What Should Sessionals Be Paid?

According to Gail Lethbridge, it should be equivalent to what tenure-stream professors are paid:

This is because their pay [sessionals] is significantly lower that that of their full-time peers. An average salary for a full-time tenured professor in Canada is somewhere north of $100,000. A sessional teacher with the same course load is looking at $30,000 for full-time work.

This paragraph is somewhat misleading.  It points to a $70,000 gap that simply does not exist.  What’s the reality?

Continue reading

A typical tenure-stream professor is paid by the university according to the following workload: 40% research; 40% teaching; 20% service. Using Lethbridge’s numbers, that means a typical tenure-stream professor is paid $40,000 for research, $40,000 for teaching, and $20,000 for service.

A sessional is only paid to teach; there are no formal research or service obligations.  If we use Lethbridge’s numbers, then the gap is $10,000 and not $70,000.

So a reasonable argument could be made that sessionals should receive, on average, $40,000 rather than $30,000.

Of course, there are other issues at play here and that are mentioned by Lethbridge that are perfectly legitimate, including the lack of benefits, poor working conditions, and the like. There needs to be debate and action on the increasingly reliance on sessionals by many universities. No question.

But when making salary comparisons, I think it is important that we compare apples to apples.

Fixing Peer Review (again)!

I don’t know anybody who likes peer review.  The complaints are many but boil down to two main concerns: peer review is way too slow and the quality of the comments varies far too widely.

I want to focus on the second issue.  Part of the problem, I think, is that editors provide too little direction to peer reviewers and peer reviewers seem to have far too much discretion to assess the manuscript in whatever way they wish.  The result, in my experience, are reviewers that frequently want you to write a completely different paper or book, hammer your choice of methodological tool or theory (based on personal preference), or provide criticisms that clearly indicate that they did not read the manuscript carefully enough (to be fair, sometimes this criticism is a signal that the author needs to make things clearer or more pronounced). Continue reading

I think the days of “free for all” reviews needs to end.  Instead, editors should consider adopting a list of questions and holding reviewers to answering ONLY those questions (no more additional comments or recommendations!).

Here’s what my reviewer form would look like:

1) Is the argument presented in the paper internally consistent? If not, please identify inconsistencies in the argument.

2) Does the paper make an original contribution to the literature? What is that contribution and what is its magnitude (on a scale of 0-10, with zero being none and 10 being ground-breaking)?

3) Does the evidence presented adequately support the arguments presented in the paper? If not, identify weaknesses or areas where additional evidence would be helpful.

4) Are there any plausible alternative explanations/arguments, given the evidence presented in the paper, that the author should consider seriously?

I wouldn’t ask reviewers to recommend publication or not.  I would simply limit them to answering these four questions and make a decision based on my own reading of the manuscript and these reviews.

Why these four questions? I think peer review should be about assessing whether the manuscript makes any type of contribution (big or small) to the literature and whether the paper is sound in terms of scholarly rigour.  Contribution is important (e.g. question 2 above) since higher ranked, general political science journals, will probably emphasize larger contributions, but that should be only part of the calculation (many small contributions are just as important as one or two major ones!).  Limiting reviewers to rigour is also important because far too often, individual reviewer preferences about research topics and questions, approaches, methods, theories, and political leanings, seem to take precedence when they shouldn’t.  If I choose to do a descriptive, analytical paper, that shouldn’t automatically lead a reviewer to reject a paper just because they wish I wrote something different (normative or explanatory).  Reviewers instead should be assessing questions 1, 3 and 4.

What do you think? Would you add anything else to my reviewer form? Would this form and procedure generate different outcomes?

Methodological and Theoretical Pluralism: Good or Bad?

Last week I was in Milan, Italy attending the International Conference on Public Policy.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I had yet to attend an international conference so this was a very exciting experience for me on a number of levels.

