Mentors and Giants: An Interview with Christopher Achen

Christopher Achen is Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University. According to his bio, he “was the first president of the Political Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. He received the first career achievement award from The Political Methodology Section of The American Political Science Association in 2007. He is also the recipient of an award from the University of Michigan for lifetime achievement in training graduate students. Recent academic placements of graduate students for whom he was the principal dissertation advisor include Stanford, Duke, and the London School of Economics.”

During my first year at Laurier, I was appointed colloquium officer. We had a tiny budget, but I, being fresh out of grad school, was feeling ambitious and was determined to try and bring to Laurier a big name in American political science to spend the day with us. My hope was that this individual would give a public lecture and host a smaller workshop with political science graduate students and faculty members. There was also, at the time, a strong push to help develop LISPOP, and so I thought I would attempt to bring in someone who was a giant in public opinion and/or methodology.

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One of the first names that came immediately to mind was Chris Achen. I remember reading his monograph, Intermediate Regression Analysis (Sage: 1982), at UofT, which, although dated, really helped me get a handle on the logic and math underpinning regression analysis. As well, although I’m sure there were others, at the time I thought he was one of the few “big names” in political science who was rallying against a certain methodological trend of “dumping” as many variables as one could into regression models and magically finding statistical significant relationships. And so I really wanted to meet him!

Happily, Chris accepted my invitation and his public talk and workshop were amazing. As my colleague Loren King mentioned the other day, he was a pioneer in getting to know your data and figuring out how to do matching to establish causality long before matching became a trend in recent days. An added bonus was that Chris was such a nice, humble, and encouraging guy. I made a lot of rookie mistakes during my first year at Laurier, including taking Chris to a bit of a “dumpy” bar instead of a fancy restaurant (darn budget!). But rather than complain, he happily had a beer and burger with the rest of us and told me he preferred the bar to the fancy restaurant (even though I’m sure that’s not true)!

Even though I haven’t spent very much time with Chris in person, I count him both as a giant and a mentor to me. His work and his visit to Laurier had a profound effect on how I have pursued my academic career so far.

Enjoy!

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

How much time faculty spend on committees and administration, and how important it is to learn to manage those obligations while making sure that teaching and research get the time they need.

The individual I admire the most academically

I have a long list of predecessors I greatly admire, but Harold Gosnell, founder of political methodology, is a personal favorite. He did the first field experiments in the 1920s, he used statistical techniques in the 1930s that didn’t come into common use for another 30 years, and he pioneered among students of African-American politics. I had one memorable lunch with him when he was already in his nineties. Alas, he is no longer with us.

My best research project during my career

I always feel that my current one will be the best.

My worst research project during my career

I spent a summer before Bayesian software was invented, laboriously programming and analyzing a Bayesian model of the representativeness of Austrian mayors.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

I wrote a paper about rational party identification in 1989 and published it in 1992. The original draft included a footnote saying that if the argument of the paper was correct, the Republicans would become the majority party in the House of Representatives in the not-too-distant future. At that point, the Democrats had controlled the House for nearly all of the last 60 years. The footnote seemed crazy, and I lacked courage. I took it out before publication. Of course, in the 1994 elections, the GOP took over the House, and they have controlled it all but four years since then. The moral: stick to your guns.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

One year my APSA paper with Duncan Snidal collapsed completely on August 15, two weeks before the convention. We had to work hard and quickly on a new paper, worrying that the argument was all wrong, and hoping that no one would attend the panel. Instead, it struck a nerve and, after considerable revision, became the lead article in World Politics. We were lucky. But there is a moral here, too: sometimes not worrying about crossing t’s and dotting i’s can free the mind.

A research project I wish I had done

Using political science tools to understand the Weimar elections that led to Hitler. The electoral patterns are quite complex and varied across German subdivisions, as Weimar historiography makes clear. Just mushing the electoral units together statistically at the national level was a very helpful starting point twenty-five or thirty years ago, but it has long been clear that something more locally informed is needed in the twenty first century. A serious command of German and of regional history and politics, a good deal of time in archives, and many years of patient investigation would all be needed, but the result would be a tremendous contribution. I hope someone will do it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

retired from playing middle linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in their glory years. Alas, I am small, slow, and talentless, so I had to go into poli sci.

