Senate majority may mean little to Republicans

Published on Oct. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Given the current gridlock in the United States Congress, one might reasonably ask why it makes any difference who wins the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.

The American political system was created under the principle of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers,” which assumes a modicum of accommodation among the various branches of government for it to work efficiently. Alas, compromise has little resonance among contemporary political leaders in the U.S.

Only during the first two years of his presidency has Barack Obama been able to deal with a co-operative Congress. Reports suggest that immediately after his election in 2008, Republican congressional leaders vowed to frustrate his agenda at every turn

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Identifying Difference, Engaging Dissent: What is at Stake in Democratizing Knowledge?

Authors: Loren King, Brandon Morgan-Olsen and James Wong.

Published September 2014 in Foundations of Science.

Abstract: Several prominent voices have called for a democratization of science through deliberative processes that include a diverse range of perspectives and values. We bring these scholars into conversation with extant research on democratic deliberation in political theory and the social sciences. In doing so, we identify systematic barriers to the effectiveness of inclusive deliberation in both scientific and political settings. We are particularly interested in what we call misidentified dissent, where deliberations are starkly framed at the outset in terms of dissenting positions without properly distinguishing the kinds of difference and disagreement motivating dissent.

Scapegoating: Unemployment, Far-Right Parties and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Authors: Christopher Cochrane and Neil Nevitte

Published: January 2014 in Comparative European Politics.

Abstract: Far-right parties blame immigrants for unemployment. We test the effects of the unemployment rate on public receptivity to this rhetoric. The dependent variable is anti-immigrant sentiment. The key independent variables are the presence of a far-right party and the level of unemployment. Building from influential elite-centered theories of public opinion, the central hypothesis is that a high unemployment rate predisposes citizens to accept the anti-immigrant rhetoric of far-right parties, and a low unemployment rate predisposes citizens to reject this rhetoric. The findings from cross-sectional, cross-time and cross-level analyses are consistent with this hypothesis. It is neither the unemployment rate nor the presence of a far-right party that appears to drive anti-immigrant sentiment; rather, it is the interaction between the two.

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.

Mounting a coalition of the embarrassed

Published Sept. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

In a world that has become increasingly safe for tyrannical aggression to go unchallenged, as evidenced by the Russians in Ukraine, the Crimea and Georgia, and the Chinese in the islands of the South China Sea, the recent expansive activities of the militant group the Islamic State might all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

Most nations, including our own, have appeared to prefer to utter some pious denunciation, then keep our heads down and turn the page. If the United States wants to get involved, so be it, but we have been quick to judge if things go awry, as frequently happens. All this, so long as we are disengaged.

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Western leaders struggle with crises

Published Sept. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are times when one wonders why any sane person would want to be the leader of a nation committed to democratic values. Last week was one such time as Western leaders struggled to navigate their way through at least a trio of crises.

One, of course, was the confrontation with the fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, who are waging war in their own repugnant way – by beheading their captives and doing it on video for the world to see. On Saturday, British aid worker David Haines became the third victim in recent weeks, following the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. “An act of pure evil,” British Prime Minister David Cameron called the Haines assassination.

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There will be more beheadings – ISIS has already served notice of that – leaving world leaders appearing impotent as they confront an enemy that does not observe any acknowledged practices of warfare. ISIS does not negotiate, although it will accept blood money, as it did when the weak-kneed government of France paid to ransom French captives. It does not hesitate to kill its victims, fellow Muslims as well as foreign “infidels,” in the most gruesome manner possible. It does not care what damage it does to the Islamic movement in the world.

It does not worry about retaliation from horrified Western leaders. It knows Western intelligence gathering is weak, probably as weak as it was back in 2003 when George W. Bush led the United States into war against Saddam Hussein on the strength of erroneous intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. ISIS even welcomes retaliation, because for those twisted fanatics retaliation serves to validate their cause and to attract recruit disaffected and misguided youths in the U.S., Britain and Canada, too, to join their struggle.

Of course, ISIS can be stopped. According to Western estimates – which may or may not be accurate – there are only about 30,000 militants in ISIS. That doesn’t seem like very many for the combined forces of the Western allies and sympathetic Arab countries to dispose of. But the movement feeds on publicity and its numbers are growing. They are not soldiers. They are terrorists who are fighting on their own territory with the support and protection of the Sunni population.

They cannot be bombed out of existence without causing incalculable civilian casualties. The only way, as President Barack Obama and other leaders must surely suspect, is with boots on the ground, by sending in soldiers in overwhelming numbers to capture or kill the terrorists. But no one wants another Iraq war. Everyone knows it could drag on for years, as Iraq and Afghanistan did, and might, in the end, solve nothing. And there’s a real risk that ISIS, following the example of Al-Qaeda, would export its murderous ways to the civilian populations in other parts of the world, including Canada.

