for CAS to ensure that course materials are ready for students on the first day of classes than it is for tenured/tenure-track faculty.

Alcantara: I agree this is a MAJOR problem and ideally universities need to address it by hiring well in advance of the term.  In some cases, however, it is impossible to do so if only because some faculty members go on an emergency leave at the last minute, or a pregnancy leave, or the like.  Or another CAS drops out of a course because they took a better offer elsewhere.  In those cases, the university only has 2 weeks to hire before the term starts.  I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem.

Lochead: It should also be kept in mind that many CAS are in fact teaching on a full-time basis. By ‘full-time’ I mean teaching 3-4 courses in both the fall and winter semesters (and occasionally during the spring & summer semesters as well). This compares with tenure/tenure-track faculty who teach 4 courses per academic year. And many, many CAS are also engaged in a wide variety of unpaid service activities such as student advising, committee work, guest lectures, preparing letters of reference, etc.

Alcantara: Here, again, I would emphasize a CAS is not a tenure-stream position.  A tenure-stream position has a salary attached to it and a defined workload of 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.  A CAS is not a salaried position.  The workload and pay is on a course-by-course basis (and is 100% teaching). This is not to say that some individuals see and work as a CAS on a full-time basis (e.g. teaching 3-4 courses per term) but this does not mean that this individual has a salaried position equivalent to a tenure-stream position.  A CAS is also not expected to do committee work, guest lectures, preparing references of letter.  Student advising? Yes, as this would be part of the teaching duties but only for those courses they are hired to do.

Lochead: Using Alcantara’s calculations I don’t think it is difficult to conclude that the work load of ‘full-time’ CAS is equal to the 40% (teaching) + 40% (research) + 20% (service) required of tenured/tenure-track faculty. Or is there an assumption that tenure/tenure-track faculty should be paid more for the time they devote to research? I don’t agree with this assumption but even if one does, this discrepancy is easily rectified through the additional teaching many full-time CAS do during the spring and/or summer semesters.

Alcantara: Again, I would emphasize the fundamental difference between a tenure-stream position and CAS.  CAS is a contract by contract, course-by-course position. it is not a continuing or permanent salaried position, and so there may be some differences in pay. I agree, however, that tenure-stream positions should be paid the same, whether it’s a teaching tenure-stream position (e.g. a workload of 80% teaching and 20% service) or the traditional regular tenure-stream position (e.g. 40/40/20).

Lochead: Universities like WLU have committed to significantly increasing the number of students in their programs while keeping the number of tenured/tenure-track faculty the same. At the same time, the teaching requirements of tenured/tenure-track faculty have remained the same or decreased. It is high time that CAS were given the respect and compensation they deserve for the role they are playing in the changing arena of university education.

Alcantara: I agree! But the solution should be for universities to hire more tenure-stream teaching positions, which provide more stability, better working conditions, and better outcomes for instructors, students, and administrators.

Gender Roles in the Classroom: Time for a Rethink?

Recently, in my first year seminar, I asked my students, all of whom were sitting in these new, rolling desks/chairs, to form groups of three.  Interesting, the groups were mostly aligned by gender (e.g. all male or female groups) and ethnicity.  Indeed, this groupings existed right from the beginning of the first class.

There are a lot of reasons why this may have happened and I’ll leave it to the critical theory scholars to tell us why.

But I wonder to what extent is some of this the result of the type of socialization that goes on in schools these days?

My oldest son is in grade 2 and over the last two years, I’ve asked him about what he does in school.  Every month or so, he describes how in math or science or gym, his class would play a game and frequently, the teacher structures the opposing teams in terms of gender (e.g. boys vs. girls).

I never understood why teachers divided teams along gender lines. And now, I worry and wonder about what kind of effect does this have on young people in terms of their in-group/out-group identity as they develop?

 

Revisiting the Debate: Canadian and Comparative Politics

Last summer, I wrote a blog post lamenting the decline of Canadian politics.  I worried about whether the “big” departments would continue to prioritize and hire scholars to teach and write about Canadian politics.  I complained about the push for a “comparative turn” in Canadian politics, directing some worry towards a volume that many of my friends, mentors, and colleagues put together at UofT on this very issue.