The biggest challenge in American politics in the next 10 years will be

managing the growing specialization into subfields—political behavior, institutions, American political development, public law, race and politics, public policy, and much else. The important problems and the most interesting intellectual challenges cut across those divisions.

The biggest challenge in political science in the next 10 years will be

making experimentation and other forms of causal inference become as fruitful on the big, longstanding theoretical issues in the study of politics as they have been in political psychology and public policy.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

listen to wise advice, but follow your heart.

Mentors and Giants: An interview with Rhoda Howard-Hassmann

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann is Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights (Tier 1) and a Professor in the Department of Global Studies and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.  According to her bio, “she holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from McGill University (1976), and as of 1993 is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 2006 she was named the first Distinguished Scholar of Human Rights by the Human Rights Section, American Political Science Association.”

Dr. Howard-Hassmann has written many books, including “Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana (1978), Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa (1986), Human Rights and the Search for Community (1995), Compassionate Canadians: Civic Leaders Discuss Human Rights (2003), Reparations to Africa (2008), and Can Globalization Promote Human Rights? (2010). She is also co-editor of an International Handbook of Human Rights (1987); Economic Rights in Canada and the United States (2006); and The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past (2008).” Several of her books have won major awards: “Compassionate Canadians was named 2004 Outstanding Book in Human Rights by the Human Rights Section, American Political Science Association; Economic Rights in Canada and the United States was named a notable book for 2008 by the United States Human Rights Network, a coalition of 200 non-governmental organizations.”

“From 1987 to 1992 Professor Howard-Hassmann was Editor or Co-Editor of the Canadian Journal of African Studies, and she remains on its Editorial Board. She is also a member of the Editorial Boards of Citizenship Studies, Human Rights and the Global Economy, Human Rights and Human Welfare, Human Rights Quarterly, Human Rights Review, Journal of Human Rights, and Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights. She established and remains editor of a website on political apologies, which can be visited at http://www.political-apologies.wlu.ca. She maintains a blog, Rights&Rightlessness, which can be accessed at http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.com.”

Dr. Howard-Hassmann is one of the world’s leading experts on international human rights and has been an important mentor for me since I arrived at WLU in 2008.  She is what every junior faculty member needs when they start their career: a senior scholar who is willing to not only give you advice about how to establish an international research trajectory and profile, but also someone who is willing to advocate and work on your behalf.  I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Howard-Hassmann and I am very happy to have had the chance to interview her for this blog.

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I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

Well, someone did tell me but I didn’t listen. In 1966 Jane Jenson was in her third year at McGill and I was in my second. We both lived in the women’s residence, Royal Victoria College. Jane told me I should do both political science and economics, and I didn’t listen, only doing a degree in political science (international relations). I really regret not having a better background in economics.

The other thing I wish someone had told me was how utterly parochial Canadian sociology would become over the decades. I foolishly switched from political science to graduate work in sociology.  My supervisor (also at McGill) was Immanuel Wallerstein, who devised world systems theory, so I thought of sociology as a way to explain more deeply some of the processes of underdevelopment, my interest at the time. I worked in a sociology department from 1976 until I took up my Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier in 2003.  Over the course of my 27 years in Sociology, I noticed the discipline becoming more and more parochial, focusing on matters such as health, gender, and education in Canada. There was very little interest in the wider world. I was really glad to join Global Studies and later the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Laurier, where all my colleagues share my interests in international politics.

The individual I admire the most academically

Hannah Arendt: I was really taken with her Origins of Totalitarianism when I was a graduate student. After her, the brilliant scholar of comparative genocide studies, Helen Fein. Also the scholar-activists who not only study genocide but try to prevent it, such as Eric Reeves and Sam Totten in the US, who have campaigned for years against genocide in Sudan, or Frank Chalk in the Department of History at Concordia, who works with Senator Roméo Dallaire on genocide prevention.

My best research project during my career

I can’t really say, but I am very glad I went into human rights. At the time I started, around 1980, this was not a field in political science; now there are hundreds of members of the human rights sections at the ISA and APSA. I am also very grateful for the principle of tenure, which protected me when I started in this new and interdisciplinary field.

