Guest Post on The Disorder of Things

Back in October of 2012, an intimate workshop was held at York University on Narrative Voice in International Relations, organized by my supervisor, Elizabeth Dauphinee (whose highly acclaimed new book using narrative methods, incidentally, should be available from Amazon any day now). Attendance was limited, and I myself do not work in international relations (IR), but I was interested in narrative methods as a feminist political theorist, and Elizabeth is my encouraging supervisor. She graciously included me. I’m lucky she did; those two days, and the amazing scholars I heard from and spoke with, have significantly helped me along the path to both producing a dissertation and figuring out how I want and need to write in the world.

So when Elizabeth included me in her request to the workshop participants for guest posts for a series on The Disorder of Things, I was thrilled. Pieces from the varied and insightful scholars who participated the workshop will be posted over the coming days. My contribution appeared today.

I hope you’ll visit my post over at The Disorder of Things, entitled Fear and Honesty: On Reconciling Theory and Voice, in Two Parts. It is my first public attempt to allow myself to be vulnerable in my scholarship. I’d also encourage you to check out the other posts from those at the workshop, as they’re made available; I can’t wait to read them myself.

My thanks to the folks at The Disorder of Things, for their gracious hosting and for their ongoing work, as well as to Elizabeth, for her support and encouragement with this piece.

Online voting and its threat to transparency

The City of Waterloo is pursuing online voting as an option for its municipal elections. This is causing quite a stir, particularly after the City of Kitchener rejected this option due to a variety of constraints and concerns.

I’m personally opposed to online voting at this time, for a lot of reasons. Since Waterloo City Councillor (and my brilliant husband) Jeff Henry has written about some of the broader problems, and since Region of Waterloo Councillor Jane Mitchell has addressed the danger of compromising the secret ballot, I don’t need to rehash those arguments here.

There is one point I want to make right now about online voting, and one point only: I have grave philosophical concerns about a system that the vast majority of the population will never be able to understand.

Our current system for most elections depends on a process that is both transparent and entirely understandable. Voters are given a ballot, along with a private place to mark that ballot with their choices. They return to the ballot box, where both the voter and the election official see the ballot placed into the sealed box. When the voting is done, the box is unsealed and all ballots counted in front of witnesses (elections officials and, often, volunteers for the candidates). This can be explained to, and understood by, anyone. Anyone can see that the process is being followed, and anyone can observe and report any discrepancies in that process.

Online voting doesn’t work like that. Even the most simple computer programming will not be understandable to the vast majority of voters. And any system that we might somehow manage to make secure and effective will be even more complicated. Even as a political scientist, I will not be able to hope to understand the process involved in securing, collecting, and counting votes, nor would I be competent to audit that process. I’m guessing that even many computer experts would not have the specific expertise to understand the specific programming and techniques used. And almost no one will have the access that would be required to know how the system works and observe it working, even if they were highly trained to understand it.

Some will point out that we already routinely use counting machines for municipal elections. While they’re not my favourite, they’re generally fine. They still involve paper ballots. And when there’s a dispute or a close vote (like the one-vote margin of Councillor Etherington over in Kitchener in 2010), we have those paper ballots that people filled out, and they can be examined for review in a recount or by the courts, if necessary. This is conceptually accessible. The security of the paper trail can be explained and understood.

There is value in having a voting system that is intellectually accessible to the vast majority of citizens and community members. We need to have confidence in our system. We need to have significant reason to believe that our elections are valid. They are the underpinning of our democracy. We need to trust them, and to have good reason to do so. For that, we need most people to understand them.

So before we jump on the online voting bandwagon, let’s deal with the serious practical problems. But let’s also deal seriously with the philosophical problems, and the changes to the fundamental character of our democratic process. The costs of supposed convenience are high, indeed.

A candid conversation with my fellow Ontario Liberals

We need to have a candid conversation.

I have always been an uneasy party member. I like nuance. I like uncertainty and complexity. I like good policy over flashy policy, and I like calling out the later. And since a big part of being a party member in a local riding association is being a cheerleader, I’ve never been a very good one. I find my unease often gives me bit of a different perspective than some of my fellow party members in any party I’ve been in.

I won’t get into my varied history with political parties with you here. Suffice it to say that I am currently a member of the Ontario Liberal Party, and have been peripherally involved in our party since 2007. And on the eve of what I expect will be a very interesting, very important delegated leadership convention this weekend, I need to share one particular insight from my positioning with you.

