All posts by Kate

5 reasons to help an incumbent

This year, I’ve been managing my husband’s city council re-election campaign. So I’m starting to get some more insight into how running a campaign for an incumbent is different than running one for a new candidate. And though it may not be especially sexy, there are great reasons to help an incumbent in an Ontario municipal election over the next two weeks.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are lots of great reasons to help a new candidate running for an open seat, too, having done it in 2010. Races for open seats are often hotly contested by a number of strong and dedicated candidates. There’s less familiarity among voters with any of the possibilities, so people tend to be more engaged at their doors and at debates. And whatever the result is, it’s likely to be hard fought and difficult to predict. In short, there’s lots of unpredictability and excitement in a race for an open seat, and lots of people want to be a part of that.

There are lots of great reasons to help someone challenge an incumbent, too, particularly if that incumbent is someone whose record does not impress you. It’s a crucial part of the democratic process, and challenger candidates need strong volunteer support and financial resources to show a compelling alternative to the way things have been done by an incumbent. It can be exciting to put your time into challenging the status quo.

But incumbent campaigns tend not to have these features. Many incumbents have better name recognition than other candidates, and if they’re good at their jobs, they’ve had contact with many of their constituents over their term(s) of office. They usually know how to run a successful campaign, because they’ve done it before. And if they win, nothing changes: their constituents will have the same representative in December that they had in November.

So one might be excused for thinking that supporting incumbents is relatively boring. But there are exciting and important reasons to help an incumbent, too:

1) Helping government work better. For municipal candidates, elections are one of the best times to find out what your constituents actually think about what’s happening in your local government. Elected officials like my husband, Jeff, knock on doors between elections, too. It’s important because the people elected officials hear from most often are the ones who have specific issues and concerns in mind, and who take the time to participate. That process is crucial, too, but the emails and the meetings and the public information sessions tell you what the most engaged community members think. It’s hard to tell how reflective those viewpoints are of the people who participate. So door knocking helps incumbents to get feedback from different people, and elections are a focused time when residents expect it, and when incumbents can do it more systematically and efficiently, with the support of volunteers. It’s also important for residents; for many of them, this will be the only time they’ll ever have a conversation with someone who represents them. And while I’m all for finding new ways to encourage community members to be engaged between elections, I don’t think we can afford to lose opportunities like election door knocking for their voices to be heard by decision-makers.

2) Helping voters to see an incumbent’s value. Incumbents have something that other candidates don’t: a record. This is a double-edged sword for them.

On the one hand, if an incumbent is reasonably good at their job, voters have a good chance of knowing it. They have access to more reliable information by which to judge incumbents as a candidate. When new candidates run, they may make various kinds of promises. But it’s not until someone is elected and has a chance to fulfil them that community members can evaluate whether that person can be trusted to live up to those promises. So voters have both their words and actions. When one votes for an incumbent, one has a much better idea of what to expect. Voting for a new candidate is risky, insofar as they may be better than an incumbent, but they may be worse. This is an advantage for incumbents, particularly when voters either think highly of their work, or think that what’s been happening in the municipality is good enough.

On the other hand, re-election is the time when sitting elected officials are most pressured to defend their records. In this respect, new candidates have it easier. If an elected official has been in office for four years, s/he will have made decisions that will have angered or irritated someone, while new candidates tend to have a blank slate. It’s more work to put those decisions into the context of the complex pressures elected officials face, and to give people the information they need to evaluate those decisions effectively. Incumbents need your help to do that.

3) Helping to stop unforeseen negative outcomes. Anyone who has been working on elections for a while can tell you stories about incumbents whose re-elections were seen as sure things, but who ended up losing their seats, to everyone’s shock. While it’s true that incumbents have a variety of advantages, lots of incumbents lose, even when people don’t think they will. If you like an incumbent, don’t take her or his re-election for granted. Consider how you’d feel about one of the other candidates winning. And if that outcome concerns you, get out there and help.

4) Protecting important gains. If an incumbent has worked and fought for a decision or policy that you like, you need to defend it. If something’s important, there’s probably someone else out there who doesn’t like it. Challengers often rely on juicy and flashy promises to get noticed, and while some of those promises might be good, some might be unhelpful or even reckless. And without a strong campaign, an incumbent who has worked for your issues might lose to someone who will work against them. Making a donation or volunteering your time increases the chances of continuing down a policy path you care about.