My worst research project during my career

An attempt to compare human rights in Nigeria and Indonesia, thinking it would be useful two compare two oil-rich, predominantly Muslim countries in two different regions of the world.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

Probably the interviews I conducted for both my Compassionate Canadians (2003) and my Reparations to Africa (2008).  For both books, I had long, semi-structured conversations with Canadians/Africans.  It was interesting, moving, and humbling to hear how Canadian civic leaders in Hamilton thought about matters such as their obligations to Aboriginal people, or how their views on gay marriage were changing.  It was also interesting to learn what Africans thought about the West, about slavery and colonialism, etc.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

A fellow member of the Royal Society of Canada once asked us to contribute stories for a book he was compiling about the best teacher we had ever had, and I didn’t.  I wish I had. The best teacher I ever had was my mother, Mary Howard (née Byrne).  My mother was an artist who taught art at St. Thomas High School in Pointe Claire, Quebec, for 13 years after my sister and I grew up. She viewed the world through the lens of art history, and I spent many hours as a child browsing through her art books. She was Scottish (I was born in Scotland), the daughter of two members of the Left Book Club, so I got a good dose of leftish politics from her as well. Scotland had a long tradition of education for women, so my mother took it for granted that my sister and I would go to university, whereas many native-born Canadian women of my generation were discouraged from higher education.

A research project I wish I had done

In 1974 I was conducting research in the Ghana National Archives in Accra for my PhD (published in 1978 as Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana). I came across a file about a 1933 legal case. Some Ghanaian brothers were suing for their half-siblings’ share of their father’s estate, on the grounds that the half-siblings were the children of a slave mother and therefore had no inheritance rights. Of course, the British colonialists had abolished slavery in Ghana, but this didn’t mean that the locals didn’t know who had slave ancestry and who didn’t. I wish I’d known enough to write up this file as an article, even though it wasn’t part of my Ph.D. research. I heard a few years later that the Ghana National Archives had deteriorated and that there were snakes in the basement where many of the files were kept, so I don’t know if anyone else ever saw the file and wrote it up.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

Brushing up on my creative writing skills.  I have been a member of poetry workshops in Oakville and Hamilton since 1979, and have published about 70 poems, mostly locally, as I haven’t had time or energy to submit them to national or international journals (when I used to do this, my rejection rate was about 15:1). I would like to know more about formal poetry styles, and should also read more poets. I’d also like to take classes in how to write creative non-fiction, which would be useful for my blog, Rights&Rightlessness: Rhoda Hassmann on Human Rights, http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.com

I would also be working with immigrants. One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was the year (1999-2000) I spent teaching citizenship classes to immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam. Of course this was before the Harper government revised the citizenship manual to stress the monarchy (which I don’t support) and the military. During my time teaching, the most important phrase was “the fur trade” and the most important word was “multiculturalism” (a word that Spanish speakers from Central America had trouble pronouncing).  My most memorable experience was asking a Pakistani immigrant who had to have an oral exam as he could not read or write English, what he would say when the judge asked him why he wanted to be a Canadian.  His answer was “I like no fighting, I like everyone the same.”

And finally, I would like to work with small children and hope someday to be a “story lady” at a library or school.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be

I am not an expert on Canadian politics but I think it will be uniting the centre and centre-left so that the Conservatives are defeated. If the Liberals and the New Democrats don’t face reality the Conservatives may stay in power for a long time.

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be

Sorry, I don’t know enough about Canadian political science to answer this, but I think a big challenge will be justifying having so many doctoral programs when so many young PhDs can’t get jobs and when the best advice you can give to a prospective doctoral student is to study at one of the top institutions in the US.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

Think very carefully about whether you really want to do a PhD.  If you haven’t had your nose in a book since the day you started to read, and if you are not extremely self-disciplined, it is probably not worth it.  Even if you are a reader and self-disciplined, what else could you do?  There are many jobs for which a Ph.D. is not required, an MA is enough, and you can get on with your life without wasting four to six years studying for a doctorate.

In the last 20 years I have seen too many younger Ph.D.s teaching on short-term contracts, or one course at a time, some living at or below the poverty level. This includes people with quite impressive publications lists. Even if you get an academic job, the pressure is tremendous, what with the demands of students, more and more committee work, and higher publishing standards. I don’t see how any younger person can do all this and still have a decent private life.