Anyway, a number of things struck me as a result of this conference (and I don’t mean the unbearable heat of Italy in July!).  One was the sheer number of people from different disciplines studying public policy.  On the one hand, it’s a strong sign of a healthy subfield, right?  On the other hand, it seems that a powerful consequence of size and diversity is theoretical and conceptual fragmentation.  In almost every panel I attended, there was significant disagreement about concepts and assumptions within very established theoretical traditions.  For instance, in the panels on “co-production”, presenters and audience members used the terms “co-management”, “co-creation”, “co-construction”, among many others, interchangeably or as meaning different yet similar things.

In one of the plenary sessions, political scientist Bryan Jones noted a similar phenomenon.  He believed that the literature on agenda setting, a concept that he helped invent and pioneer, had seemingly lost its way.  Much of the new literature on the topic, he argued, was no longer in sync with the original theoretical micro assumptions that he and others had originally grounded the work in, with predictably negative consequences. Continue reading

It seems to me that the trends Prof. Jones noted in his talk and the lack of conceptual agreement at the panels I attended were partly the result of the growth and democratization of the academy.  In the past, there were fewer journals, fewer scholars, and fewer students entering and finishing PhD programs.  The result, I think, was a smaller set of high performing scholars writing about public policy (and political science) issues. The demands to keep up with the literature were smaller and the people contributing were the best of the best (I think?!).  As a result, political science and public policy fields and subfields perhaps had more internal conceptual consistency or at least more consistency in terminology. Today, however, with the explosion of new journals and PhD programs, the sheer amount of literature is impossible to read and keep up with.  As a result, you get conceptual fragmentation.

In that same plenary panel, Grace Skogstad gave a powerful defence of methodological and theoretical pluralism and to some extent I agreed with her. Who doesn’t like pluralism when it comes to publishing our research!?  On the other hand, an important and negative consequence of pluralism that rarely gets mentioned is this trend towards fragmentation.  Embracing pluralism means embracing conceptual blurriness, to some extent. For instance, I use co-production but Bob uses co-construction. Do we mean different things? Well, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I cite and speak to the people who favour co-production and Bob cites and speak to the co-construction people.  I may try to come up with a new definition of co-production that encompasses co-construction, or I might invent a new term, but there’s no guarantee that anyone will adopt my new definition or term.  Even if some people do, others will continue with their preferred term or definition.  Why? Because we embrace methodological pluralism.

What’s the alternative to methodological pluralism? I’m not sure.  Maybe radically fewer journals?  Then again, if you believe in the work of John Stuart Mill, then methodological pluralism is perhaps the only way to ensure truth wins out eventually.

Learning from the Kelowna Accord

Published on July 6, 2015, in Policy Options

If you open a newspaper or listen to the radio, it is easy to get discouraged about the relationship between indigenous communities and the government of Canada. Aboriginal Canadians lag far behind the Canadian average on almost every socio-economic indicator, including housing, education, unemployment, child poverty, and health and well-being. Many blame the federal, provincial and territorial governments for not doing enough to address these issues, and they criticize these governments for failing to establish good working relationships with indigenous communities. These are not new criticisms; almost all federal, provincial and territorial governments in the past have been criticized for their inability to partner with indigenous communities to create mutually beneficial public policies.

What is the solution? This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the ill-fated Kelowna Accord, a comprehensive, multiyear and multilevel initiative that was designed to forge a new, workable relationship and lasting change for Canada’s indigenous populations. Shortly after its signing, however, the accord was all but abandoned by the incoming Conservative government. Since then, we have seen social and economic conditions in many indigenous communities worsen and the relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Crown further deteriorate. Although the Kelowna Accord was abandoned 10 years ago, we argue that the process used by former prime minister Paul Martin to negotiate the accord may be the only way forward for improving the relationship between indigenous communities and the Crown.

Researchers and Scholars! Beware of your Cognitive Biases!

I am in the midst of reading Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0, which was shortlisted for this year’s Donner Prize.  It covers a lot of similar ground in other recent books about how humans think, such as Daniel Kahnman’s and Jonathan Haidt’s books.  Collectively, these books are having a powerful impact on my views of the world and on my scholarship.

