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.

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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!


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.

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:
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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!



Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

So reads the title of a new book I just finished reading.  It was written by two psychology professors and a novelist.  In essence, it draws upon the empirical literature (mostly experimentally-based studies) on learning to describe how we learn and how instructors/trainers can best facilitate effective learning.

So what are the key messages? There are three main ones:

1. “Effortful learning” is more effective than “easy learning”.  Forget highlighting and rereading the textbook or your notes.  These strategies give the illusion of effective learning and mastery but empirical studies show that these strategies tend to produce short-term gains.  Instead, “retrieval practice” is more effective for generating meaningful and long-term learning.  By retrieval practice, the authors mean “self-quizzing”. This means reading a portion of the textbook chapter and immediately self-testing without looking at the textbook.  Self-quizzing is more effortful than rereading and highlighting and the empirical research suggests that the latter strategy is more effective than the former.
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2. “Space out your retrieval practice.” Don’t cram. “It’s a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition. Lots of practice works, but only if it’s spaced.”

3. “Interleave the study of different problem types”.  The example they give is baseball players.  It is more effective for batters to see a random mix of fastballs, changeups, and curveballs as opposed to seeing 15 fastballs, then 15 changeups, and then 15 curveballs. “Blocked practice – that is, mastering all of one type of problem before progressing to practice another type – feels (and looks) like you’re getting better mastery as you go, whereas interrupting the study of one type to practice a different type feels disruptive and counterproductive.” Yet “mixing up problem types and specimens improves your ability to discriminate between types, identify the unifying characteristics within a type, and improves your success in a later test or in real-world settings.”

Other effective strategies for learning include elaboration (e.g. “relating the material to what you already know, explaining it to somebody else in your own words, or explaining how it relates to your life outside of class), generation (e.g. “an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or solution”), reflection (e.g. take “a few minutes to review what you have learned), calibration (e.g. “using an objective instrument to clear away illusions and adjust your judgment to better reflect reality”), and mnemonic devices (e.g. memory devices to remember new information).

If these observations accurately reflect the science of how we learn effectively, what does that mean for us as course instructors at the university level (well, at least us political science profs)?

First. I think it means we need to teach or at least inform students about these aspects of learning so they can adopt the right strategies.

It means we need to move away somewhat from the traditional format of weekly readings and lectures, mid term test, final exam, and research essay, towards a structure that embraces low stakes, frequent and cumulative testing. We also need to include more writing opportunities in which students engage more frequently in cumulative elaboration, reflection, and generation.

In my second year courses, I’ve already started to do some of these things with more frequent writing assignments as well as weekly online quizzes based on the readings. I also use and automated response system like learning catalytics (and this year, top hat monocle) to quiz students about lecture material during class, in real-time. But none of my quizzes are cumulative and so perhaps I need to make that adjustment.

Anyway, the book offers a lot of useful advice and insight and is very readable to boot! My one complaint is that at times, they don’t practice what they preach.  It would have been nice, for instance, if they had put some sample retrieval questions at the end of each chapter to help me practice! However, they did interleave and space out their teaching, which was consistent with their argument.  I guess I needed to be more vigilant with the self-quizzing part!

Gendered News: An Interview with author Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant


Dr. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant (Ph.D. McGill) is an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. Concentrating on gender and politics, her current research is comprised of several ongoing projects that deal with gendered aspects of political behaviour, representation, and news media and elections, respectively. Goodyear-Grant has also published work on attitudes toward democracy and political representation, attitudes toward the use of referenda, and so on, all part of a larger research agenda that concentrates on representation and political behaviour.

Recently, she published a book entitled Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics in Canada. (Vancouver: UBC Press), which was shortlisted for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize. According to the jury report:

“Goodyear-Grant’s book offers a rare but important look at the relationship between media coverage and women’s representation in Canada.  In particular it “…asks whether the new media contribute to the supply- and demand-size barriers to women’s political representation.”  The answer is: yes, it does. Drawing on a considerable body of content-analytic data, alongside opinion data from the Canadian Election Studies, Goodyear-Grant offers an impressively detailed analysis of the nature and magnitude of gendered media coverage in Canada.  Goodyear-Grant makes a strong case for the importance of mass media in citizens’ ideas about politics and politicians.  She then outlines important differences in the visibility and treatment of female politicians. The book exposes the heavily biased climate in which female politicians much operate; and offers one possible explanation for ongoing gender gaps in political interest and participation.”