Although UBC and McGill have not advertised any Canadian politics jobs recently, UofT has this year, as has Queen’s, which are welcome signs.  But the debate continues! Recently, UBC Press announced the publication of a new volume entitled, Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics, edited by some of the best, young, Canadian political scientists on the scene today (of course, I may be biased since all were at UofT when I was there and all are friends or at least acquaintances but still!).

The following below is a message from one of the editors, Luc Turgeon (assistant professor of political science at University of Ottawa), commenting on my original blog post and his new co-edited book.
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Dear Chris –

 

I promised you last year I would eventually write a rejoinder to your blog entry “Political Scholars fiddle while Rome Burns”. I apologize for taking so long!

 

In that blog, you lamented the assault on the study of Canadian politics. You pointed to the gradual replacement of Canadian scholars by comparative ones in political science departments throughout the country and to the growing promotion of the “comparative turn in Canadian political science”, rather than a focus solely on Canada. In this year’s presidential address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Alain Noël was similarly very critical of the “comparative turn”.

I share many of your worries about the future of our discipline. And I could not agree more with you “that political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics”.

 

It might seem strange that I share some of your critiques of the “comparative turn in Canadian politics” considering that I recently published a co-edited volume entitled Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadians Politics. Whereas the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science explored the ways in which Canadian scholars contribute (or not) to comparative politics theories, our book explores the ways in which the comparative method allows us to better understand Canada.

 

In our book, while promoting the potential benefits of the comparative method to the study of Canadian politics, we also acknowledge three potential limits or problems with what your present as “embracing the comparative turn”.

The first one is simply that our discipline cannot and should not be reduced to a subfield of comparative politics. Normative and critical perspectives on Canadian politics have been and are still central to our discipline. Moreover, some of the main contributions of Canadians to international political science and comparative politics have been the result of our interest (some might say obsession) with normative issues raised by the country’s struggle over national unity and debates about Canadian multiculturalism.

 

The second potential problem is that a focus on comparison can lead us to dismiss case studies or Canada-centred studies. As discussed in the introduction of our book, such case studies are crucial to explore under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and also to inductively develop new theoretical perspectives. Moreover, as Alain Noël stressed in his presidential address, comparative politics privileges a positivist epistemology. The object of social science inquiry is not always to explain, but also to interpret or to criticize. In such case, a comparative strategy might not be useful in light of the researcher’s intentions.

 

The third problem is that it can give a relatively distorted view of the history of our discipline. The main strength of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is that it documents, I believe, a real shift in the 1990s and 2000s as the number of cross-national studies of Canada increased significantly. The different contributors also artfully explore the way Canadian political scientists have been “givers” or “takers” when it comes to theories of comparative politics. These are important contributions that should not be dismissed.

 

I find problematic though the idea that, somehow, Canadian political science was before the 1990s “introspective, insular, and largely atheoretical”, to quote from the The Comparative Turn‘s blurb. While Canadian political scientists were certainly preoccupied by national unity concerns, they engaged with theoretical debates in international political science and used some of those approaches to illuminate the Canadian case. Just to give an example from our book, political economy in Canada was influenced by and engaged with theoretical perspectives such as British neo-marxism and the French regulation school.

 

Many of the critiques of the “Comparative Turn”, whether fair or not, came down to the fact that it gave the impression that our first objective as students of Canadian politics should be to contribute to the international comparative scholarship. The first objective, critiques responded, should be in fact to better understand Canada.

I believe that the comparative approach to the study of Canadian politics can contribute to the revitalization, not the cannibalization, of the study of Canadian politics. In order to do so, we must first recognize that the comparative approach is one of many other approaches that can help us better understand Canadian politics. We must also acknowledge that in order to contribute to the study of Canadian politics, our students need to know better the history of our discipline, and not only the most recent comparative theoretical approaches.

 

Comparison can play an important role in the study of Canadian politics. It allows us to overcome a number of potential pitfalls: making erroneous normative claims about aspects Canadian politics, exaggerating Canada’s specificity or uniqueness, neglecting the country’s internal diversity (which brings the important of comparative provincial or local studies), and over-emphasizing the centrality of certain factors in explaining different political phenomena.

 

More importantly for the study of Canadian politics though, the comparative method and continuing engagement with the comparative literature can leads us to ask new questions about our country and explore aspects of Canadian politics previously neglected or overlooked. As Stretton argued in the late 1960s, the function of comparison is perhaps less to simulate an experiment than to stimulate imagination.