Heath’s book is a great read.  It is very accessible and provides an excellent summary of the literature on cognitive biases and decision making (at least it’s consistent with Kahnman’s and Haidt’s books!). Continue reading

Among many important and interesting tidbits, Heath argues that one of the major problems that all citizens face, whether they are academics or non-academics, is confirmation bias (and indeed there’s research showing that philosophers and statisticians, who should know better, also suffer from the same cognitive biases).  It’s why some scholars insist on the need to reject the null hypothesis when engaging in causal inference.

Yet confirmation bias is such a powerful cognitive effect on how we perceive the world and make decisions. Certainly in my subfield, and I assume in many others involving strong normative debates and positions, there is a strong temptation to accept and embrace confirmation bias.

In the words of Joseph Heath:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.


Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.


I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.


Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.


In the subfield of Aboriginal politics, there are powerful incentives to ascribe everything that has gone wrong with Aboriginal communities post-contact to the British and later the Canadian state.  Those who try to say otherwise are routinely hammered and ostracized by the public and some members of the academy without even taking a moment to consider seriously their work.  Say what you want about the books and articles by Tom Flanagan, Frances Widdowson and Ken Coates, but at least they are providing us with an opportunity to test for confirmation bias.  Causal inference requires eliminating rival explanations! Otherwise, how can you be sure that A causes B?

In many ways, it is for these reasons why I’ve long been suspicious and wary of ideology (and certainty), whether it comes from the right or the left.  Someone who is hard core left or right, it seems, is more likely to be driven by confirmation bias.  I’ve seen dozens of episodes in my life where ideologues (from the left and the right) or those with strong views of the political world, when confronted with overwhelming evidence, refuse to budge.  It’s irrational, in many ways.  And so I long ago vowed to try and avoid becoming one of them and to embrace uncertainty. Sure, I will take a strong a position in my articles, books, and op ed columns, but I’m always ready and willing to change my mind.

Perhaps it’s a cowardly way of approaching politics and scholarship (and so I guess I should never run for office!) but for me, it conforms to my goal of striving towards causal inference and certainty.

Premier Kathleen Wynne should take on the mantle of reconciliation

 Published June 15, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne criticized the federal government for delivering a “disappointing” response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations. By doing so, Wynne was engaging in what has become an almost institutionalized form of doing politics in Canada. Like many premiers before her, she chose to criticize the prime minister and the federal government for inaction rather than taking action herself.

Although coverage of the report almost exclusively focused on the role of the federal government, a closer reading of the executive summary suggests that there is ample room for provincial and territorial governments to embark on reconciliation on their own. In other words, this issue doesn’t have to suffer the death of a thousand intergovernmental meetings like many other issues in the past.

Read more.

How to ensure Truth and Reconciliation Commission report changes the country

Published on June 2, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canadians have long engaged in a process of “cultural genocide” towards Aboriginal Peoples in this country. Residential schools, for instance, were one of the primary ways that the federal government carried out this genocide and so if we want to repair our relationship with Aboriginal Peoples, then we need to acknowledge this dark fact about our country’s history.

The commission’s report, however, was not all doom and gloom. It also provided a list of 94 recommendations for how Canada might reconcile with its Indigenous peoples. Some of these recommendations include a new Royal Proclamation on reconciliation, annual government progress reports on reconciliation activities, a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and a massive effort at re-educating Canadians about the history of residential schools, among other things.

Read more. 

Former NWT Premier George Braden Died on Monday Night

George Braden was the first NWT government leader to be called “premier” in the NWT. I got to know George when I was completing my project on territorial devolution in the Canadian north.  At time, he was working for another former territorial Premier, Dennis Patterson, who is the Senator for Nunavut.  I had interviewed George in Ottawa, I think, several years ago and was amazed at the vast amount of knowledge he had and how generous he was in sharing it.

Several years later, when the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations invited me to contribute a chapter to its 2011 State of the Federation book, I readily agreed but only if George would co-author and happily, he agreed.  And boy was a glad, because his knowledge of territorial intergovernmental relations was vast and unparalleled.  Check out our chapter here (ungated) and you can find the entire book here.