5) Learning more about your local government. Because incumbents have records and experience, most of them know a lot more than the broader public about the complex problems that governments face. It’s harder to explain the various pressures, constraints, and priorities one has faced in making a decision than to talk about an issue in general. So it’s hard work for incumbents to engage voters on the issues that matter to them, and they need to knock on lots of doors with volunteers and spend some money on advertising and materials to do it. There’s a broad public interest in having incumbent candidates justify and explain their decisions during elections. It’s an important part of helping people get informed about how government works and what’s happening in their community.

And beyond public education, helping an incumbent is a great chance to learn more yourself about how local government works in your area. Knocking on doors with a candidate, you’ll probably get the chance to hear discussions between your candidate and voters. I’ve learned a lot about how the City of Waterloo works this way, and also about what various people in my community think about it. This is insight that I could never get from all the years of formal political science education I’ve had.


So with just 13 days between now and election day, take a couple of hours to help an incumbent you like, or make a small donation to their campaign. It may not be sexy, but it matters.

Serious scholarship … plus a Cardassian

Update 2014/09/02 : You can read my article for free from Taylor & Francis here:

Moving into the long weekend, I’m thrilled to say that my second scholarly publication has just been published. It’s appearing in a special Interventions section of the (still fairly) new journal Critical Studies on Security.

I’m proud to have my work included with strong work from strong scholars in this special section on Writing In/Security, and I’m particularly thrilled with Richard Jackson’s thoughtful and candid introduction to the section (which seems to be accessible without a subscription).

This special section is, well, special. It’s in a journal on security studies, easily one of the most serious fields around. And while all of these pieces are about security, they are also all creative writing. As Richard writes,

“What am I supposed to say, exactly? How does one make sense of a poem about the death of a much-loved mother or the violence of masculinity within the context of high-level security theorising? What security-related themes or analytical insights are to be drawn from a short story about going through airport security or an imaginary conversation with a character from Star Trek? How will these data-less, theory-free, esoteric, emotionally affecting writings advance our understanding of security?”

That’s one of the open questions in narrative approaches to the study of politics and international relations these days. I think this collection goes a long way in advancing that discussion.

For those of you who know me well, the fact that Richard mentions Star Trek will not have escaped your notice. My piece is called “Revolting Comfort: Meeting the Shadow’s Gaze.” It is an imaginary conversation between a professor and Elim Garak, the Cardassian tailor and former intelligence operative from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

You don’t need to know DS9, or Garak, to understand my short story. But if you’re someone who likes background information, here’s a taste:

I didn’t intend for Garak to make such a startling appearance into my publication record. But after attending a panel on popular culture and international relations at a conference, I got thinking about what I felt was missing. How do we deal not just with the abstract impact of popular culture on politics, but also with the more visceral and intimate reactions we have to fictional stories and characters? What kinds of contradictions and messy places does that question conjure?

This piece is my first significant response to these questions. I’ve shared my original manuscript here, and at the bottom of this post, so you can read the story for yourself. I’d love to know what you think. And since it’s short, I hope you’ll read it whether you’re an academic or not; one of the more promising aspects of narrative approaches is their accessibility.

If your university library subscribes to Critical Studies on Security, you can find all six parts the section here (though you’ll have to scroll down to Interventions). If your library doesn’t subscribe yet, please let them know that you would like them to: most university libraries have a request feature, and this groundbreaking new journal should be accessible to all students and scholars in this area.

Revolting Comfort – Author Original Manuscript

On “working weekends” and blurring lines

Last year, Raul Pacheco-Vega wrote about if and how academics feel internal or external pressure to work on weekends, and broader questions on work/life balance.

Since I made a significant change in my dissertation a few months back, this question has become more complicated for me. I’ve usually tried, and mostly succeeded, in limiting the amount of academic work I do on evenings and weekends, and I’ve found this separation is crucial for my broader health as a graduate student and a person. But my previous research project was largely separated from my other life activities. It was mostly fairly easy to distinguish my study of abstract feminist theory and my volunteer advocacy activities.

Now I’m studying the politics of growth management in the Region of Waterloo. But outside of that, I do community work on transit and smart growth in the area. And to top it off, this year I’m managing my husband’s re-election campaign.

So there are days like Thursday. I spent less than two hours in the morning revising my dissertation proposal and reading about research methods. But I went to the groundbreaking ceremony for the Region of Waterloo’s light rail transit project, where federal, provincial, and local leaders talked about how the ION will help us reshape growth and limit urban sprawl. I went to a barbeque in our building, where one of our neighbours told me and Jeff about how our city has changed since she moved here decades ago. And I went to a party for a friend who defended his dissertation that day, where I saw a number of friends who work on environmental activism and change; they asked me about how things are progressing with Smart Growth Waterloo Region, and we talked about what we need to do to get two-way-all-day GO Transit service between Waterloo and Toronto.