I did a PhD because I couldn’t think of any other way to earn a decent living after my BA. I didn’t want to be a nurse, teacher, librarian or secretary, pretty well the only jobs for women in those days. I did want to be a lawyer but lost my self-confidence; I’ve always loved the law and still regret that at the time, so few women went to law school. If I were starting out today, I’d go to law school.

Mentors and Giants: An Interview with Sylvia Bashevkin

Dr. Sylvia Bashevkin is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.  From 2005-2011 she was Principal of University College at the University of Toronto. “Best known for her research contributions in the field of women and politics, Bashevkin served in 1993-4 as President of the Canadian Political Science Association and in 2003-4 as President of the Women and Politics Research Section of the American Political Science Association. She is a senior fellow of Massey College in the University of Toronto, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Bashevkin has twice held Connaught Research Fellowships in the Social Sciences at the University of Toronto, in 1996 to write Women on the Defensive and in 2004 to prepare Tales of Two Cities.”

Dr. Bashevkin has written many excellent books. Among my favourite are Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009), Women on the Defensive: Living Through Conservative Times (University of Chicago Press and University of Toronto Press, 1998); and True Patriot Love: The Politics of Canadian Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1991).
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Dr. Bashevkin co-taught the core Canadian politics PhD seminar when I attended UofT in 2003 (a class, by the way, that included myself, Chris Cochrane, Glen Coulthard, and very briefly, Jeff Webber, all of whom today are in tenure-stream jobs. It was a very interesting class to say the least!). She was an early mentor for me at UofT in that she was THE career to emulate in terms of what it meant to be a top-notch researcher in Canada.  Her research taught me that you should always try to ask policy relevant questions.  You should answer those questions as rigorously as possible. Finally, disseminate your results to the public so that it has an impact on the real world.

Enjoy.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

How fulfilling it could be to stake out one’s own research path. The road less travelled most definitely has its challenges, but holds clear advantages as well.

The individual I admire the most academically

Role models are too numerous to mention. It’s always helpful to bear in mind positive as well as negative models, meaning those individuals whose contributions and personal behaviour we’d most like to emulate, as well as those who set the bar high on what to avoid.

My best research project during my career

Probably the opportunity to undertake the study that produced Women on the Defensive. I’d wondered what the impact of Thatcher/Reagan/Mulroney and their successors would be on feminist activism, and was fortunate to receive funding to conduct the project in three countries.

My worst research project during my career

May rest in my future. Thus far, the projects have been richly satisfying on many levels.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

Occurred while attending (as an observer) a federal Liberal women’s conference in Ottawa, when the Right Honourable Paul Martin delivered a rousing speech on his efforts to recruit more female candidates. He quoted line and verse from various publications by the shocked professor seated in the audience.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

See above.

A research project I wish I had done

Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep rolling out new ones until I run out of ideas, energy or both.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

Spending more time on gardening, music and fiction.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be

Ensuring parliamentary government retains meaning for new generations of older as well as newer Canadians.

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be

Regenerating faculty ranks so that students at all levels, and the public at large, understand what we do and value our contributions.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

Follow your heart. Study what you find intriguing and important, and use your head to communicate the results in ways that make a difference beyond the academy.

Mentors and Giants of (Canadian) Political Science: An Interview with Donald Savoie

Dr. Donald Savoie is the “Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton. His research achievements are prodigious and his influence on Canadian public policy, Canadian public administration and Canadian society has been evident for years.” Talk about an understatement! Dr. Savoie is really one of the giants of our discipline.  He has written numerous books and journal articles on Canadian politics and public administration and has been very active in public life, advising a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Canada and abroad.  His work has had a powerful influence on government policy and on the work of countless political scientists and commentators across this country. I was very glad to hear him say yes to my interview request!

I’ve never met Dr. Savoie but I’ve always admired his scholarship.  His research always tackles big and important questions, which as Peter Russell noted in an earlier interview on this blog, is something younger scholars like me tend to shy away from for whatever reason. As well, I’ve always been impressed with how Savoie uses the literature, elite interviews, and his own expertise to answer his research questions. His book, Governing from the Centre, was an early model for me as I tried to figure out how to use elite interviews in a theoretically and empirically useful way.