George was a real joy to work with, whether as a co-author or simply as someone I could bounce my crazy ideas off of about the north.  We had, at one point, talked about doing a conference and book on the north, with Kirk Cameron.  The goal was to gather all of the territorial “founders” together to talk about “the once and future” political and constitutional development of Canada’s territories but much to my regret, we never put aside time to do it.

Here’s the story about George’s passing.

Aboriginal Title One Year after Tsilhqot’in

Published by Christopher Alcantara and Michael Morden in the May 2015 issue of Policy Options.

When the Supreme Court rendered its Tsilhqot’in decision in June 2014, the federal government’s terse response almost seemed delivered through gritted teeth, while many Canadians experienced a familiar sense of uncertainty and quiet apprehension. But most indigenous leaders and commentators reacted with public celebrations and optimism, seeing the decision as a victory for their communities.

Our view, almost a year later, is that all Canadians and indigenous peoples should celebrate the decision.

Read more…

Full public disclosure: Publish water bills?

Published Apr. 30, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Over the last several years, accountability and transparency issues have been at the forefront of discussions and news coverage of Canadian politics. The usual targets have been politicians such as former MP Bev Oda, former Alberta premier Alison Redford, and senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin. Other popular targets include the “sunshine list” of public-sector employees at all levels of government, such as professors, teachers and police officers, among others.

The usual narrative in these stories is how we need more accountability and transparency in our governments. In practice, this means the government should post more public information about these politicians and employees, such as salaries, benefits and expenses, and to include as much detail as possible about their office, travel and technology expenditures.

Read more…


Rethink policies on extracurricular activities

Published Apr. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Over the last several months, Ontario teachers have been negotiating new collective agreements with their school boards and in some cases, with the Ontario government.

As students inch closer to graduation day, some parents have started to worry about the possibility of teacher strikes or school lockouts, the former of which is occurring in Durham this week. Others are concerned about the possibility of “work to rule,” where teachers protest the pace of their negotiations by ceasing all extracurricular activities to focus solely on teaching the curriculum.

In most cases, work-to-rule is the first line of defence for teachers when collective bargaining hits a wall. This strategy is designed to put pressure on the school boards to negotiate in good faith without jeopardizing the ability of students to complete their studies.

When work-to-rule happens, however, many parents and students complain bitterly about how unfair it is that they must suffer as innocent bystanders in the dispute between teachers and school boards.

Read more…

Treaties a basis for mutual respect

Published Apr. 9, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Waterloo Region Record

If you open up a newspaper or read almost any academic study about aboriginal peoples in Canada, it’s easy to get depressed. Study after study and report after report tells us the status quo isn’t working. Put simply, aboriginal participation within the constitutional framework of Canada has failed and is doomed to failure. And so commentators argue the only paths to reconciliation are either aboriginal assimilation into Canadian society or independence from the Canadian state.

To understand where this pessimism comes from, all one has to do is look at what is supposed to be the bedrock of the aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships in this country: the treaty relationship. History has shown that Canada has simply been unable or unwilling to respect the aboriginal view of what these treaties are supposed to accomplish. For the Crown, historical and modern treaties are supposed to represent the full and final settlement of all outstanding issues with aboriginal peoples. Period. For aboriginal communities, however, treaties with the Crown are supposed to be akin to the beginning of a marriage where the spouses agree to live together, but also recognize they must constantly work on and redefine their marriage as time and circumstances change. It is this fundamental difference in worldviews that breeds conflict, mistrust, and the paths of assimilation and independence.

Yet this can’t and shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is a solution, but it requires Canadian citizens and leaders to remember and draw upon our frequently forgotten civic identity and political heritage

Read more. 

Reviewing Journal Manuscripts: Some Thoughts

Earlier this week, I received an email from the editors of Political Research Quarterly that I was one of the recipients of the 2014 PRQ Outstanding Reviewer Award. Odd, right? But I must admit it was also somewhat gratifying. Reviewing manuscripts is often a thankless task and doing a good job rarely produces any tangible benefit to the reviewer.  So the award, from a large and well-respected political science journal, was actually kind of nice.