These days, I find many of my theoretical and otherwise academic insights come not when I’m sitting in front of a computer or reading a book. They come when I’m listening to a colleague speak at a meeting, or between doors when we’re out in a neighbourhood speaking with voters and dropping off brochures.

In this context, do I “work on weekends”? Yes and no. I can certainly distinguish between making progress on specific academic tasks, like a conference paper or my dissertation proposal, and the more informal contributions to my work that come from my other activities. But the lines between scholarly and non-scholarly time are increasingly indistinguishable. Right now, I’m finding that to be tremendously creatively productive, but I don’t know how sustainable I’ll find it in the long term.

For me, this raises questions about how we see scholarly life, particularly for those of us who are lucky enough to combine scholarship and practice in broader community contexts. What does it mean to see so much in our research, and our research in so much? I suspect that this kind of combination makes for richer scholarship, at least for some of us. Only time will tell whether I find it makes my life as a person richer, too.

So far, I feel whole as a scholar and a person for the first time in a long time. It turns out, as I’d said before, that I need what I study to connect with what I do in my community. I’m not yet sure what this means for how I balance my work and the rest of my life. Making sure I preserve time and space for actively not working will, I suspect, be an ongoing challenge. I’ll keep you posted.

New post on growth in Caledon and Waterloo Region

I’ve written a new post over at the Smart Growth Waterloo Region blog, reflecting on a two-part series The Inside Agenda Blog did last week on the growth pressures being faced by Caledon, Ontario, and the effects of the province’s growth management plans.

In my post, I consider a few differences between Caldon’s case and that of Waterloo Region, and the Region’s strong efforts to be proactive about resisting the pressure for urban sprawl that is so potent in Southern Ontario.

You can see the post here, and I hope you’ll take the time to check out the Smart Growth Waterloo Region website while you’re at it.

7 things I learned from completely changing my dissertation

Back in January, I finally realised that my dissertation project wasn’t the right one for me. I would need to start over, not just on a new project, but in a whole new field of my discipline. After taking a few months to find my feet, I’m ready to share seven things I’ve learned from this particular experience so far, about the academy and about myself.

1) Academics change their research much more than they generally admit. When I tell PhDs or PhD students close to defending that I’m starting over with a new dissertation topic in a whole other part of my field, the most common response is: “The same thing happened to me.” It’s not something we commonly talk about, but it’s out there.

2) Academic identities are often tied up in our research. I have overwhelmingly received gracious support from professors and students in both my previous area of research and my past one, and I am ever so grateful for that. Yet the switch has helped me to realise the extent to which we are encouraged to see ourselves as professionally synonymous with our research areas. Thus this transition is not a minor one. Understanding that I needed a change in direction meant learning how to see myself differently. I’ve been thinking of myself as a “political theorist” for a long time. Realising I didn’t fit snugly into the expectations that term generates was initially hard for me to accept. Until I found the right new research area for me, I had lost the reference points I used to describe myself in a way that we all use to make sense of a complex and varied discipline.

3) Research interests don’t always fit neatly into disciplinary fields or sub-fields (or disciplines, for that matter). I’ve always enjoyed reading, writing, and talking about political theory. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve come to realise why: I’m fascinated by the connections between the way that we think about things and the way that we do things, in the day-to-day practice of politics. Looking back, I know my Master’s work was doing the same thing: I was examining conceptions of privilege in anti-oppression education. I’ve generally found a home for a lot of this kind of work in political theory. Yet for my dissertation, I had designed a theoretical project that largely lacked empirical content, even though on some level I was trying to say something meaningful about those connections between thought and practice. The aspect I was passionate about had little space in the project I had designed, and I couldn’t answer the questions that interested me most. So I spun my wheels.

So I have made the move from studying feminist political theories of privilege to studying local and urban politics. Those of you who know me from my community activities will not be surprised by my new topic, particularly since I co-founded Smart Growth Waterloo Region last year. Most people, regardless of how they know me, see this as an enormous change. In a lot of ways, it is: I have a new (and tremendously welcoming) sub-field in urban and local politics. I have a new scholarly literature with which to familiarise myself. And because of the significantly more empirical nature of my new project, I have a different style of scholarship to which to adjust. I’m honestly having a blast soaking up all I can about my new area. Yet the differences aren’t that different, in a lot of ways. While my specific questions are very different, the guiding ones are the same. I am still passionate about the study of politics: how it works, why it works, and how it should work. I am still fascinated by the connections between societies, institutions, ideas, relationships, and chance. I’m just looking at it in another way and on a different scale.