The buzz suggests that many supporters for Ms. Pupatello are making their decision based on their assumption that she has the best chance of winning the next election. Whether I agree with this assessment or not is, for the moment, beside the point.

What I want to say is this: I respectfully suggest that this is an insufficient and misguided rationale for selecting our next premier and party leader.

Here in Kitchener-Waterloo, we lived through a byelection almost five months ago. I spent a fair amount of time knocking on doors and talking to people about the Ontario Liberal Party. And what I heard at those doors is consistent with what I hear in my community now.

I do not believe that most within the party saw our significant defeat coming. There was a serious misread of the conditions on the ground and what they meant. It affected what decisions were made. It did not work out well.

I don’t want those same mistakes to determine the course of our party.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this. But if the government falls this spring, we’re not going to win the election. Certainly not with a majority government. And that’s true regardless of who the leader is.

Am I 100% sure about this? No. I have not lived that long, but I have lived long enough to know that nothing is certain in politics. But let’s look at the general situation and try to see what conclusions we can reasonably draw.

Our party has been in office for a decade. And to be successful in those circumstances, after three elections, would require Ontarians to collectively shrug their shoulders and say “things are good enough.” It would require them to find the current government to be, at best, appealing and, at worst, inoffensive. And it would require that people remember that what they have is better than what they would have, or have had, under the alternatives.

I think it is safe to say that this is not how the winds are blowing in Ontario today.

It is easy for those of us who are invested in parties to forget that governing parties these days are cyclical. We are not living in the mid-20th century political culture that allowed my great-grandfather to serve as a provincial cabinet minister, uninterrupted, for nearly two decades, under a party reign that lasted 42 years. These days, 10 years is a long time for a party to hold government in our province.

The last successful transition of power to a new premier under the same party was almost 42 years ago, when Bill Davis took over from John Robarts. All more recent attempts to transition to new premiers have preceded the party losing government after the subsequent election.

So we need to ask for much more from our next premier, and next party leader.

We can’t just ask our next leader to be an “electable” premier. We need someone who can fight hard and win in difficult races, yes. But we also need someone who can deal with whatever the results of the next election might be. We need an accomplished relationship builder who understands complex policy and how to implement it. We need a leader who sees the big picture for the long-term, and who can transform the Ontario Liberal Party into something we’ll want to vote for in subsequent elections. Into a party my children will want to support, and a party that will doggedly pursue a vision for an Ontario we want to live in.

I hope our delegates will make good choices, and that this weekend will be the first step in creating that party. Who do I think is right for that daunting task? Kathleen Wynne. But that’s irrelevant to my point. If you’re a delegate, I hope that you won’t make such crucial decisions based on a misinterpretation of our electoral chances, and the short-term impulse of a party that is afraid of losing power above all else. It won’t serve the party well, and it won’t serve Ontario well.

Speech to Regional Council on Cuts to iXpress Service

In what follows, I have filled in my presentation notes from my presentation to Regional Council last night. Since I tend to elaborate a bit while speaking, it is not a verbatim copy of what I said then. If you would like to see my speech, or hear councillors’ questions in response, I will post the link to the archived webcast when it is available. (Update January 15: webcast available here, and my comments begin at 69:05.)

If you wish to contact Regional Council regarding this or other issues in the budget, their information is available here. I understand decisions regarding the budget will begin next week.

Thank you, Mr Chair. I always appreciate Council taking the time to consider public input on issues as important as the budget. I know this is a complex budget process, and there are lots of issues to consider. There are many I could speak about tonight.

But I’m here to address only one: the proposed reduction of iXpress bus service.

I have great respect for Regional staff and the difficult work that they do to try to meet Council’s expectations for high levels of service and low taxes. I’m aware that they consider the Region’s strategic plan in arriving at potential cost reductions. I can only conclude that the proposal to reduce iXpress service is the result of a misinterpretation of the facts on the ground and their relevance.

I know how important the success of LRT is to this Council and to the people of Waterloo Region. These service reductions in the summer period will damage the ridership growth we need along the spine to support LRT when it is introduced. Now, it’s not clear to me whether iXpress is only facing a cut to it’s July and August service. If this proposal is joined with the proposal to eliminate spring service period, it could mean four months of reduced service (from May to August) instead of just two months (July and August). For the purpose of my comments, it doesn’t matter; both are a problem.

The proposal is to reduce summer service on the iXpress to every 15 minutes, down from every 10 minutes. This causes two distinct but related problems. The first is related to rider volume, and the second is a frequency issue.