If I could achieve half of what Dr. Savoie achieved over his career, I think I’d be very happy (and lucky!). The following is an email interview I conducted with Dr. Savoie in February 2013.

Enjoy!
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I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

Balance in all things is key.  Striking a proper balance between family, friends, work and pleasure matters.

The individual I admire the most academically

Professor Ted Hodgetts, he had it all – a sharp mind, a sharp pen and great civility.  He made a substantial contribution to the literature and was an excellent mentor to many young academics.

My best research project during my career

My first book: Federal-Provincial Collaboration.  It grew out of my doctorate dissemination and it showed me that I could do it.  It gave me great satisfaction to see the process go from an idea to a finished product.

My worst research project during my career

I published extensively in the economic development field with one of the world’s leading economists – Ben Higgins.  We set out some twenty-five years ago to compare U.S.–Canada regional economic development efforts.  We wanted to explain why the Americans were better at it than Canadians.  We never got it done and I still have drafts laying around waiting for more work.  I doubt that I will ever be able to complete the work, though it would make an important contribution to the literature.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

Hearing how New Brunswick’s former Premier Louis J. Robichaud set out to implement his program of Equal Opportunity and establish l’Université de Moncton during a one-on-one interview.  Robichaud explained in detail how he established the strategy, how he sold it to a reluctant province and how he worked with senior public servants to design an implementation plan.  Quebec had a quiet revolution.  New Brunswick had a not so quiet revolution under Robichaud though it was not well reported in the national media.

A research project I wish I had done

A biography of Louis J. Robichaud.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

I would be sad, very sad.  I simply cannot imagine a better life.  If a career in academe would not have been possible, I would have likely followed in my father’s footsteps and become an entrepreneur.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be

Finally coming to terms that national political institutions designed for a unitary state can never be made to work in the interest of all Canadian regions.

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be

Helping Canadians appreciate that Canada will never be fully at peace with itself unless we overhaul how our national political and administrative institutions work.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

Simple minded purpose works, stay focussed.

Mentors and Giants of (Canadian) Political Science: An Interview with Mike Munger

This is the third interview in LISPOP’s “Mentors and Giants of (Canadian) Political Science” series and the first with a non-Canadian political scientist.

Michael C. Munger is Professor of Political Science at Duke University.  He was chair of the department from 2000 to 2010, president of the Public Choice Society from 2006 to 2008, North American editor of the journal, Public Choice from 2000 to 2006, and the Libertarian candidate during the 2008 election for Governor of North Carolina.  He has authored/co-authored four books, over 100 papers in academic journals and edited books, dozens of podcasts and blog entries here and here, and starred in at least two rap videos on Keynes and Hayek!  Much of his academic work has focused on “the morality of exchange and the working of legislative institutions in producing policy,” while “much of his recent work has been in philosophy, examining the concept of truly voluntary exchange”, a concept he calls euvoluntary.

Mike was the faculty discussion leader during a weekend conference I attended on public choice theory, hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies.  During that conference, Mike led myself and a dozen or so other grad students from a variety of disciplines through the classic works on public choice.  That weekend really opened my eyes and helped to rebalance my views about the role of the state and the market in democratic societies.

Mike also taught me a lot about how to be an academic. I remember vividly a conversation we had about publishing in an airport bar and the really funny tour he took a couple of us on of Washington D.C. during the conference.  Since then, he’s fielded my emails about publishing, tenure, teaching, and blogging!

Enjoy!

I wish someone had told me at the beinning of my career

That life is really, really long and that you should try to learn new things all the time.

The individual I admire the most academically

James Buchanan.  His interests, depth, and body of work were remarkable.  And he maintained an impressive modesty throughout, even after his Nobel Prize.