4) Academic work is rarely a waste of time. Many people outside of the academy receive news of my change in direction as news of a wasted year of my life. Those inside tend to have more understanding that the time I spent on my first project wasn’t wasted at all. I learned a lot about an area I care about a great deal. I met and got to know fantastic people doing important and difficult academic work. I contributed to the body of knowledge on an important topic being produced by these fabulous folks. I also learned a lot about what motivates me as a researcher and as a member of academic and civic communities. The time I spent on my previous project taught me invaluable things about my discipline, the academy, and myself. It also helped me to develop skills I need as I move forward in my new dissertation project.

5) It’s entirely understandable that so many students don’t finish PhD programs. The least encouraging reaction to my news has consistently come from some of my fellow PhD students: those who have not made similar course corrections or encountered major decision points that have forced them to seriously re-evaluate what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what that means for who they are. Most of them cannot suppress a look of horror when I tell them I’ve made such a big change. I suspect their reaction accompanies the terror of having perhaps a decade of work thrown up in the air, and one’s life along with it.

Doing a PhD can be a tremendously rewarding experience, but it’s not one that is designed to encourage successful completion as well as it could. In my program, one is expected to have spent at least eight years in university before we’re sent off to produce a book-length manuscript intended to prove we’re worthy of being part of the club, and that will define our future (often presumed academic) careers.

I have been in my program for four years, and most of us who finish will take six years to do so. My own revelation came at a time in my program when I had spent nearly nine years studying political science in universities, and when my eligibility for external funding was about to end, causing my income as a PhD student to drop substantially and permanently.

I have been tremendously lucky to have had overwhelmingly supportive and helpful supervisors, both for my previous project and for my current one. I am also lucky to have financial stability in my life that does not depend on my university or my program. My various colleagues at many universities have had to contend with, at times, unsupportive supervision, inadequate funding without other incomes, and the arrival of children. Had I faced any of these while re-evaluating my project, it may well have been easy, or even necessary, to make a choice to leave my program.

6) I need to be able to connect what I learn in political science to what I learn in politics. I have mostly separated my academic work from my community work since the early days of my undergraduate career. I thought I could live with that separation. It turns out that I can’t. It took me a while to notice that I was trying to reconcile these two parts through a dissertation project that wasn’t designed to do that, and that never could.

I also hadn’t realised how discouraging I found it to be unable to have meaningful conversations about what I study with the people around me. Even surrounded, as I am, with engaged and active friends and colleagues in community circles and organisations, some of whom have training in my discipline, it was rare to have a chance to talk seriously about my work in a way that would be relevant and accessible. My new area is not only a topic that is interesting and relevant to me, but also to a broader and significant group in my community. It’s also at the heart of a lot of the important things happening in my neighbourhood, my city, and my part of the country. I needed to reconcile my outside interests and the communities that we’ve built up around them with my research. I now know that’s something I look for in my work.

7) I am profoundly interested in what is happening in my immediate vicinity, and this is an asset. Waterloo Region is a fascinating place. It’s fascinating because of some particular things happening in it (and I intend to tell you more in this space about that as I go, now that I can reasonably address a more diverse audience), but also because I’m connected to it.

That’s one way that my new project is consistent with my old one: it recognises the value of the position and experience of the researcher. While much of the social science world has treated abstraction and separation from one’s subject as a strongly held value, I (and an increasing number of other scholars) believe that we are not separate from our subjects. Researchers can never be fully objective and separated from our research, though many of us have gotten pretty good at pretending we can. The best we can hope for is to think seriously about how who we are affects the work that we do. This was a central question of my first dissertation project.

But realising that we can’t be truly separate and objective isn’t a problem; it’s an opportunity. In this case, studying politics in my community gives me the opportunity to do rigorous research that is close to home. Good research, regardless of its focus, often makes the familiar strange: it forces us to see what we think we know in a whole new light. I’m excited to use what is familiar to get an even more nuanced and detailed appreciation of the strange, while contributing to academic knowledge of political science and community knowledge about politics in Waterloo Region.


I suspect my learning from this experience is far from over, and I hope to share more with you as I have more to share. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share some of your own thoughts below. Did you make a major change to your thesis work? What did it mean for you?