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Goodyear-Grant about her new book via email during the early summer months of 2014.
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Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Goodyear-Grant: Two reasons are particularly important. First, while becoming more common, analyses of media’s effects on the electoral success and political representation of the full diversity of Canadians is under-analyzed. I wrote this book, in part, to fill a gap. Unlike parties, the campaign finance regime, and other important institutions structuring candidacy and office-holding, I didn’t think we had an adequate understanding of how media affects electoral outcomes, as well as the supply of female candidates. Second, this book is also very much an evaluation of news media’s performance. News media serve multiple roles in a political system, and one of these is to act as the information provider. When news coverage is unbalanced or biased, that creates ripples in the system. Some of these may be positive, and some may be negative. I present evidence in the book that certain patterns of coverage can harm female candidates’ electoral prospects, contributing then to under-representation. In this sense, the book is an accounting of how well media live up to their primary task in a democracy. Generally, news media are doing a good job, but there is also systematic evidence of gender imbalance in coverage.

Alcantara: So what kinds of patterns of coverage did you find? And how pervasive were these patterns across media types (e.g. radio, tv, internet, etc.) and media outlets (e.g. “left-wing” vs. “right-wing” outlets)?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of the patterns of coverage, I’ll give you the broad strokes. We tend to think about news coverage in terms of two broad categories: visibility and quality. Visibility refers to how much a person is shown or discussed, as well as how prominent in a newspaper or news broadcast their coverage is placed. On this measure, there is little systematic evidence that women are perennially disadvantaged. On certain indicators of visibility, women lag behind men, but on others, women and men are equal, or women actually outpace men. This last point is important. Some women are very prominent in news, such as former MP and cabinet minister, Belinda Stronach, as well as former NDP MP (and now mayoral candidate for the city of Toronto) Olivia Chow. Yet, this focus on women, or fixation in some cases, is often gendered. Women candidates sometimes receive a lot of news attention because of their novelty value, because they do not fit the bill of the traditional politician, or because of their connection to some powerful man, as in the case of Chow, whose marriage to the former NDP leader Jack Layton is mentioned in every one of her print news stories in my analyses of coverage of the 2006 Canadian federal election. While such coverage sets women apart as “different” because of their gender, likely contributing to enduring stereotypes that view men as the norm in political office, it is not clear that it would be an immediate electoral disadvantage for women. In fact, greater coverage can be beneficial for candidates, depending on the quality of the coverage.

On the more important issue of how men and women are covered in political news, the story is different. Systematic evidence is provided in Gendered News that women tend to be covered differently than their male counterparts because of their gender. Coverage of female candidates often fits into one of roles or stereotypes, sex object, mother, pet, and iron maiden, each of which poses dangers for women’s equal representation in politics, as well as societal gender equality more generally. Indeed, to the extent that news coverage perpetuates well-entrenched, but tired stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles, abilities, and aspirations, media contribute to broader dysfunctions in how the genders see themselves and each other.

The sex object was how Belinda Stronach was consistently portrayed, with news coverage that emphasized her appearance, personal life, and glamour over all else, but also her relationship to her powerful father, the automotive parts magnate, Frank Stronach, suggesting she was not to be taken seriously as a political figure. The iron maiden is another popular frame, and it fits with my discovery in the book that women candidates’ aggressive behaviour is exaggerated in news, while at the same time female “toughness” is implicitly criticized as “unfeminine”. This may be part of the reason for the book’s finding that news depictions of female politicians’ aggressive behaviour are actually detrimental to voters’ evaluations. When a woman goes on the offensive, voters rate her news stories more negatively, a result that was not produced for the male comparators in this portion of the study. This direct link between news coverage and public attitudes puts news media directly in the cross-hairs in assessing why women are politically under-represented.