First, rider volume. Though I was not at the last meeting, I understand it’s been pointed out that boardings are not the same as peak load. As far as I know, GRT has not included the actual boarding numbers as part of this budget proposal. Mr. Gillespie suggested, in response to a question, that it was less than a councillor’s guess of a 50% reduction in July and August, but the numbers themselves haven’t been given. This is concerning to me.

Regardless, I’m sure that boardings are fewer in the summer, but doesn’t tell us anything about the effect that a reduction in service will have on the quality of that service.

I was actually shocked, and quite delighted, when GRT announced that it would start every 10 minute iXpress service just before July in 2011. Such expansions usually happen in September, which is a busier time. But I was even more shocked by what we saw happening on the bus.

In my family, we found while riding the iXpress that, in the summer, buses went from being jammed to capacity, and leaving people behind,  to being comfortable. Nowhere near empty, certainly not spacious, but comfortable.

Of course, if you’re a transit user, a bus leaving people behind means that you could be standing on the curb until the next bus, which may or may not have room, and it means that you’re going to be late. It is unreliable. A bus that’s crammed full, even if you manage to get on it, is a smelly and uncomfortable violation of one’s personal space that can last as long as one’s commute.

Even in the summer of 2011, the increase to 10 minutes on the iXpress was the difference between uncomfortable and unreliable and comfortable and reliable. We’re talking about a significant portion of the year for which this would no longer be true, and this is the route on which we most need ridership growth. So that’s the problem with volume.

The second problem is frequency, which is an issue in itself. Five minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, but the context matters. Ten minute frequency is just on the edge of where you can reasonably just show up to a bus stop and wait for the next bus, without planning ahead. iXpress is the only route where this is true: I can really just wander out of a store in UpTown and wait to hop on a bus to Downtown Kitchener, Conestoga Mall, or a university without checking a bus schedule beforehand. I don’t have to pull out and try to read a paper schedule, use Google Maps on my phone, try to remember my stop number for the text service, or kill 5 or 10 minutes in a store or a in a hallway with air conditioning so my groceries don’t melt.

Ideally, service would a bit more frequent than every 10 minutes – maybe every 7 – but 10 is on the right side of the edge of that dividing line. Seeing it as “only 5 minutes” ignores the huge additional value of being freed from a schedule. It’s value far greater than the $350 000 saved by getting rid of that freedom.

I was at a GRT consultation recently, and on the paper feedback form, there were a set of boxes you could check to indicate how often you ride the bus. The most often you could say you used the bus was measured in “times a week.” I laughed. As I told the helpful staff at the consultation, there are times for me when I’m on the bus 7 or 8 times a day.

Having to check for and plan around a bus several times a day is a serious quality of life effect for riders. Service at every 10 minutes is enormously valuable, and saves riders much more than the 5 minutes mentioned, in both time and effort.

There are several other components of proposed cuts to GRT as part of this budget. I do have opinions on them, but what I’m here today to say is this: reducing iXpress service in the summer is a definitive strategic misstep. Making this cut would be like paying to fly a bunch of heads of state to a big meeting in Toronto and then refusing to pay for chairs or pencils. It is the equivalent in clichés of cutting off one’s nose. We have a system that is in good shape to continue to grow the ridership we need for LRT’s launch.

We’re at a place now where we’re seriously starting to consider the practical challenges of trying to grow our family. Everyone tells me, “of course, you’ll need to buy a car when you have a child.”

I have no desire to buy a car. I am a choice rider.

To keep me as one throughout my life, and to create more choice riders, there are two things we need:

  • service that is on time, that is comfortable, and that doesn’t leave people at their stop, and
  • service that is frequent enough that we’re not constantly tied to a schedule.

iXpress service is the closest we’ve got to that in the Region, and it’s because of its current frequency. We need to build ridership leading up to LRT, and we particularly need it where the iXpress runs. There is certainly some reduction in student riders from other communities over the summer months. This means that the people you are most likely to alienate are those people (student or not) who live here in an ongoing way and who are the most promising long-term riders of GRT, and those who pay per-ride or per-month to use the service. For those riders, each payment is a decision point.

Cutting service for a significant portion of the year will dissuade those riders we need most: choice riders who live here all year and who are most likely to keep living here. I am asking you to make a good decision and help us to make a good decision to use transit. Please preserve iXpress frequency all year, and don’t save a few dollars that will cost us much more in the long run.