Congress 2014

It’s a beautiful time of year in some of Canada’s best wine country, and thousands of scholars descend on it next week for the 2014 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Brock University next week.

For me, the week will start with the Women and Gender Studies Association (WGSRF) conference. While I didn’t submit a paper this year, I was honoured to serve on the Undergraduate Essay Prize Committee. We read eight strong papers from women and gender studies students across the country, and the winner and honourable mentions will be presented on Sunday. There is so much diverse and thoughtful scholarship being done by undergrad students. It was rewarding to have a chance to highlight some of the best, and celebrating it this weekend will be a pleasure.

Then I’ll be moving over to the Canadian Political Science Association, where I’m participating in two workshops in two different areas. On Tuesday, I’ll be presenting a paper in the first session of the Intersectionality in Austere Times workshop, which is being presented by the CPSA’s Women and Gender Studies section and its Race, Ethnicity, and Indigenous Peoples and Politics section. My paper is called “In Intersectionality’s Shadow: Tracing Feminist Theories of Privilege, and it builds on the work in feminist theory I’ve been doing over the last year.

On Wednesday, I’ll join the Local and Urban Politics section for a session in their workshop on The Just and Diverse City. I’m presenting a paper entitled “The Good Fight and the Usual Suspects: A Case Study of Community Transit Advocacy,” which aligns more closely with my current work. The paper looks at the Light Rail Transit debate in Waterloo Region over the last five years, in which I’ve been involved, and the questions it raises around privilege and participation in local government decision-making.

I hope to see many of you next week at Congress. If you can’t make it, follow along on Twitter with #congreSSH, and with the political scientists at #cpsa2014. And if you come to see my LRT paper, I just might have a cardboard train for you.


Why municipal term limits are a bad idea

Since registration for the 2014 municipal election opened on January 2nd, there’s been a lot of excitement about which incumbent officials will fight to retain their seats, which might run for different offices, and which will bow out of public life all together.

With that excitement has come the suggestion from some quarters that our elected municipal officials should have term limits. When Karen Scian, City of Waterloo councillor, announced in December that she would not be running for her current seat in October, she suggested that she favours term limits. On the 3rd, the Kitchener Post ran an editorial suggesting term limits would bring “new ideas and fresh perspectives, perhaps even some much-needed diversity.”

Term limits sound good, at first. But they create new problems without solving the old ones.

What problems do term limits try to solve?

1) Not enough new perspectives

The Post says we need term limits for “new ideas and fresh perspectives.” This assumes that municipal councils are largely full of incumbents. It then assumes that incumbent councillors don’t tend to have new ideas or fresh perspectives, and then assumes that term limits would bring in more councillors who would therefore have new ideas. This argument falls down on two fronts. First, there’s actually a remarkable amount of turnover at Kitchener, Waterloo, and Regional Council. After the 2010 election, 25% of Waterloo City Council was comprised of non-incumbents, and so was the same percentage of the Region of Waterloo Council. On top of that, a whopping 64% of those elected to Kitchener City Council are non-incumbents. One only has to go back to the 2003 City of Waterloo election to find a council in which every single member of Council was new; the previous council was turfed in its entirety. In 2006, a newcomer to municipal politics won the Waterloo Mayoralty by beating not one but two experienced former mayors.

Not only is turnover possible without term limits: turnover is happening without term limits.

So what about new ideas? First of all, it’s strange to suggest that new councillors will necessarily have new ideas, and that returning councillors won’t. A person’s creativity can’t be measured by the number of terms someone has served: a new councillor may have stale ideas from the last century, while a second-term councillor might have great new ideas about how to move our municipalities forward. These are the questions voters can and do answer every four years under our system.

There absolutely need to be new additions to municipal councils. Fortunately, there are, both through voters in elections and through voluntary retirements. Councillor Scian did what any councillor should do: she decided that she had accomplished what she wanted to, and made way for someone else. But if a sitting councillor can’t see that his/her time of effectiveness has passed, the voters can and will see it for them.

2) Lack of diversity

The Post, and many others, suggest that term limits will help women and minorities break into councils that are overwhelmingly comprised of white men. It would be wonderful if that were true. Unfortunately, it generally isn’t. In a number of American states, the introduction of term limits actually lowered the number of women in state houses of representatives. This term, City of Waterloo Council has had 5 women out of 8 council seats. Two-term limits would have meant that all but one of them would have to leave Council. Who would have filled their seats?