My best research project during my career

The work on the meaning of “truly” voluntary, or euvoluntary, exchange.   It has really pushed me to understand counterarguments to the received “truths” of rational choice theory.
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My worst research project during my career

A grant that I got to determine if residents of public housing had a latent demand for larger rent subsidies.  In our survey,  95% said, “Yes,” they would appreciate more money.  I don’t know what the other 5% were thinking.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

I was working on a problem of candidate location under uncertainty, which later resulted in a paper in the Journal of Theoretical Politics (Berger, Munger, and Potthoff, 2000).  There was a strange result in the simulations, and it didn’t make any sense.  One day, driving home, I found myself parked, mostly but not entirely off the side of the interstate.  Cars were blowing their horns.  And I realized that the answer was that the simulation results were telling me something that seemed like it couldn’t be true, but was in fact very intuitive, once you saw the answer.  I have no memory of stopping, or pulling over.  My subconscious mind had figured out the answer, and I just pulled over, in a kind of trance.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

I was doing a class illustration of Condorcet’s paradox.  The class was in groups of three, and one group was two upperclass men and a freshwoman.  They were supposed to negotiate, and decide on an outcome, even though there is a cycle in majority rule results.  One of the men was funny and aggressive, and demanded that if the woman got what she wanted, she had to go out on a date with him.  The young woman protested, saying that if they outvoted her, she lost, and agreeing to go on a date meant she lost.  “Either way, I’m going to get screwed!”  Then, she realized that this might be interpreted as her announcing her expectations for the date!  She literally hid under the table, and refused to come out for the rest of the class.

A research project I wish I had done

I have about 2,000 pages of notes on the way that Southern tort courts conceived of the humanity of slaves.  But I have never written the book.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

Working as a landscaper and tree surgeon.  I love doing that, and did it for two summers.  You get quite a feeling of accomplishment, at the end of the day.  And you don’t feel bad at night about failing to write stuff you should be working on.  At the end of the day, you are DONE!

The biggest challenge in American politics in the next 10 years will be

To force our broken political system back toward working on problems, rather than claiming credit for partisan obstruction.  Our last two presidents have been disastrous, and the Congress is a toxic waste dump.  The “leaders” of both parties are brutal thugs, and everyone seems satisfied just to throw bombs.

The biggest challenge in political science in the next 10 years will be

To find relevance for students.  Why should students take political science as a major?  At this point, it’s not clear.  And we are not doing a good job explaining the answer.  I think there is an answer, but political science needs to adapt.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

This:  http://www.libertyguide.com/resources/winning-tenure/

Mentors and Giants of (Canadian) Political Science: An Interview with Peter Russell

Peter Russell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.  He has written on a wide variety of subjects, including minority governments, parliamentary democracy, constitutional change and reform, and aboriginal and judicial politics. His classic book, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? is a must read for students and scholars of Canadian politics as is his book,  Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism, among others.  Not only has Peter had a strong influence on the academic world, but he has also been active in the real world of politics, advising governments and Royal Commissions on a wide range of issues and topics.

Much of my initial interactions with Peter were through his scholarship, which taught me the importance of taking into account history and agency for analyzing Canadian politics.  Later, he served as the final departmental reader on my dissertation, and has since then provided me with valuable advice about publishing, book writing, and how to make the most of my academic career.

The following is a transcription of a phone interview I did with Peter several weeks ago.  I’ve lightly edited and condensed it so any and all mistakes that may appear below are mine alone.

Enjoy!

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career:

how much I would enjoy it and how much fun I would have. As well, nobody told me that you could participate in and pontificate about politics. I sort of stumbled into participating.  Some of my colleagues think you shouldn’t do that.  They believe that you should stay in the ivory tower and not dirty your feet in the real world of politics but I’ve never agreed with that.

The individual I admire the most academically:

was C.B. Macpherson.  He was a political philosopher, par excellence, and he was a Marxist (small-m).  He was a wonderful and interesting philosopher of politics.  I actually didn’t agree with his fundamental argument in his most important book but that’s beside the point.  I really admired him because he spent the first 25 years of his life just working on his basic critique of what you might call liberalism. He didn’t publish his main book until well until his 40s.  In those days, you could get away with that.  He didn’t bother with a lot of little articles in refereed journals.  There wasn’t the same “publish or perish” expectation.  At the same time he was doing political theory, he was very active in the community around him, mostly in the civil liberties area.  For me, he was a wonderful example of a superb scholar and a real participant in the part of politics that really mattered to him. 
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My best research project during my career:

was without a doubt, the Mabo case.  I stumbled into it and really learned so much by studying it.  I knew a little about Aboriginal peoples and politics but not nearly enough about western imperialism.  By doing that book, which took about 9 years, I learned so much about my own background as a person of British heritage and so much about the variety of experiences that Aboriginal peoples had; the comparative aspect really came out.  I also learned a lot about the limits of what can happen in courts because the Mabo decision really didn’t do much until it started to influence politics; and it still has a long way to go before fundamental improvements to the lives of Aborigines in Australia can occur.  So basically I learned about the limits of judicial power.