In Defence of Michael Bryant

I started this post more than 6 weeks ago. I wanted to write it right after I finished reading Michael Bryant’s book, 28 Seconds. I think Bryant should be commended on his candor, especially when discussing his own struggles with addiction and his encounter with hubris. Bryant has been one of my favourite figures in Ontario politics since I met him briefly at an event five years ago, and I was quite upset by the events of August 2009, in which Darcy Allan Sheppard was killed and Michael Bryant was charged with dangerous driving causing death and criminal negligence causing death. Those charges would be dropped based on the evidence available.

From my perspective, that outcome seems appropriate. But this post is not about that; there has been enough commentary on that question. Since the launch of Bryant’s book, I have been unsettled by what I have seen and heard.

I have been struggling for weeks over what, precisely, I want to say about this state of affairs. I finally figured it out yesterday at an event at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. I unfortunately missed Michael Bryant’s presentation while I was in class, but I understand he largely read from his book. What I saw during the question and answer session was jarring.

The online response to the book and to Bryant had seemed overwhelmingly negative (see, for example, Steve Paikin’s response to comments on his interview with Bryant).  Many of the comments seemed extreme and hate-filled, and ranged from the disrespectful to the scary. If the online response was any indication, there are a lot of people who are angry with Michael Bryant. But online often isn’t any indication. Sometimes online anger is mostly exists online, behind the wall of anonymity. Many online comments were from people who either haven’t bothered to read the book, or who proudly refuse to read the book before commenting on it as a matter of principle.

But I started to get the sense that this anger was more than the usual online trolls. Some colleagues and friends seemed surprised and usually responded negatively when I mentioned I was reading the book, and when I expressed a fondness for Bryant as a public figure.

But none of this was anything close to what I saw at Osgoode yesterday. I have now spent more than 7 years of my life in the academy, and I love it. I have come to expect and cherish the ability to have serious debate around difficult issues, and to ask hard questions with respect.

Yesterday, I saw a number of people at a talk in a university respond with disrespect and aggression to an individual who had come forward to share his work and his record, and to face critique on both. One attendee called Bryant guilty and a murderer though he was not found to be either under our legal system, and though the talk took place at a law school. One response from Bryant was eventually drowned out with what I can only call heckling. And while I don’t particularly appreciate wanton heckling at Queen’s Park, either, I believe it has no place in the academy, regardless of how offensive one might find a speaker’s response to be.

I should emphasise that many attendees were respectful and appropriate throughout the session, and some managed to ask good questions, particularly about the legal reforms Bryant advocates in his book. But the tone in the space was decidedly aggressive.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is about this case that makes people so angry at Michael Bryant. But the real question is what makes them so angry, period.

I’ve come to the conclusion that people are right to be angry. We should be angry about living in a world and a province where two men struggle with addition and/or mental health challenges and have such dramatically different life chances and outcomes. Michael Bryant was a white, middle class man with good social supports who became Attorney General of Ontario, and got sober. Darcy Allan Sheppard was the son of a status Indian in a family affected by residential schools, and was shuffled through 30 foster homes. Despite being lucky enough to be adopted by loving parents (his father can be heard in an interview with Steve Paikin), Sheppard had numerous interactions with the criminal justice system, and never received the treatment that he needed. In the end, Bryant would resign from his job as head of Invest Toronto and face post-traumatic stress disorder. Sheppard would end up dead.

We know that most people facing criminal charges will never, ever hope to have the expertise, support, and financial resources to deal with those charges that Michael Bryant has had. Without those, someone in Bryant’s situation could easily have faced a trial with a minimal defence that would have resulted in an unjust conviction, as many do.

So we should be angry, and we should not let that anger go. But I do not believe that we should be angry at Bryant. He is in the web of our oppressive system, as are the rest of us.

We need to get people out of the criminal justice system and into the care they need and deserve. We need law and policy in our province to ensure that people are sentenced and tried fairly, and to minimise the effects of income and status in our legal system. And we need to fight for a world that does not set people like Darcy Allan Sheppard and Michael Bryant on a collision course with no winners, where some lose much, much worse than others.

Scapegoating Michael Bryant is a distraction from the fight for that world. He has come to be seen by many as the embodiment of privilege: as a representation of a system that is unjust and makes us angry.