For the most part, the evidence suggests that the sorts of people elected with term limits are the same sorts of people who are elected without them. In municipal politics, the Old Boys’ Club isn’t the Old Boys’ Club because of specific old boys who can just be turfed. It’s because there are structural and social reasons that women, those with lower incomes, and those who are racialised are less likely to run, and less likely to win. If we want to solve those problems, we have to find solutions that actually address or counteract those inequalities. (Like the Women’s Municipal Campaign School! Which is awesome! You should check it out.)

3) Incumbency Advantage

It’s no secret incumbents tend to have a better chance of election than new people who run against them. But to address incumbency advantage, we have to understand where it comes from.

Term limits don’t eliminate the worst part of incumbency advantage: name recognition. In municipal politics in Ontario, there are no political parties involved in municipal elections. This means voters have to figure out who to vote for without the cognitive shortcut that political parties provide (e.g. “I am a New Democrat/Conservative/Liberal, so I will vote NDP/Conservative/Liberal”). It takes some work to figure out who to vote for in just one municipal race, since you have to learn about each of the candidates individually. It’s much easier to process and retain information about someone whose name you already recognise.

But name recognition also plays a role in the ballot box. Most voters, I suspect, go into the ballot box knowing who they want to vote for as their mayor. But in Waterloo and Kitchener, they then have to select a ward councillor, a Regional Chair, three or four school board trustees, and two or four Regional Councillors. The first time I voted in a municipal election, I spent an hour looking over the newspaper, and had two write myself a note with the names of the eight people I wanted to vote for for five different offices. Not everyone does. If you don’t go into the ballot box knowing who you want to vote for to be your, say, councillor or trustee, you might make a choice based on whose name comes first on the ballot (and many do). Or you might vote for the name you recognise. Name recognition comes with significant advantages, whether one is an incumbent, a business leader, or an otherwise well-known public figure.

Fortunately, our municipal system already significantly reduces one of the most significant advantages of incumbency: fundraising. At other levels, elected officials and their party’s association in each riding can fundraise for the next election at any time, and can save up money between and through elections to spend on the next race. In Ontario, municipal politicians can only raise money in the year of the election. Challengers have the same window in which to raise and spend money as incumbents do.

So one of the big problems with incumbency sticks around with term limits, and the other already is much less of an issue at the municipal level.

4) Incumbents discourage new candidates

Yep. They do. People don’t want to run against people they think will beat them, whether those people are incumbents or not. Some people are more likely to get elected than other people. Some people might be famous or popular. Others have spent more time building political networks, with or without a campaign in mind. We can’t make people put the time, energy and sacrifice into running a campaign that they are unlikely to win. Close races are engaging, interesting, and important. Term limits might increase the opportunity for them slightly, but they don’t create them.

5) Lack of public engagement

The Post hints at the real problem: a lack of public engagement. An “appalling minority” of people vote.

In municipal politics, public engagement needs some basic things. It needs lots of elected officials who expect that they’ll have to face voters, and who therefore have an incentive to stay in touch with, stay attentive to, and work hard for the people they represent. It needs a lot of work between elections, from politicians, from neighbourhoods, from families and diverse communities. Term limits don’t help us to achieve any of that. And while I’d love to have a quick fix to the problem of broad political disengagement, term limits won’t do it.

So term limits don’t solve the problems that people often identify. But they do cause some of their own.

1) Lack of accountability

When someone is unable to be elected again, they are what is often (ungraciously) called a “lame duck.” A two-term limit would mean that each municipal official would spend half of their time in office without having to worry about facing their constituents in an election again. They have no particular reason to work with their communities to find solutions, or to meet the expectations of their constituents. They can make whatever decisions they want without real penalty. As long as they show up to meetings, they can choose to say or do nothing, if they want, and never have to justify it to the people who elected them. Elections keep politicians responsive, engaged, and honest. That’s why we have them.

2) Lack of institutional knowledge

Elected bodies with term limits tend to have a lot of new faces at any given time. Term limits, for example, of two terms in municipal politics would mean that we could expect, on average, for half of the members of our local councils to be new. Depending on when each was elected, some councils may have most or even all of their members barred from running in the next election. It takes time to get familiar with the system and how it works, along with the complexity of the issues faced by councils and municipalities. One consequence of such high turnover can be inefficiency and incoherence. Another can be too much dependence on others. In the United States, state jurisdictions with term limits report that their committees rely much more on unelected staffers for expertise and information. Term limits can give more control to civil servants, and give councils less competence to balance the information and expertise of those civil servants with various other considerations for their constituents.

The Americans have also found that having so many new faces so often has also meant that the same issues get revisited over and over every session with new people. Repetitive decision-making is not a good use of our elected officials’ time.