 

Ultimately, one of the main merits of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is to have contributed to a debate about methodological approaches to the study of Canadian politics. We need to pursue that reflection. There are a number of methodological approaches in fact that have not been sufficiently explored in the study of Canadian politics (life history, political ethnography, different experimental methods, etc).

 

More than a decline of Canadian politics, I see a renewal. The national unity crisis of the post-1970s had a defining impact on our discipline, contributed to the intervention of many political scientists in the public sphere and influenced their research. What I see today are a number of political scientists exploring previously under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and using different platforms to disseminate their findings. In most cases, those who adopt a comparative perspective do so not because of some sort of misguided belief in the superiority of comparative approaches, but because they think that such approaches allow us to gain important insights about our country.

 

Luc Turgeon

 

I’m a big fan of Luc Turgeon, both as a person and as a scholar.  The first time I met him, we clashed in the Sidney Smith lunch room over the value of Canadian political science. I was a very junior PhD student and Luc was one of the rising stars in the department.  I don’t remember who argued what but I do remember we had a vigorous debate and that I must have been losing because some of my colleagues began to inch away from me as the debate continued!

Luc’s letter sounds promising.  I like the nuance he provides in terms of the contributions and relationship between Canadian and comparative politics.  How many political scientists in Canada, however, agree? Maybe this book will spur a much needed debate in Canada political science departments.  Will the anti-Canadianists listen?

 

Missing Aboriginal Women and the Canadian State

This is a topic I don’t know very much about except what the statistics indicate: that this is a major problem in Canada and that it’s clear that action is needed.  But what kind of action?

The popular answer seems to be that the federal government should hold a national inquiry.  Critics counter by saying that there is already a large body of research out there and so there’s no need for another study.

Harper’s original response was that this issue was a criminal one, rather than one based in sociological issues.

So what should the federal government do? I think the government needs to act, at least symbolically, but ideally with real action.

If critics are right that there are already many studies available, then a national inquiry is not an answer.

In terms of real action, I think meeting with the provinces, the territories and Aboriginal governments and stakeholders at a series of roundtables is certainly one viable course of action and should be pursued.  Here, the participants could develop a national strategy based on existing research.

In terms of symbolic action, Harper needs to go old school.  He needs to deliver a rousing speech in Parliament, like some of the great parliamentarians, and address the Canadian people on this important issue.  Take a page from the residential school apology and use Parliament to address the nation about the importance of this problem and his desire to address it.

 

 

“Most university undergrads now taught by poorly paid part-timers”

So reads the headline of a new CBC article.

In many ways, the picture painted in the story about part time university instructors is very accurate. They tend to get paid relatively little to teach a university course (at Laurier, it’s about $7000 for a one term course) and yet many of them are highly committed and motivated teachers.

On the other hand, I’m also somewhat less sympathetic to those CAS who complain about the pay and see the life of a sessional instructor as a long-term or even medium-term career. Continue reading

When someone decides to do a PhD, at least in political science, the ultimate goal is almost always a tenure-track job. Typically, these positions require individuals to spend 40% of their time on research, 40% on teaching, and 20% on service (e.g. committee work and administration inside and outside the university).  Sometimes a PhD accreditation is necessary for some careers, but for the most part, it is not (and can sometimes work against you).

If you are unable to get a tenure-stream position right out of school, then you have three options.  Don’t work and try to publish as much as possible.  Get a post-doc for several years which pays you a small salary (approximately $40,000 a year), an opportunity to teach one course, and the time to publish like crazy.  Or you can go the part-time teaching route (see the CBC article) and hope to find time to publish (good luck!). The key in all three cases is publishing, which is the surest track to getting on to tenure-stream shortlists and interviews.

Unless you are personally wealthy or have a spouse who makes enough money to support you, however, none of these options are meant to be long-term employment strategies.  They are all meant to be short-term (3-5 years maximum) opportunities while you try to strengthen your CV (resume) for the tenure-stream job market. Simply put, the reality is that a CAS position is not a long-term career path and shouldn’t be seen as such until such time the funding structures in universities should change.

The other aspect that always get mentioned in these kinds of reports yet is rarely analyzed is the difference in pay and workload between full time and part time faculty members.

From the CBC article:

A full course load for professors teaching at most Canadian universities is four courses a year.  Depending on the faculty, their salary will range between $80,000 and $150,000 a year.  A contract faculty person teaching those same four courses will earn about $28,000.