My worst research project during my career

was my work on trial courts, which I really worked hard on but which turned out to be mostly a dead end. I did a lot of writing about them and I ended up editing the only book we have in Canada on trial courts.  Part of my goal was to get political scientists interested in lower courts and to get their gaze off of the Supreme Court. I didn’t succeed. I also had a very strong view about reforming the structure of our trial courts and I had lots of support from the people who worked in those courts and experienced them.  I organized a conference, edited a book and did quite a bit of writing on the topic but it was the most inconsequential of any of my research. Nobody is interested in trial courts.  You mention trial courts to political scientists and, as they say, their “eyes glaze over.”

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

was when I was out at a place called Discovery Island.  It’s in the Torres Straits, just north of Cape York in Australia, and they call it Discovery Island because that’s where Captain Cook stopped and gazed southward at what we now call Cape York.  I was there with an Aboriginal friend who explained to me that this is where Captain Cook stopped and looked at everything across the strait before saying, “I claim all of this for my sovereign, King George III.”  Cook didn’t know much about the area.  He just sailed up the coast of what is now Queensland and claimed it. “Wow! That’s crazy!” I said.  “No, no, no, Peter. That’s not the word for it,” my Aboriginal friend responded. “That’s legal magic. It’s real magic.  Not only did Captain Cook claim ownership of lands he didn’t know, but then a whole bunch of lawyers over the centuries that followed, wearing wigs and looking like magicians with long black robes, would go into court and they took it seriously.  They believed it!  They put an army and navy and everything else behind it.  They made what was a really ridiculous statement come true!  That’s magic Peter! That’s legal magic.”  I use that phrase a lot.  People say “how did Britain get sovereignty over this?” and I say “Legal magic.” I thought it was such a perceptive moment in my life.  

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance:

was when I was director of research for the Royal Commission on certain activities of the RCMP.  Those certain activities had been going on during the 1960s and the 1970s and they involved the security service, which was part of the RCMP at the time.  The security service had been collecting intelligence for the government about various things, including in those days, separatism, and they had done some terrible things that led to the creation of a Royal Commission.  There were public hearings and so on.  During the first six month’s of the Commission’s work, all we heard about was the many horrible things that the security service had done.  They had planted dynamite in the back of people’s cars to implicate them as terrorists.  They had burned a barn to implicate the PQ as terrorists.  They were trying to frame the PQ as a terrorist organization.  That was the main rotten thing they were doing. 

One day, it dawned on me that the commissioners should find out if the security service had done anything good to help Canada.  The commissioner said to me, “That’s a very good idea. Ask them if they can put together 20 good examples of the good stuff that they had done for Canada.”  The security service took several months to assemble a binder with 20 such case studies but of course they were all at this point, and will remain, top secret because they dealt with serious espionage and terrorist attempts that they had thwarted.  So we had two or three days of in-camera meetings with the security service on those success stories.

We at the commission could never tell those stories publicly because we would be giving away all sorts of secrets about their techniques and sources in other countries.  I’d love a chance to tell some of those stories one day because they convinced me that a country needs a security service to collect information and protect it against terrorism and espionage.  But of course I can’t tell any of those stories!  They are very revealing of what goes on in the world.  Canadians are very innocent and every once in while, we hear stories like someone selling secrets to the Russians but that’s fairly mild compared to the things I’m talking about.