Alcantara: And what did you find in terms of differences across media types and outlets?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of patterns across media types and outlets, there are clear differences. The contrasts in print and broadcast coverage are due largely to the format differences. Broadcast news has very lean content. A 60-minute television newscast, leaving out time for commercials, has much less actual news than a newspaper. As such, lengthy descriptions are often absent from television news. This seems to benefit female candidates sometimes, because it is in all the descriptive material where commentary on appearances, personal lives, and the like creeps in. My analyses demonstrate that mentions of candidates’ appearances, clothes, and personal lives are much rarer in television news than in print news. Another major difference is the huge emphasis on party leaders in televised news compared to print news. Non-leader candidates are largely absent from national televised news programs. This means that without female party leaders, women are marginal in depictions of campaigns in national televised news. National papers have much more coverage of non-leader candidates, because they have more space. There are other differences, but these are some of the big ones.

In terms of outlets and whether those thought to be “left” or “right” in ideological orientation provide different coverage, not really. There aren’t actually systematic differences along these lines in hard news content (as opposed to editorial content, which I have not analyzed extensively in the book). One might expect more gender-balanced or gender-neutral coverage from outlets thought to lean “left”, but this is not borne out in the data in any systematic way. This finding is consistent with the literature on stereotypes, which says that their activation and use is largely implicit, not the result of explicit bias or prejudice.

Alcantara: Does the party to which a women politician belongs matter for your findings? Or any other individual characteristics, like ethnicity, age, or the like?

Goodyear-Grant: These are complicated questions. Separating the effects of gender on news coverage, on the one hand, from those of party, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics is tough. Starting with the question of party – the most critical consideration guiding the vote, and a powerful influence on news coverage as well – my book proposes that party does matter a great deal. One of the important points here is that gender and party stereotypes interact in important ways. To give an example, women in left-wing parties may be portrayed as more “soft”, compassionate, and liberal than they really are, in part because stereotypes about women and left-leaning parties encourage this. In contrast, where stereotypes collide, such as women in right-leaning parties, the outcome may be different. News stories may depict right-wing women as tougher, more aggressive – as possessing more masculine traits, essentially – because of party. Simply put, party moderates the impact of gender on news coverage.

Other individual characteristics can matter too for how gender influences media coverage. Ethnicity and age are obvious factors. Part of the difficulty in sorting out how they matter is that there have been comparatively few visible minority women and young women office holders to study. I cannot offer systematic evidence, but the analyses in the book suggest that minority and young women may get more coverage on account of their relative novelty, but their coverage may be problematic in what it says or implies about them. For example, my analyses suggest that visible minority women are often presented as exotic.

Alcantara: What kinds of advice might you offer female politicians as they navigate the news media? How about journalists?

Goodyear-Grant: These questions find me on shakier ground! I cannot claim to have much advice for female politicians about how to avoid gendered news, and I say this for several reasons. First, much of the gendering is beyond candidates’ control. There isn’t a whole lot many of them can do about their coverage. Even if they could, it would require hiding or de-emphasizing aspects of their personal lives or who they are – such as de-emphasizing the fact that they have children – and I’m not sure this is a good thing. I interviewed former Prime Minister Kim Campbell for this research, and one of the things she said about going into politics is that you cannot any longer be your authentic self, a fact she found unfortunate. I suppose this is true for both men and women, but to then take it one step further for women and strip them of all the things that make them different from men or that remind the electorate that they’re mothers or wives or daughters is ridiculous. The sacrifice is too great. It also does nothing to push newsmakers, and all of us, away from the idea that politics is a male preserve. Finally, the idea that gendered news is best avoided is not universally true, and especially not in the eyes of candidates on the campaign trail. While I make the case in the book that gendered news, broadly, ultimately harms women’s political representation, at the individual level it is not difficult to identify instances where gendered news has created opportunities for female candidates, either as a result of the practices that produce it or the way it’s received by audiences. Some of the female MPs I interviewed for the book felt, for example, that their gender garnered attention, and they welcomed the “leg up”, so to speak. Gendered news can present both opportunities and obstacles, is what I’m saying.