People in positions of privilege and power should not be excused from being aware of and taking responsibility for that power as we try to change the playing field. And people should face appropriate criticism of their actions and choices when warranted, especially for choices made in their positions as elected officials. We cannot dismantle oppression without that. But we need to take what such people say seriously, and we need to respect them enough to work with them for change. Without that, our emancipatory impulse will be quashed before it gets us anywhere.

So I won’t hide my fondness for Michael Bryant. And I won’t refuse to engage with him or with anyone else on how to build the Canada that we need and that Darcy Allan Sheppard deserved.

Please note that comments will only be open for 7 days, due to the overwhelming amount of spam I have to moderate while they are open. I welcome comments, though I ask that they be respectful and on-point.

An even more ridiculous abortion debate than usual: Stephen Woodworth and M312

While I’ve made my disdain for Mr. Woodworth’s recent anti-abortion motion fairly clear, I have yet to clearly and publicly state why. It goes far beyond my own belief that a woman’s decision to bear children is her own, and should be made by her without requiring explanation. While no woman should be the victim of state forced pregnancy, Motion 312 is particularly ridiculous. And it makes me angry not just as a woman and a feminist, but also as an aspiring political scientist.

For convenience, the most relevant parts of M312 are below:

“That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth.”


“that the special committee present its final report to the House of Commons within 10 months after the adoption of this motion with answers to the following questions,
      (i)            what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?,
   (ii)            is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?,
 (iii)            what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?,
 (iv)            what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?”

 Mr. Woodworth claims that the question is a scientific and medical question, implying that an answer that can be proven definitively correct or incorrect through research. As near as I can tell, this is, at best, factually mistaken. M312 makes it clear that a committee, if struck, would only examine the definition of “human being” used in the Criminal Code. It is pretty clear to me, and hopefully to others, that definitions in legislation only apply within the context of that legislation, and do so for particular purposes specific to the Act in question.

For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Ontario defines “competent person,” for the purposes of the Act, as “a person who,

(a) is qualified because of knowledge, training and experience to organize the work and its performance,

(b) is familiar with this Act and the regulations that apply to the work, and

(c) has knowledge of any potential or actual danger to health or safety in the workplace”

It would be clearly ridiculous to argue about whether or not there is scientific evidence to suggest that a person can be considered “competent” even if s/he has never heard of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Ontario. This is because the definition is chosen to create specific effects when combined with the wording of the Act.

As near as I can tell, the Criminal Code of Canada only mentions the term “human being” in two sections: one dealing with “Homicide,” and the other dealing with “Murder, Manslaughter, and Infanticide.” It’s relevant only to those sections. It’s not relevant to metaphysical questions about what it means to be human, in a broad sense. And it’s not even relevant to other sections of the Criminal Code, like assault. It’s only about homicide.

In short, only one thing could change if the definition of “human being” in the Criminal Code of Canada is expanded to include embryos or fetuses. People could be made guilty of homicide under the Criminal Code of Canada for things done to that embryo or fetus before it has left a woman’s body. And in Canada, in almost all cases, that is only a question of abortion or medical treatment, and a choice made by the woman herself.

This motion is plainly about criminalizing abortion, and perhaps also about criminalizing other medical treatment decisions made by women when that treatment could cause miscarriage or stillbirth.

So on top of the all-too-common threats to take away women’s autonomy and use their bodies as a means to an end they did not choose, M312 is particularly terrible. It takes a social question that is embedded in a history of rights, needs, and the oppression of women, and pretends that it is a technical, scientific question about species classification that has a yes/no answer that can be proven through tests. It most certainly is not.

And on top of all that, it conflates legislative definitions with scientific definitions, which just further confuses everyone trying to understand politics and law in this country. Including people trying to study political science, such as undergraduate students like the ones for whom I am a teaching assistant. This makes my life harder.

So while I disagree, if Mr. Woodworth really does wish to have a normative discussion about abortion in our House of Commons, he should at least be up front about it. It would just make me sad and angry as a woman and as someone who cares about the health, rights, and life choices of women and their loved ones. I wouldn’t also have to be sad and angry as someone who cares about an educated citizenry that understands the law.

The lastest attack on motherhood in the academy

I was not planning to write on the recent breastfeeding “scandal” at American University, which has lead to a professor being heavily criticised for bringing her child to the first day of a class she was teaching after her childcare fell through. I had written it off as yet another example of a few backward people with a microphone too big for their ideas, and who would be best left ignored. This was particularly true after Professor Pine wrote a response piece to explain her decision. The explanation would suffice.