 

Full time faculty are also required to research, publish, and serve on committees, but many contract staff do that as well in the hope of one day moving up the academic ladder.  The difference is they have to do it on their own time and on their own dime.

 

As I mentioned previously, a full-time professor typically has a workload of 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service.  A CAS position is a part time teaching position. Two phrases are important here: “part-time” and “teaching”. Again, a CAS position is not a full-time position.

So let’s take the $80,000 salary of an assistant professor and figure out what 40% (e.g. the typical teaching workload) of that salary would be: The answer is $32,000. That means that the salary difference between the teaching duties of a full time vs. part time position is $4,000, using the numbers from the CBC story.

Should there be a discrepancy in these salaries? Maybe not. At least it might be reasonable to argue that courses should be paid at a rate indexed to the salary floor of assistant professors.  As well, of course, tenure-stream faculty salaries tend to go up every year, depending on the details in the collective agreement and so perhaps some sort of salary adjustment should be implemented along the lines used at the secondary and primary education levels.

Still, I’m not sure what the solution is.  I’ve always thought that the sessional or part-time route was exactly that: part-time, short-term employment until you could secure that tenure-stream job or find something else inside (e.g. administration such as working in a research office) or outside of academia.  And so I guess I have always had less sympathy for those who see CAS positions as underpaid, long-term employment positions.

Happily, universities are starting to understand the importance of teachers.  At WLU, we have started to hire teaching-stream faculty members who would teach more, have tenure, and earn a full-time wage (with a workload of 80% teaching and 20% service).  I hope we create more of these positions in the future.

Canadian First Ministers’ Conferences and Heresthetic Strategies: Explaining Alberta’s Position on Multiculturalism at the 1971 Victoria Conference

Authors: Christopher Alcantara, Renan Levine, James C. Walz

Published Spring 2014 in Journal of Canadian Studies.

Abstract: The Province of Alberta seems an unlikely early advocate of multiculturalism; yet, several months before the federal government unveiled its official policy on this issue, it was an Alberta premier, Harry Strom, who demanded that multiculturalism be a condition for constitutional reform during the 1971 Victoria Constitutional Conference. What explains this puzzle? Using William Riker’s concept of heresthetics and the literature on Alberta politics, Western alienation, and Canadian federalism, the authors argue that Strom introduced multiculturalism at the conference as a strategic manoeuvre to bolster and defend Alberta’s compact perspective on federalism and to block any constitutional change that would prevent Alberta from recognizing itself as an equal and autonomous partner in the Canadian federation. The authors’ findings suggest that Riker’s concept of heresthetics may be useful for analyzing other instances of intergovernmental relations in Canada.

Should We Continue to Assign “Term Papers” in University?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about teaching and learning recently (in between finishing a new book with Jen Nelles and a really cool new paper on political donations with Chris Cochrane: more on these projects once they are closer to completion!).

Last year, a colleague in my department noted that a student could technically complete a BA in political science at WLU without ever having to write a lengthy research paper. This colleague had gone through all of our syllabi and found that very few of us assigned term papers in our courses anymore. This led to some discussion about the need for students to write at least one major term paper during their studies at WLU (or ideally, one major term paper per year).

In my view, the death of the term paper may not be such a bad thing and it seems others agree:

http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/11/20/lets-kill-the-term-paper/
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There is no question that the skills involved in writing a term paper are valuable and should be taught and fostered among our students, but I’m not so sure that the traditional term paper is the way to do it!

In my view, many of the learning outcomes associated with the traditional term paper (e.g. research skills, comprehension and evaluation, critical thinking, and writing) can be better achieved by:

a) shorter, and more frequent writing assignments; and

b) assignments that better mimic what they might do in the real world (e.g. policy briefs; ministerial briefings, summaries of literature or events etc).

I know some of my colleagues engage in scaffolding, which provides students with the same benefits as (a): frequent practice and feedback.  But I’m not sure there’s a ton of value of having students write traditional research/term papers on “should Canada reform its electoral system”, unless such papers are aligned with (b).

I guess much of my skepticism comes from trying to pay more attention to the importance of learning objectives/outcomes and the empirical evidence on learning.  As someone who received absolutely no training and teaching, I’m slowly starting to see the need for reforming my courses and teaching!