Journalists generally do a decent job of providing gender-balanced coverage, an important finding in the book. My advice to newsmakers would be to exercise caution and vigilance. Simple. Much of the gendered news coverage that is produced is the result of gender-based stereotypes, which get cued implicitly, without motive or conscious action. In other words, we are susceptible to gendered thinking about candidates because that is the schema with which we look at men and women in the world, all of us, and in many situations. Newsmakers need to be more cautious in the words they choose to describe female candidates and the topics in their stories about female candidates.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what’s your next major project?

Goodyear-Grant: I have a few projects active at the moment. I’m working on several papers assessing gender and race affinities in candidate preferences with Erin Tolley, my colleague at University of Toronto, using data collected from web-based survey experiments conducted over the past year. I’m also embarking on a new 5-year SSHRC-funded project with Amanda Bittner, my colleague at Memorial University, whereby we intend to identify better gender measures for use in survey research, with a focus on election and public opinion surveys. The challenge with this work is that we need to identify the politically-relevant aspects of gender identity, test various operationalizations of these, and then further test how these can be combined in an economical way for widespread use in standard public opinion and election surveys. This is an exciting project, to be sure, and one that is both methodologically and substantively innovative in its outcomes.

Should You Go to University?

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison have a new book out called, What to Consider if You’re Considering University: New Rules for Education and Employment.

The main argument of this book is that university isn’t for everyone. Instead, students need to think more carefully about what is the best post-secondary option given their interests, goals, and aptitudes.

To help students make their decision, at least with respect to university, they suggest considering the following questions (which I’ve taken from a Waterloo Record article): Continue reading

  • Do you read high quality fiction, other than what you had to read in English class? (Books with zombies in them don’t count as “high quality.”)
  • Do you read newspapers (online is fine), magazines like The EconomistMaclean’s and The Walrus, and high quality non-fiction books like those written by Malcolm Gladwell?
  • Do you watch foreign films, art films, public television and documentaries?
  • Do you get excited or troubled about world affairs? Do you seek out information about climate change, conflict in the Middle East, the economic rise of China or developments in stem cell technology?
  • Do you like learning? Do you enjoy museums, art galleries, lectures and discussions that embrace the world of ideas? Are you interested in outer space, the evolution of species, and other scientific topics?

Coates, who was in town on Thursday, calls this a “curiosity test.” Your responses “tell us almost everything we need to know about you,” the book says. If you answered yes to most of these questions, you’re curious and enjoy reading. You will likely enjoy university, do well, and find your way.”

So how would I score right now on this test?

1) I don’t really read high quality fiction, whatever that is.  I do read science fiction though.

2) I do read newspapers and high quality non-fiction, but much of that is for work.

3) I have, but don’t really watch any of those things. At least not very often.

4) Yes. Definitely. Not excited, but more like curious about why they happen or what they mean.

5) Yes, I do like learning.

So I guess university is for me!

But what would my answers have been when I was in high school? I’m not 100% sure, but I think:

1) Again, no.  But I did read lots of science fiction.

2) Yes, but I mainly read the comics and the sports section.  I did skim the front page and I did read Maclean’s religiously for a while . However, that was because my dad used to work for Maclean’s and he would bring home copies for me.

3) Definitely not.

4) Not really. I did pay attention to Canadian politics but did I seek out information? Not really.

5) I’m pretty sure I would have said no at the time. I guess I did have some interest in museums in that I liked the “old civilizations” stuff (mainly as a result of historical board games and computer games).

How about you?

Random Stuff: Co-authorship and Compulsory Voting

There’s a new book from Cambridge University Press written by two political theorists who argue with each other about the merits of Compulsory Voting.  Looks like a great book for teaching!