I was prepared to let the story die the death it deserved, and move on with my life. It is a decision I make often as a feminist and, in particular, as someone trying to do feminist political theory. It’s like living in a batting cage with a pitching machine gone wild. There are way too many balls coming at you in our culture that is still permeated with misogyny. One has to choose carefully when to swing, or exhaustion ensues.

Did I mention that the “incident” occurred in a class on sex and gender? (I was once handed a speculum during an undergraduate class on sex, by the way.) The criticism could not seem more ridiculous, and the irony seems self-apparent. The fire would put itself out eventually, I thought. Hopefully it would become a teachable moment for this professor’s students, and for the rest of us.

But with news of American University’s statements in response to the supposed controversy, I decided I have to swing at this one, and hard. Apparently the university has decided to declare that the professor should not have brought her child to class in this case because of “public health” due to the child’s fever and that the university provides “a private area to express milk for a nursing child.” They also strongly imply that bringing a child to class is unprofessional.

This discussion is an attack against women in the academy everywhere. And against men who take their responsibilities as parents seriously, as they should.

Women will have an opportunity to be treated well in the academy and elsewhere when we stop treating their parenting and professional decisions as the substance of controversial fodder for student newspapers or, worse, national and international news publications. And the university’s decision to say anything other than “this matter is between the administration, the professor, and her students” is its own brand of unprofessionalism.

Before I decided to devote my life to post-secondary education and try for a career as a faculty member, I thought long and hard about the sort of career I wanted, and the sort of life I wanted, too. I spoke to faculty at various stages of their careers, both women and men, about possibilities for raising children as an academic. And while many identified challenges, such as irregular class schedules and the pressure of the tenure clock during a period that, for many, is prime child-bearing time, many also told me that academia can be great for family, too. Some told me of the ways in which academics have much more schedule flexibility than other professionals. Some even described the way, in decades past, that they had taught classes with their baby in a Snugli on their chest.

So in pursuing my current career path, I have seen great potential for myself as both a teacher and a parent. This entire debacle is a step backward for women in the academy. Every decision made by every woman with a child, or parent period, is apparently now up for debate, ridicule, and hyperbole.

Increasingly, women teaching in the academy don’t have the security that comes with tenure, as our universities replace faculty with job security, benefits, and research opportunities with those who can be fired on a whim. And it doesn’t take much for women with tenuous employment to be made more vulnerable than they already are in a workplace and a society that thinks that being “professional” means making one’s status as a mother invisible. This is a terrible time for women in the academy to undergo even more scrutiny of the diverse ways that they manage their diverse roles.

So I am taking this opportunity to plead with media, with the higher education community, and especially with American University: please let this go as an item that never should have been up for grabs in the first place. Let academics work out the particulars of family friendly spaces with their institutions and associations; let professors make reasonable decisions for their classes, their children, and their students. Let’s not live in a world where every parenting and professional decision that a woman makes is up for scrutiny by anyone with a keyboard and internet access. Our universities and our societies are only made poorer for allowing it.

Note: A previous version of this post stated, incorrectly, that Professor Pine has tenure. Thank you to those who informed me of the error.

5 Things I Like About (By-)Elections!

My last blog post about the by-election was pretty serious. So today I wanted to share some things I love about (by-)elections!

1)  You get to meet interesting people. In every election in which I have volunteered, and even a few in which I haven’t, I have had a chance to talk with people with whom I would ordinarily have little to no contact. Elections are a public event with consequences for each of us, but which people in different circumstances experience very differently. They are a unique chance to learn about our own fellow residents.

2) You get to see parts of your community you wouldn’t otherwise visit. Most of us spend most of our time in a few parts of our cities or towns, especially in more populated places. We rarely venture into most residential areas unless we’re visiting someone. In my family, we’ve been able to choose not to have a car. So unless I have no choice, I don’t go places that aren’t conveniently accessible by transit, and I see even less of some areas. When you’re canvassing, you get a chance to get a feel for different neighbourhoods, and it’s often a rewarding experience.

3) Sometimes tiny puppies lick your toes while you’re knocking on doors. Okay, so this is only possible in the summer, and has only happened to me twice. But it’s still a pretty happy possibility.

4) Sometimes you’re lucky, and people actually take some time to talk about what we want our communities and our province, or municipality or country, to be. Elections often get stuck in the muck of soundbites and adversarial bickering. But, to my delight, opportunities still emerge for optimistic conversations about things that matter. And in every election, and even in between them, each of us has a chance to make more of those opportunities.