3) Taking power and choices away from voters

If term limits are instituted by provincial legislation (as they would have to be), the effect will be that political elites will be deciding to limit voters’ choices of who to have as their representative. Why should politicians get to tell the people who they can and can’t choose to represent them? There are good reasons why voters choose incumbents. If someone has been representing you for four years, and you’ve mostly been satisfied with their performance, why wouldn’t you choose them to do it again? Good incumbents build trust with their constituents over time. Choosing someone new means they might perform better, from your perspective, than your current representative. But they might also be much, much worse. Keeping a competent incumbent is often a reasonable, thoughtful choice for voters. Why should political elites take that option away from them?

4) Cui bono? (“Who benefits?”)

If we try to significantly reduce the power of incumbency in municipal elections, who benefits? As I explored above, there’s no reason to think it will be women and minorities. Forcing an end to incumbency doesn’t force an end to the inequality and oppression that make it harder for those disadvantaged by their gender, class, and/or race to get in the door of municipal politics. And it won’t help voters, who arbitrarily lose the ability to pass judgement on the work of their current representatives, and to choose the person they want for the job.

Term limits would create more races without incumbents. This might encourage some people to run who otherwise would not. Those people benefit. But they will mostly be the same people who would eventually run anyway, and who might have simply waited longer to do so or have run for something else.

Some current municipal officials in the school boards or ward council seats, particularly in two-tier municipalities, would benefit from the implementation of term limits. They would have an easier race for positions like mayor, regional councillor, or regional chair, which often have more prestige, pay, and/or responsibility than the seats those officials currently hold. This advantage will be strongest for people who had more power to begin with: councillors and trustees who have money, name recognition, and strong networks among the powerful don’t need as much time in their positions to consolidate their position and become known. It will generally be easier for them to turn their positions into more impressive ones. I worry that term limits could entrench issues of race, class, and gender inequality in our system, not improve them.

So term limits don’t solve the problems their proponents identify, and they create many more. Let’s focus on the problems we actually have, and put some real work in to find solutions to them. The health of our democracy deserves such care.

On the inconvenience of being trans

I use a Diva Cup. I don’t generally announce it, but I’m happy to talk about it with people who are genuinely interested. I believe that alternative, reusable menstrual products are often better for people who menstruate and better for the environment. Most importantly, I’ve certainly found they’re better for me.

In normally find my Diva Cup to be extraordinarily convenient, since I generally have access to my own personal washroom at home. Because most people can wear a Diva Cup for twelve hours without having to empty and wash it, I can usually just deal with it when I’m home. And when I’m out for more than twelve hours, I can ordinarily just find a single-seat (usually wheelchair accessible) washroom with a sink and a toilet to give it a wash. It works out fine.

Sure, I know that one can find all kinds of solutions for a menstrual cup in a multi-stall public washroom. Lots of people do it. But I prefer a little privacy for emptying and a quick wash.

Yesterday, I got my period. I’m at Congress 2013 at the University of Victoria, and I’m staying in one of the UVic residences. My residence building has an accessible single-seat washroom on the first floor. It is locked. I do not have access to the key. It’s possible someone would give me the key if I asked for it and explained why I wanted it. But I don’t want to explain, so I don’t have the key.

I knew I was due for my period, so when I got here, I scoped out the single-seat accessible washrooms. Most universities have them. I found two of them near my residence building. One is in the student centre two buildings over. The other is in a building that hosts the residence cafeteria. When I got my period and needed to wash out my cup late last night, I headed to the student centre.

I couldn’t get to the accessible washroom. The student centre was unlocked, but that part of it was closed off with gates.

So I headed to the building with the residence cafeteria. Part of it was open; people were eating and drinking and having fun. I was just looking for a unisex washroom. I wasn’t having fun, but I thought I was getting closer to finding what I was looking for.

I asked the gentleman at the bar about where the accessible washroom was. He told me it was in the part of the building that was locked, and asked me what was wrong with the washrooms I could get to. I didn’t answer his question. I told him I was looking for the unisex washroom. He offered to walk me over to it. I accepted.

He walked me through kitchens, back rooms, storage areas, and hallways. I thanked him when we got there; he was very kind.

I couldn’t think about much, on our arrival, other than the inconvenience of being trans. That’s the least of it, of course. People who are trans experience prejudice, marginalization, and violence. Many rightly fear being judged, and even beaten or killed. These are major threats. We can and must do more to fight them.