There’s also a new study (hat tip kids prefer cheese) that looks at how people perceive art that is produced collaboratively or by one artist. Info below:

Rosanna Smith & George Newman
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, forthcoming

Abstract: The present studies investigate whether people perceive the same work of art to be of lower quality if they learn that it was a collaborative work (resulting from the efforts of multiple artists) versus the work of a single artist. Study 1 finds that indeed, as the number of authors increases, the perceived quality of an artwork decreases. Study 2 finds that this effect occurs because people tend to assess quality in terms of the effort put forth by each author, rather than the total amount of effort required to create the work. Study 3 further demonstrates that this bias toward single authors appears to be driven by people’s beliefs, rather than by any inherent differences between individual versus collaborative work. These results broaden our understanding of how perceptions of effort drive evaluative judgments, and are consistent with a more general notion that art is not evaluated as a static entity, but rather as an endpoint in a “creative performance.

I think the study (well, at least based on the abstract!) is interesting but also relevant for academia.  Typically, co-authorship is discounted.  People seem to think that somehow, co-authorship automatically involves less work than single-authored publications.  I can say definitely that it’s not true! I also think that co-authorship has one powerful advantage that single-authorship does not.  You are stuck with some heavily invested in the project, and who will therefore spend lots of time thinking about and discussing the project with you! In single authored work, colleagues will help as much as they can, but won’t do as much as a co-author would and so single-authored studies have to rely heavier on solitary thinking, and peer review/conferences


Do “Audience Response Systems” (e.g. clickers) Produce Better Learning Outcomes?

The answer, according to a new study, is basically no.

Main findings are:

  • Students like clickers. They feel that it helps them pay greater attention in class.
  • Student attendance is also facilitated by clickers.
  • But does it impact learning outcomes? On the metric of “test scores” the answer is no.

All of these findings confirm what I’ve found anecdotally from my classes.  High attendance? Check. Students like them because it helps them pay attention during a three hour night class? Check.

But does it have an effect on test score? I don’t know.  I’ve never really compared.


So, I did a quick and extremely rough comparison between the 2011 and 2013 final grades (not test scores) for my second year intro to Canadian politics course.  It’s nowhere near a perfect comparison, I realize, because some of the content and assignments/final exams are different.  Also, I can’t control for variations in my tone and delivery, the classrooms, timeslots etc. In other words, there’s a lot noise in this comparison. And so I know I should stop here and abandon any hopes of comparison and analysis, but what the heck?! This is a blog so:

2011 had no audience response system. 2013 did. Roughly, what do we see?

In 2011, I had 104 students.  Class average was a C (65.86%). Standard deviation was 15.34%. Median was C+ (68.85%).

In 2013, I had 105 students. Class average was a C+ (68.5%). Standard deviation was 12.1%. Median was B- (70%).

Overall, not much of a difference. (Anyone want to run a t-test for me?!)

But, if we value class attendance and student satisfaction, then maybe test scores shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding whether we should use audience response systems. Or maybe, we might see results differ on other evaluation tools beyond test score.

We need more research on teaching methods and technologies and their effects on learning outcomes.

My Thoughts on the Aboriginal Title SCC Decision: Part 2

The National Post today (Wednesday July 2) printed my op ed on the impact of the recent SCC decision on Aboriginal title.  They haven’t posted a copy on the website yet and I’m not sure they will (the Canada Day holiday has played some havoc with the publishing schedule!).

So, just in case they don’t publish it online at some point, below is the raw, un-copyedited version of the op ed.  I hope my much more legally-informed and inclined colleagues (I’m looking at you guys, Macfarlane and Baker!) will tell me whether I’m right or wrong?
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Headline: A recipe for Indigenous Paralysis?

Of all of the dispute resolution mechanisms available to Indigenous peoples and the Crown in Canada, the judicial system is probably the worst of the lot.  Rarely do judicial decisions create harmony and compromise between two parties.  Instead, they frequently produce winners and losers and all of the negative feelings that come with being labeled as such.

Canadian judges have long been aware of this fact, which partly explains why it took them so long to clarify the exact nature of Aboriginal title in this country.  Previous to this decision, Canadian courts had urged Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders to negotiate their disputes rather than litigate them.  This recent decision, however, dramatically changes this long-standing message from the bench, with potentially dire and unintended consequences.

