Mentors and Giants of (Canadian) Political Science: An Interview with Tom Flanagan

This is the first of an occasional series I plan to launch today interviewing a number of Professors that have had an impact on my scholarly career, either directly or indirectly through their mentorship and/or work.  It’s an idea I borrowed from indecisionblog (I also borrowed most of their questions!), which is doing something similar on influential  economists in the United States. Enjoy!

Tom Flanagan is Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.  A political theorist by training, he has written on a wide range of topics, including Aboriginal politics, elections, electoral systems, the Reform and Conservative parties of Canada, the Supreme Court, rational choice and game theory, and Louis Riel, among many others.  In addition to his scholarly work, he has been active in public life: as an organizer for the Reform Party, the Conservative Party of Canada and the Wildrose Alliance, and as a public commentator for the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and other media outlets.

Tom was my thesis supervisor during my M.A. studies in political science at the University of Calgary and has had a powerful influence on my scholarly career.  Among other things, he showed me how to publish, how to be an efficient academic, and what it meant to be an intellectual, which means always remaining open to the possibility that one’s views and research are wrong.

Below is an interview I conducted with Tom via email in January 2013. 

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

There’s a lot of advice that could have helped me, but I wouldn’t have listened!   I’m one of those people who only learn by making mistakes.

The individual I admire the most academically

The American economist Thomas Sowell.  He’s a great example of someone with solid accomplishments in his discipline who then broadened out to address public affairs in an illuminating way.

My best research project during my career

The Collected Writings of Louis Riel.  We had a great team, and we got the job done on time within budget.  It now provides a basis of information for scholars of all points of view.
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My worst research project during my career

Over 40 years, ago I tried to write a book on the influence of Joachim of Fiore and his conception of the three ages of history.  It was a worthwhile topic, and other scholars subsequently published books about it, but it was too big a topic for me at my stage, and I was never able to get my manuscript published.  Most frustrating!

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

Finding reports in the William Pearce Papers at the University of Alberta archives that proved that the federal government did in fact deal with the Métis land grievances at Batoche before the 1885 Rebellion broke out.

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

When I was Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, a group of us were meeting one day in the leader’s office (Mackenzie King office).  It was at the time of the great debate over homosexual and heterosexual marriage.  Somehow the concept of scedasticity came up (Stephen has a degree in economics, so he understands these things); I honestly can’t remember why we started talking about such arcana.  Stephen said dead-pan, “Of course, our party prefers the traditional definition of scedasticity.”  He can be very funny in person, but it doesn’t come through very well in his public communications (they are written in what I call PMO blank verse).

A research project I wish I had done

For years I have dreamed of writing a book about the biological roots of human politics.  But I fear I have dawdled too long, and the field has exploded beyond my ability to keep up with all the new scientific discoveries.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

Fishing.  Also, I would have enjoyed being a litigator, and I think I would have been good at it.  I loved working with lawyers as an expert witness.  I love high-level polemics, maybe sometimes to the detriment of scholarly objectivity.

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

To keep the greenies and other lefties (yes, I’m talking to you!) from choking off the energy industry, which is about the only thing paying Canada’s bills.

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

I honestly don’t know.  Over the years, I’ve gotten away from our discipline, as I moved into a lot of other areas, including practical politics.  But I will say this:  There’s a big opportunity waiting for someone who understands modern multivariate analysis to take it public, if they can figure how to communicate it.  Most public polling is pretty simplistic, because the pollsters haven’t figured out how to communicate advanced analysis to politicians and their staff.

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

Keep it focused.   Research and write about manageable topics.  Milk your dissertation for all you can, but don’t stay bottled up with that topic forever.  Scholarship is full of great opportunities, but you have to be willing to take chances.