Research Renaissance

Dave Bartlett
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MUN's department of political science is boosting its reputation

Part one in a two-part series

There’s been a Renaissance in Memorial University’s department of political science over the last handful of years, and people in the academic world have taken notice.

Several of the young professors who are fairly new to the department are turning out some interesting research about the province’s political landscape and observations from a wider perspective.

Two of the newer members of the faculty, Matthew Kerby and Alex Marland, recently spoke to The Telegram about the department’s renewal and the research underway.

“Very quickly, this department has gotten a reputation across the country as being kind of like the Oscar De La Hoya of political science departments,” Kerby said.

De La Hoya was known as the Golden Boy in boxing circles.

Kerby suggested it’s largely about timing.

“For a good 20 years, there were no political scientists, there were no academics, (being) hired anywhere in Canada,” he said.

“There have been more hires in this department in the last five years than there probably have been in the last 30.”

Kerby said the new faculty were trained by some of the best researchers in the business during their time at various graduate schools.

“We’re bringing a lot of the new techniques that have been introduced in political science over the last 15 or 20 years,” he said.

Marland agrees there’s a buzz in Canada’s academic community about the department.

“The renewal has been very, very positive,” he said.

“By recruiting good people, what’s happening is it’s encouraging other good hires to apply and to be interested (in MUN).”

Graham White teaches political science at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus and is president of the Canadian Political Science Association.

White said MUN has always had a solid political science program, but he agrees the new recruits have given it a shot in the arm.

“When you look at the contingent of new, young people who (research) Canadian politics (at MUN) … every last one of them is really dynamite. They are energetic, their research is interesting, they’re interesting people and they just have really impressive records and great futures,” said White.

The association presents annual awards, including the McMenemy Prize for best academic article published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

Kerby won that award last year. MUN’s Amanda Bittner won it in 2008.

“Two years out of (the last) three (years), these Young Turks at Memorial have carried off quite a prestigious national, academic prize,” said White.

White said if he was building a new political science department, he’d ask MUN how it was able to attract such high-quality professors and researchers.

Being located in Newfoundland and Labrador may have something to do with MUN’s ability to corral such up-and-comers.

“It is a bit of a gold mine (for political research),” said Kerby.

He and Marland recently published a joint paper on the effect radio call-in shows have on politics and public policy, and are working on a followup.

“We’re trying to both quantitatively and qualitatively examine how ‘Open Line’ is used and what impact it has on political life here in the province,” said Kerby, who called the project “very human research.”

He said call-in shows are an important element of the province’s political culture and one way the  province’s political myths are reinforced.

“Now we’re starting to look at what is actually being said on ‘Open Line,’” said Kerby.

That will involve tracking what politicians say on the programs and looking for themes, common expressions used and the purpose of the calls.

They also have an agreement with McGill-Queen’s University Press to edit and publish a book — following the next provincial election — about the state of politics in the province from a number of perspectives.

Several academics from MUN and from outside the province will contribute to the book, which will examine public policy and government institutional functions and compare how this province stacks up to others.

“We’re almost bringing Newfoundland and Labrador into the modern Canadian political science space,” said Kerby.

Marland has recently published papers on how the House of Assembly operates compared to other provincial legislatures, and on Newfoundland and Labrador nationalism under Danny Williams.

Another of Marland’s papers — on the seal hunt and propaganda — is currently being peer reviewed.

The Telegram asked the professors, who are both from the mainland, if it matters that few native Newfoundlanders have taught in MUN’s political science department.

“All that matters is you’re applying a good theoretical framework, and you’re doing, rigorous research,” said Marland.

But he agreed that being from away may lead to a more objective view of local politics.

“If you’re local, you probably carry more imaginary legitimacy than somebody who’s (not from here),” added Kerby.

He said people have challenged him for some of his views because he’s not originally from this province.

Both agree that having a balance of faculty from both inside and outside the province is the best scenario.

“It would be good to be able to work with somebody who had studied (the) history of Newfoundland and just grown up in it and have their own experiences,” said Marland.

Both said MUN has great students, which makes teaching there a pleasure.

And they like the fact that most local politicians are accessible for interviews as part of their research, which isn’t always the case elsewhere.

Despite the academic accolades, Marland said it’s a challenge getting the results of the department’s research out into the public.

“It’s a big problem because the reality is nobody is going to read (our papers),” he said.

Marland said academics often write in a complicated style.

It’s not common for the research to be reported in the local news media.

Marland said sharing their research with students may be the best way to get the research out.

“The students that are here now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now, are going to be out working in high positions and so the reliance is on (the information) trickling down that way,” he said.

Kerby added some students, who have done internships at Confederation Building, have talked about what they learn in their classes with civil servants, who in turn have called Kerby to get more information on his research.

The hiring of these young professors has also led to an evaluation of the courses and programs offered within the political science department.

Starting next year, it will begin offering an undergraduate co-op program, where students will complete work terms as part of their studies.

Students will be placed within the government, media organizations or non-governmental organizations which contribute in some way to public policy.

According to Marland, it’s uncommon for undergrads in  political science to do a co-op program, as only a handful of schools in the country offer them.

Next week: Debunking some of the province’s biggest political myths

Organizations: University of Toronto, White.The association, Canadian Journal New political science department Confederation Building

Geographic location: MUN, Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador Mississauga McGill-Queen

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