One of the key mechanisms for addressing the Aboriginal land question in Canada has been the treaty process.  Although far from perfect, Aboriginal groups have been working with the Crown to negotiate comprehensive land claims agreements to facilitate economic development and empower their communities to exercise their autonomy within the broad legal framework of Canada.  Remember that the Supreme Court had previously refused to clearly spell out the nature of Aboriginal title, and so it made sense for Aboriginal groups to negotiate with the Crown.

This new decision, however, radically changes the incentives facing Indigenous people.  Now, we are likely to see Indigenous groups across Canada abandon negotiations in favour of simply asserting their title and sovereignty to all their lands.  Why bother negotiating a modern treaty, which involves giving up Aboriginal title in exchange for a mixed bag of ownership rights to a much smaller portion of Aboriginal lands, when you can exercise something akin to fee simple ownership over all of your traditional lands right away and without the time and expense of negotiating a treaty?

If Aboriginal groups choose this path, then the Crown will have to decide how to react.  Will it radically reform the treaty process to bring Aboriginal groups back to the table? Or will it seek confrontation by pushing the “compelling and substantial public purpose” angle to push development forward despite Aboriginal opposition?  Given the track record of this federal government, I think the latter strategy is more likely and Canadians should brace themselves for years of protests and confrontations.

A second unintended consequence of this decision, and one that I think is just as important as the others, is that it potentially empowers individual Indigenous citizens to hold not only the government of Canada accountable for its actions, but their Aboriginal leaders as well.  Aboriginal title now means something akin to fee simple rights, and which is collectively held by the Aboriginal community.  This also means, among other things, that Aboriginal groups may also face potentially powerful restrictions on how they can use their lands now and in the future.  According to the Supreme Court, lands held under Aboriginal title cannot be used in such a way as to threaten their future use by future generations.

What this means in practice is that even if an Aboriginal government grants its consent to a major economic development project, an individual band member could successfully sue to prevent that development from occurring on the basis that the project threatened the future use of the community’s lands.

It is also possible that band members might use this new definition of Aboriginal title to thwart other land use projects besides resource extraction, such as building casinos and even housing subdivisions. A band member might successfully argue that building a multimillion dollar casino will prevent future band members from using that particular plot of land for traditional cultural practices, like hunting and fishing.

There’s no question that this decision is a “game changer.” What’s unclear is exactly how the game has been changed and for whom.

Christopher Alcantara is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, was published last year by University of Toronto Press and was a finalist for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize.


Double Blind Peer Review: Some Thoughts for the First Timers

Double blind peer review is supposed to be the gold standard of academic research.

According to this model, authors submit manuscripts to journal or book editors who in turn send the papers to experts in the field.  These experts are supposed to evaluate the manuscripts anonymously; neither the reviewer nor the author is supposed to know the identity of each other until after publication when at the least the author is revealed.

Given how important peer review is to academic success, it’s astounding that we are rarely trained in how to actually do it!
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The results of this lack of training, quite frankly, can be very frustrating and sometimes insulting for authors, who frequently, though not always, have to find a way to satisfy a reviewer who:

  • didn’t carefully read the paper but instead briefly skimmed it and the list of references (for their name!);
  • provided little to zero comments on how to improve the paper;
  • is fundamentally opposed to your theoretical or methodological choices; and/or
  • is just plain rude and insulting of your intellectual abilities and writing capabilities (apparently, I write like a first year undergraduate, which may be true if you talk to some of my co-authors!).

Of course, there are also many reviewers out there who provide very helpful comments and thoughtful reviews/rejections. But occasionally, one of the reviewers will commit one or more of the above sins, plus be four months overdue in submitting their review!

Having received and done many peer reviews over the last decade, I’ve started to develop a number of guidelines in writing my referee reports.  I try to review these guidelines before and after I complete a review.  For those who are just starting the peer review game as a referee, here are some tips or helpful advice to consider.