A research project I wish I had done

is a study of native peoples in the United States.  I know the outline of the story, but I still don’t have a good handle on where things are with Aboriginal peoples in the United States.  I know they are not at the top of the political agenda, as they are here, and that’s a remarkable contrast.  I know there’s a lot more of them in the U.S., not as a percentage of the population, but in terms of raw numbers; there’s about three million and we just have over a million. And I know they’ve got some successes but they have also had a lot of problems.  I’ve never had a good handle on the situation in the U.S.  I have a very good understanding of the Maori, and what they’ve been through and where they are now. I also have a really in-depth understanding of Aboriginal people in Australia, including the Torres Strait islanders. But in terms of the U.S., I’ve always been interested in knowing more, and by knowing more I mean spending time with them because I feel comfortable talking about the Maori and the Aborigines in Australia and the Torres Strait islanders, and many of our own First Nations, and certainly the Inuit and the Métis, because I’ve spent time with them, hung out with them, and made friends with them.  But I’ve never had that experience in the United States.  It’s all second hand.  I don’t trust second hand.  I’d rather have first hand experience.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be:

a lawyer.  I got talked out of being a lawyer by Bora Laskin.  I had started in 1958 at the University of Toronto teaching Canadian politics and I got very quickly to the lecture on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. I wanted to talk about the implications of the JCPC handing things over to the Supreme Court. To prepare a lecture on that, I went and knocked on the doors of some of my colleagues because I couldn’t find anything to read.  What difference does it make if the Supreme Court of Canada is supreme? “Oh Peter,” they said, “that’s law.  We don’t really study those kinds of things but there’s a nice fellow down on Philosopher’s Walk at the law school and his name is Bora Laskin and he’ll help you.  He doesn’t mind political scientists.”  I was a little nervous.  I didn’t know him and I didn’t know anyone at the law school.  It was my first year at UofT.  I went down and knocked on his door, and this guy with a great big smile welcomed me in.  Right away we were on a first-name basis.  It was clear he knew a lot.  He had been reading all of the Supreme Court cases since 1949 when the Supreme Court became supreme.  I lapped it all up and he says, “why don’t you sit in my course?” And I say “I’d love to that” and so I sat in the back row and took notes and so on.  Next year, I took another course, not with him, but with another Professor, on the U.S. Constitution, and another course the year after that on administrative law.  I had taken three courses and I loved them all. So I went down to see Bora in 1961 and I said, “Bora, I want you to make an honest lawyer of me.  I’m going to get a law degree.” And he looked at me, and for the first time, this really nice and friendly fellow, waved his finger and said to me, “Oh you mustn’t do that, Peter.  You mustn’t do that.” I said, “Really? You’re a lawyer, Bora, and you’re ok! I’ve enjoyed our conversations immensely.” “Oh,” he said, “yeah, but if you become a lawyer, you’ll lose any kind of perspective outside of law.  You’ll be on the inside where all of us are.  Stay on the outside.  Stay in political science. You’ll have a very distinctive, interesting, and valuable perspective from the outside.”  I really didn’t understand what he was talking about, quite honestly, but I took his advice because it would save me a lot of money.  The wife wasn’t too keen, we had two little kids, and so I didn’t do it. So he talked me out of it! I told that story at Bora’s memorial service.  People may say, “well Peter, you should have taken his advice.  You’ve been messing with the law ever since and have made a big mess of it!” But I’m glad I kept on the political science path.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be:

to create a better, more just, and mutually beneficial relationship with our First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.  I think we need to improve that relationship and make it a source of pride rather than a source of shame. We have done some good stuff and are doing some good stuff, but I think a lot more has to be done and we don’t quite know how to do it yet.

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be:

I have an odd reaction to contemporary political scientists of your generation.  I find they are being moulded too much by the discipline.  They are being too constrained in what they can do by the discipline and I guess it’s partly the constraints of the tenure system which says to them, “get out some publications real fast. And what we really love are articles in refereed journals!” Political science does put some value on books, but I see so many young political scientists concentrating on these small pieces of the puzzle.  That’s all you do in a journal article, which is unlike C.B. Macpherson. In a journal article, you are not taking on something that’s really big and challenging.  I hope political science will break out of the tight discipline mould a bit.  I’d like to see that happen.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is:

enjoy yourself and if you are not enjoying yourself, get out fast.  Take some chances. I know that’s easier said then done, particularly if you have a family to feed and you are a young, starting political scientist, but be bold! Take some chances. Have some confidence in your own creative juices.  Don’t be so damn set on pleasing your peers! There’s too much deference to the leading writers in the field and too much caution about breaking away and taking new approaches.