5) We get to remember that we live in a place where our votes actually decide who will represent us and make difficult decisions on our collective behalf. To get a little more political science about it, we decide who will control our state, who will direct that “monopoly of the use of legitimate physical force” where we live. We shouldn’t take that for granted, and people all over the world can’t. Elections are as good a chance as any to celebrate the responsibility that gives us, by exercising our rights to speak, listen, and vote. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A Plea for Perspective: The Kitchener-Waterloo By-election

It’s now been two weeks since I returned from travelling to find a full-blown by-election fight here in Waterloo, and I can no longer resist the urge to share some serious requests with others in my riding. These issues are not unique to this by-election, but they do seem more obvious this time around, given the geographic concentration, short campaign, and our bare provincial minority.

I should say in advance that this blog is not about who I am supporting in this by-election, and I direct it as much to those who support my chosen candidate as to those who do not.

For those volunteering or working on campaigns, and other supporters:

1) Please do not try to tell anyone that their vote should be based on one issue. Voting in a complex world is a complex decision, and one that no citizen should take lightly. Each of us has to balance not only dozens of complex issues, but also the skills, inclinations, and positions of individual candidates in our riding. On top of that, each party has a platform on those dozens of issues, as well as their own records, attitudes, and priorities. And when you combine the issues, the candidates, and the parties, you’re dealing with some pretty complex questions. One issue arguments encourage citizens to ignore most of what’s going on in our social world. This is a big part of how we end up with misinformed, adversarial, un-nuanced citizens, and elected representatives to match.

2) Pursuant to (1), please don’t tell people that they should or should not vote based on ‘strategic voting.’ Seriously. I’ve worked on campaigns on both sides of this argument, and I don’t think anyone outside ‘the bubble’ finds it nearly as compelling as those of us inside it do. More importantly, and as noted above, deciding on one’s vote is a complex responsibility in a democratic society. Citizens certainly have responsibility for their choices, and part of that is taking responsibility for the likely outcome of their actions. If one is in a riding where the contest is between two individuals who are seen, based on the best information as it is possible to gather, as likely to win, then choosing to vote for someone who is very unlikely to win means that you will likely lose the opportunity to weigh in on which of those front-runners will win. This can certainly be an entirely valid choice. But voters need to accept responsibility for that choice, just as voters selecting a candidate who is not their first choice must accept the consequences of that, as well. Some people argue that forcing people to consider these questions in our first-past-the-post electoral system is undemocratic. I disagree, but that’s decidedly beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, for now, that we should respect the myriad factors that we should expect citizens to consider on election day, and drop the strategic voting fight. It’s distracting and overly simplistic.

3) Please remember that not all negative comments about your preferred candidate/party are ‘smears’ or ‘bashing.‘ Smearing or bashing requires inaccurate information, critical comments that are irrelevant to the campaign, personal attacks, or levels of vitriol that are out of proportion with the issue. If someone disagrees with your candidate or party, they might just disagree, and they might have a valid reason, whether you agree with their assessment or not. Calling everything a “smear” just turns an election into a hysterical screeching match, and politics is far too interesting and important for that. That’s not to say that people who *are* smearing shouldn’t be called on it; rather, it’s best to politely point out remarks as irrelevant or inaccurate, and move on to actual issues.

For voters:

1) All the parties will try to tell you that “this election is about X, and therefore you should vote Y.” Over and over again. Please ignore them. They do this because it is effective. At the Canadian Political Science Association conference in June, I heard Dimitri Soudas’s take on how, in the last federal election, the press corps following Stephen Harper got frustrated with the same soundbites being fed to them over and over. I’m paraphrasing, but Soudas pointed out that it’s only when the press corps becomes sick to death of a point that it starts to penetrate the public consciousness. And he’s right, and that’s why we’re all stuck with the same soundbites over and over. So please don’t let him be right. Don’t let it be effective. Take the time to dig deeper, and to think about what the parties *aren’t* saying, as well as what they are saying.

2) I hope this is obvious, but please do not rely on social media for information about this by-election. Don’t get me wrong; I love Twitter, and there are a lot of ways in which it’s great for politics and beyond. But 140 characters is not nearly enough for issues as complex as the ones we’re dealing with here, and short and impersonal comments tend to strip all nuance and respect out of the debates. If I was relying on Twitter or Facebook to gauge the strength of our democracy this week, I would not have much hope left. And the nasty comments only seem to be getting worse. By all means, take the things on social media that you can verify into account when making your decision. But make sure you get your head out of the echo chamber long enough to figure out what’s happening outside of it, too.