  1. Accountability and transparency is important!  If you know who the author is, or have a pretty good idea, let the editor know immediately before doing the review.  Discuss your ability to write a fair and relatively unbiased referee report and then leave it to the editor to decide whether you should complete the review.
  2. Read the manuscript at least twice! The first time through should be to simply understand and make sense of the argument, rather than to evaluate it.  Try to figure out exactly what the author is saying and how s/he says it.  Reserve judgment on the author’s theoretical, methodological, and analytical choices until the second read through.  During your second read through, carefully analyze the appropriateness of these choices, including the logic behind them and the integration of these choices given the research question.  Don’t “dump and run” or “snipe from the bushes” as one of my old UofT profs use to say.
  3. During this second reading, check your theoretical and methodological biases at the door!  If you hate political economy, don’t immediately reject a paper for using this framework (indeed, my paper on territorial devolution and my book on treaties both had to deal with reviewers who were extremely hostile mainly on the basis of my chosen theoretical framework, rather than how it was applied or whether alternatives were more appropriate).  Instead, consider how far the author’s framework or methodology takes them in terms of answering the question.  Consider whether there are plausible theoretical alternatives, given the evidence presented. Consider the nature of the evidence presented, given what currently exists out there in literature or elsewhere.  But don’t reject out of hand because you hate constructivism or whatever. Evaluate from within or take a pass on reviewing the paper.  Or, state your biases upfront to the editor and to the author (see Tip #1 above!)
  4. Provide a thorough list of suggestions, both major and minor.  Rejections should be accompanied by thoughtful and helpful comments about how to improve the paper for resubmission elsewhere. Accepts should say why the paper should be published.  Frequently editors have to deal with split decisions (e.g. one review says accept; the other says reject) and so giving a strong set of reasons for why the paper should be published could push the editor towards acceptance.  Sometimes, during revise and resubmits, I will actually comment on some of the other reviews if I think the author should not take some suggestions very seriously, which again can help editors make more informed decisions.
  5. Provide caveats to your review! I try to preface different sets of comments by saying which ones are really crucial and which ones the authors should consider but do not have to address.  I also try to tell authors that I don’t think they have to address all of my comments, but I think they should address some and tell me why the others do not need to be addressed. As reviewers, we sometimes forget that these aren’t our papers and so we end up trying to co-author them. Instead, I think our role is to provide advice, recognize that authors will disagree with us, and provide space for that give and take, as long as a certain scholarly bar is met.
  6. Provide even more caveats to your review! Sometimes I’ll be asked to review something that isn’t quite in my wheelhouse.  Given the frequency in which journal editors complain about reviewer fatigue, I almost always accept reviewer invitations even on papers that I really don’t have any really expertise in. In those situations, I always inform the editors and authors about the nature and extent of my expertise (sometimes none!) and that my comments should be read in that light.  Again, accountability and transparency are important!
  7. Be Nice! I remember once writing a really nasty review of a paper that was terrible on all fronts, and really shouldn’t have been sent out for review.  I’m talking grammatical errors, typos, spelling mistakes, referencing errors, and bad scholarship.  The paper got me in a really bad mood and the tone of the review reflected that fact.  The minute after I hit “submit”, I immediately regretted the tone of the review.  Having been on the receiving end of those reviews from time to time, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to be, well, nice!  There’s nothing wrong with being critical; it’s part of the job.  However, the delivery is just as important as the content.  Indeed, authors are more likely to incorporate constructive criticism and reject nasty slagging.
  8. Finally, my biggest pet peeve is how long the review process takes.  There’s no one else to blame but ourselves! I’ve waited anywhere between 6 to 18 months at times for referee reports, which is outrageous.  I think four weeks is a reasonable expectation to find 5 or 6 hours to properly review a journal article.  Six weeks is also reasonable for book manuscripts.  Try to prioritize writing reviews please!  Authors appreciate quick turnaround times, especially because actual publication can take a long time, but so can finding a home for the paper.  So let’s help each other out and let’s all get to that “review pile” today!

Any other tips/observations? Provide them in the comment section!