And yet, it also seems to me that being trans could at times be very inconvenient. I got only a little taste of that last night. I had to spend time finding washroom spaces that would meet my needs. I went back to them only to find that I could not get to them. I was asked why the gendered washrooms weren’t good enough for me.

I am lucky that I could do all of this without fear of being injured. I am lucky that I could spend twelve hours using the women’s washroom as many times as I wanted without fear of harassment or anxiety. I am lucky that all I really found was inconvenience, and a little anger.

Ironically, I had this experience at the University of Victoria, which has made great strides toward making its washrooms on campus accessible to trans students by converting multi-stall washrooms to gender inclusivity.

I’m glad that I got this very small taste of what trans people can experience on a daily basis, over something as simple as using the washroom. As someone who is cisgendered, I hope it will help me to be a better ally, and to remember that so many things I take for granted are so difficult for some of the people around me.

Gender inclusive washroom sign, the student centre, University of Victoria
Gender inclusive washroom sign, the student centre, University of Victoria

Congress 2013: Visiting Victoria

On this, my first full day here in Victoria for Congress 2013, I thought I’d share some of the fun I’m having as a tourist before the first of my association meetings starts tomorrow. I hope it will inspire other Congress-goers to enjoy a visit to Downtown.

I started the day off with a (free) tour of the British Columbia Legislature (which is the only way to get into the building on a weekend). There are two things that stuck out for me. First, the stained glass is some of the nicest I’ve seen. There was some old stained glass.

Stained glass in celebration of Victoria's Diamond Jubilee after 60 years on the throne in 1897. It was forgotten in a basement after renovations for 62 years.
Stained glass in celebration of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee after 60 years on the throne in 1897. It was forgotten in a basement after renovations for 62 years.

There was some new stained glass.

Stained Glass for Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee in 2002
Stained Glass for Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002

There was some stained glass that was largely inexplicable.


Second, there was an unexpected visit from Amor De Cosmos, which definitely tickled our tour group.


All in all, it’s worth heading over to the legislature.


I also decided to take advantage of an unusual opportunity for an Ontarian, and have the famous tea at the Empress. It’s pricey, but delicious, and I’d say it’s worth doing once.

If you go to the Empress for tea, make sure you eat the green thing on top. I’m told it’s a “macaron,” and it’s particularly fabulous.


I get the sense that there’s often something interesting going on in Downtown Victoria.

I was lucky enough to stumble across a high school choir from Washington State singing on the steps of the legislature. Its members were talented, professional, and having a great time.
This is the "Whale People" Spindle Whorl by Susan Point, at the Convention Centre. As a knitter and someone who's tried her hand at spinning with a spindle, I was excited to find it.
This is the “Whale People” Spindle Whorl by Susan Point, at the Convention Centre. As a knitter and someone who’s tried her hand at spinning with a spindle, I was excited to find it.

If you’re at Congress and you get a chance, I hope you’ll do some local exploring, and share what you can with us online. I’m planning to provide some updates on the Women and Gender Studies and Political Science conferences as they start up, both here and on Twitter.

Looking toward the edge: Congress 2013

I’ve been looking forward to the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences for some time, and yet its fast approach is still startling, albeit exciting. Congress 2013 will be held May 30th to June 6th at the University of Victoria, on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish and Straits Salish peoples.

Congress is a meeting of meetings, as they say. For me, Congress means participating in the annual meetings of both the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) and the Women and Gender Studies et Recherche Féministes (WGSRF).

The theme of this year’s Congress is @ the edge, and all three papers I’ll be delivering are closely connected to this theme and “the need to centre the periphery both institutionally and socially, testing the boundaries of disciplines.” If you’re at CPSA or WGSRF, I hope you’ll come out to see them:

WGSRF: Authenticity as edge: Feminist autoethnography and Lindqvist’s Exterminate all the Brutes. Tuesday June 4th at 9:00 am in Clearihue Building C111.

CPSA: Beyond other animals: Haraway’s When Species Meet and privilege within feminism(s). Tuesday June 4th at 3:15 pm in Clearihue Building A206. Full draft paper here.

CPSA: I think/I feel: Contextualising sadness, anger, fear, and love in political science education. Wednesday June 5th at 8:45 am in Social Sciences and Mathematics Building A357. Full draft paper here.

I hope that the discussion “@ the edge,” both within these conferences and within the vast number of Congress events open to the public, will be fruitful, and I hope to see many of you in Victoria. If you can’t make it out, I hope you’ll follow along with #Congress2013, #cpsa2013, and #wgsrf2013 on Twitter.