The first thing I did after receiving the email, of course, was to pull up the reviews I did for PRQ last year.  According to my records, I seem to have only reviewed one manuscript (twice) for the journal, but the review was typical of how I do them now.  At the core of all of my reviews is to start from a position of respect for the author(s) of the manuscript.  Why respect? Because these authors probably spent months and months on this papers and it would be disingenuous of me to believe that I have some sort of absolute authority or expertise on the topic.  Also, if we keep the idea of respect front and centre when we review papers, no matter their level of development, then everyone will be happy and the peer review process, wait for it, may actually work to everyone’s advantage! Continue reading

So, what are some things I keep in mind when I review manuscripts?

1) Always respect what the authors are trying to do and never read the manuscript in terms of what you wished they had done.  You aren’t a co-author!  As long as the authors make the case that the paper makes a contribution in some form, then the task of the reviewer is to assess whether they are successful in making that contribution.  So once I make a decision on whether the paper’s question and answers are a contribution (which is almost always the case), given the journal, I usually focus all of my time on assessing the rigour of the paper (e.g. concepts/theory/methods/data and analysis/conclusions).

2) Subdivided your comments and suggestions into two categories: absolutely necessary changes and changes that would be nice, but are purely optional. Again, I try to respect the fact that this isn’t my paper and I haven’t been working on it for months and months.  And so I try to identify some things that are clearly necessary to ensuring the paper meets the standards of the journal, then I provide some other things that might be helpful, but perhaps aren’t necessary for defending the basic arguments and contribution of the paper.  I always tell the authors which suggestions are necessary for my support, and which suggestions are purely optional and can be dismissed if they provide some convincing reasons.

3) Turn around reviews within a week or two.  Without exception, we all hate waiting on reviews. Everyone I know complains about long delays from reviewers and journals.  Yet delays are the norm!  I don’t get it. Again, respect that publications matter for careers, for future research and for public policy development.  So get off your butt and carve out an afternoon or two to review that paper that has been sitting in your inbox.  Respect your colleague’s careers and the amount of time they put into the paper and turn around your reviews asap so they can make revisions or send the paper to another journal.

I would say those are the big three things I try to do. The other thing I do is communicate with editors when I know or can pretty much guess who the authors of the paper are.  Our discipline and subfields are pretty small and I think it’s important we declare any possible conflicts of interests to the journal editors.  Let the editors decide and make assessments of manuscripts and referee reports with full information. That includes letting them know that you reviewed a paper previously for another journal!

“Albertans Have Spoken!” or Maybe Not: The Curious Coverage of Danielle Smith

Earlier this week, Danielle Smith failed to win the PC nomination in her riding and the knives were out.  Some commentators and politicians mentioned how “Albertans have spoken” or how “Albertans” didn’t like her floor-crossing behaviour and punished her accordingly. Continue reading

There are a lot of angles to this story but one that hasn’t been corrected is this fallacy that Albertans passed judgement on Smith.  Albertans didn’t judge Smith.  It was the PC members of Highwood who did that. To say that Albertans didn’t like Smith’s decision and so Albertans punished her by supporting Carrie Fisher is a little disingenuous.

A better test of Albertan views about Smith would have been if she had won the PC nomination but lost her seat in the upcoming general election. Unfortunately, we won’t get a chance to see how that test would have played out.


Forget Robert Munsch, kindergartners need skills training

Published Mar. 21, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it would be asking employers and industry groups to participate in a process designed to transform how universities are funded and operated in Ontario.

In many ways, this announcement is unsurprising in that it is simply the latest development in a long-term trend toward pushing universities to become places that focus more strongly on training students to meet the needs of the Canadian economy.

Universities, according to this vision, need to become sophisticated versions of community colleges, providing students with high-end skills and training to meet the current and future demands of the marketplace.

Predictably, this recent announcement has generated considerable opposition and disgust among my academic colleagues. I, on the other hand, applaud the government for taking this bold and visionary stance in provincial education policy.

Read more…