As if ISIS were not enough crisis enough, political leaders have to deal with two others. One is the Ebola epidemic or pandemic sweeping through several countries in West Africa. There are not enough doctors, nurses, hospitals and medical supplies to contain the virus, let alone the vaccines to eradicate it. Eighty per cent of the people who contract Ebola die from it. Unless it can be stopped, it seems inevitable that it will be carried one way or another to Europe and North America.

The third crisis is posed by Vladimir Putin who seems intent on rebuilding the old Soviet empire, starting with Ukraine. NATO countries will try sanctions and threats, but in the end the world might be looking at another Cold War arms race.

Of all leaders, Britain’s David Cameron has the most worries. His biggest one is this week’s referendum on independence for Scotland. If he loses, which is a distinct possibility, his coalition government may not be around long enough to have to worry about ISIS, Ebola or Putin.

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?

 

The myth of meritocratic Scotland

Published Sept. 7, 2014, in The Spectator.

Successive election manifestos from political parties in Scotland have argued that Scots have different values to those in the rest of the UK. More meritocratic, more communitarian, more supportive of state intervention in the economy and EU membership, Scots are portrayed as a left-leaning social democratic foil to an essentially conservative, Euro-sceptic class-bound England. Such comparisons were rife during the Thatcher years but have continued today and feature regularly in the claims made by politicians and parties. Devolution, argued the Labour party, would allow Scots to turn their distinct preferences into practice. Independence, argues the SNP, would allow them to do so without the risk of intervention from London.

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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?

 

If you’re a betting person, here are some safe bets

Published Sept. 8, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are precious few safe bets in politics these days, but here are a few.

Safe bet number one: Stephen Harper will not win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, for which he is being nominated by his admirers in B’Nai Brith Canada, the group that earlier gave the prime minister its Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. It didn’t take long, just a few hours, for an online petition to spring up demanding that the Norwegian Nobel Committee reject Harper’s nomination; overnight it attracted 13,000 signatures. Elsewhere, the reaction ranged from outrage (among Palestinian Canadians) to laughter (among most non-Conservatives).

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Safe bet number two: Andrea Horwath will not be the NDP leader when the next Ontario election rolls around in four years’ time. She faces a crucial NDP provincial council meeting this coming weekend – followed, if she survives that meeting, by a formal leadership review in November.

The council will want to know why she forfeited the influence the NDP had enjoyed with the then minority Liberal government by opposing its budget, which was loaded with goodies for the NDP. By rejecting the budget, Horwath precipitated a June election she could not win. She ran a poorly prepared and executed campaign. She alienated the party’s traditional labour base and many of the NDP rank and file with policies that moved the party to the right of the Liberals. The new head of the Canadian Labour Congress described her as a “coward.”

When the dust settled, Kathleen Wynne had a majority government and the NDP was still in third place – now cloutless and bitter. “Andrea is fighting for her life,” a longtime party worker told the Toronto Star. “Among a very large section of the activist base there is little more than comptempt for her.” Ouch!

Safe bet number three: Rob Ford will not be mayor of Toronto for 14 more years, as he says he intends to be. That would take him up to his 60th birthday.

Of course, nothing is “safe” when dealing with the unpredictable Ford. A few months ago, before entering rehab, most people – me included – would have bet against his reelection for a second four-year term. Now the race has changed. He is in second place, the underdog to front-runner John Tory, and underdog is where the populist mayor likes to be. I still don’t think Ford can win again in October, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

But 14 years? Nah, it couldn’t happen. Could it? Make it a small bet against.

But back to Stephen Harper and the Nobel Peace Prize. His supporters are certainly gung-ho, his detractors not so much. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Hanna Kawas, the head of the Canadian Palestine Association in Vancouver. “It’s outrageous.”

But Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’Nai Brith, harbours no doubts. He praises Harper’s international leadership and the “moral clarity” he brings to issues of good and evil. “More than any other individual, he has consistently spoken out with resolve regarding the safety of people under threat – such as opposing Russian aggression and annexation of Ukrainian territory – and has worked to ensure that other world leaders truly understand the threat of Islamic terrorism facing us today.”

That’s a much larger and more influential role than most other leaders would concede to Harper. His support of Israel is unconditional and, I think, genuine. It is also good politics at home. But by being so one-sided, it doesn’t allow for Canada to play any useful role in the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East.

When it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Harper roars from the sidelines and shakes his fist at Vladimir Putin. He will do anything for Ukraine, so long as the cost of any Canadian contribution does not jeopordize his pursuit of a balanced budget in time for the federal election in October next year. Unfortunately, deficit elimination is not one of the criteria for a Nobel Prize. Sorry, sir.

“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/
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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!