3) Please, please vote. We’re under the proverbial microscope in this by-election, and the results will have real consequences for everyone in the province. Admittedly, if you’ve stuck it out this long and read the rest of my blog post, then you’re probably someone who’s going to take a serious look at the issues and vote. But I’m asking, anyway. Thursday September 6th is going to be an interesting and important day, and I hope everyone here in Kitchener-Waterloo takes responsibility for deciding how our riding and our legislature will look.

7 Things I Learned From Richard Nutbrown

I often find it difficult to express in words how some of my favourite teachers have affected my life. So when I learned on the weekend of Richard Nutbrown’s death, I knew I had a lot I wanted to say, but I wasn’t sure how to say it.

Professor Nutbrown was my first political science professor, and my undergraduate honours essay supervisor. He taught me a lot, and not just about political theory. So perhaps the most I can do to thank him is to share, in a few words, just a small part of what he taught me.

1) Undergraduate teaching matters. After a few years as a teaching assistant in first-year political science courses, I’d recently been starting to think more about how I came to understand politics, and the discipline of political science, in the particular way that I do. When I heard that Professor Nutbrown had died, I dug my PSCI 101A notes out of the closet. I see a large part of how I have come to understand crucial political theory concepts like power, the state, ideology, and democracy. These notes are like a window into a crucial stage in the development of my theoretical voice. If you want to be sure that your legacy lives on, in the world and in your discipline, become a teacher. Better yet, teach intro courses with enthusiasm and dedication.

2) Having a talented and supportive supervisor makes all the difference. Before I had a supervisor, as an anxious undergraduate student with perfectionist tendencies, I was afraid of having a supervisor. I was lucky enough to have Professor Nutbrown take me on, and I eventually realized that supervision in academic environments can be rewarding instead of terrifying, and that working under good people has an enormous impact not only on the academic careers of students who pursue further research, but also on students’ confidence.

3) Political theory isn’t magic. I remember Professor Nutbrown telling me early in my studies that he found his undergrad students tended to treat political theory as something mystical and above us. He always encouraged us to treat Plato and Machiavelli as regular people saying something important that we can understand if we take the time to do so. He took an entire term to walk us, as fourth-year students, through Albert Camus’s The Rebel. It was difficult, but it was intelligible, and I learned to have patience with challenging material, and to assume that I can understand what is being said. This became invaluable when people started making me read Hegel.

4) The way we think about politics is central to the way that we do politics. I have come to believe that introductory courses in political science should focus on political theory, as Professor Nutbrown’s course did. I’d like to think that this is more than simple bias toward my own area. Behind every political action is a political assumption. I think students are better able to engage with structures and histories of politics when they have first had an opportunity to think about the values and goals that underpin them. Values infuse what we do, and they need to infuse our learning about what we do.

5) Your discipline’s boundaries can be flexible, thank God. In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I wanted to write a senior honours essay about historical same-sex sexual experience and power. Professor Nutbrown not only encouraged me to pursue the topic, but also was eager to learn from me about an area that was not his personal expertise. I love political science, and I love my research. I know that my research is on the margins of my discipline, and I love that, too. With a less supportive professor, I could have been mainstreamed very early. I consider myself lucky.

6) Major research projects are not a big deal. Don’t get me wrong: when I finally have a dissertation, I’m going to be really impressed with myself, and I’ll probably want other people to be impressed, too. But before I wrote that honours essay, I thought that writing an honours essay or a thesis meant that I had to have something brilliant and insightful to say, and that if I didn’t say it perfectly, my entire effort would be an utter and public failure. Professor Nutbrown showed me that the work of research and theory requires little steps toward a bigger idea, and that this is often messy. I’ve come to enjoy the mess of political theory, and it turns out that the mess is a big part of why I want to spend my life doing it.

7) Teaching is fun if you’re doing it right. The first substantive note I made in the first lecture of my first university political science course was: “somebody had to organize the brothels.” This is followed by notes on Greek etymology. I never had to guess that Professor Nutbrown enjoyed his teaching; it was entirely obvious in what he said and what he did. And no matter how different my teaching style is from his, I will always see him as a role model for the delight I want to take in my teaching.

Thank you, Professor. We’ve been blessed to have you as part of our education, in school and in life.