PhD Pundits

Fall 2015 issue

They’re loud, proud and opinionated. And that’s why we love them.
What would your nightly newscast be like without those colourful commentators who wax poetic on the politics of the day?

You’ve seen them quoted in your daily news, you may have taken one of their influential classes. What drives some of Mount Royal’s Policy Studies and Communications professors to pursue the career path of a pundit and academic? Let’s find out.

Words by Michelle Bodnar
Illustrations by Vance Rodewalt

Politics Matters

It’s a nightmare scenario that happens all the time during family dinners across the nation.

A hapless undergrad sits down with relatives for a meal. The conversation lands on the topic of post-secondary education. The student is asked, inevitably, what they are studying, and there’s barely a pause after the answer of “policy studies” or “communications” before the inescapable query is posed.

 “What can you do with that?”

It’s an uncomfortable — and tough — question to answer. It can be very difficult to conceptualize (and describe) where the wisdom lies in studying abstract fields when some degrees lead directly into well-defined career paths. The vast majority of those taking an education degree become teachers. And those in nursing head into health care positions. But if you’re not planning on becoming a politician, then why take political science and policy studies courses? And if journalism doesn’t strike your fancy, then why take communications?

The answer lies in being able to analyze and articulate a perspective. And, yes, you can make a living at it! During the 2015 provincial and federal elections, three of Mount Royal’s professors were regularly featured as commentators in the news on just about every campaign issue imaginable. The media consistently turned to Duane Bratt, David Taras and Lori Williams to help wade through the rhetoric that accompanies every impending vote, and the trio’s expertise assisted in filtering the murky waters of electioneering to clarify how certain puzzling campaign topics pertain to actual, real life.

Although they may not always agree on all things political, Bratt, Taras and Williams all concur on the importance of pursuing what could be termed a liberal arts degree. Its use lies in the holder’s ability to recognize the relevance of what’s happening around them.

Duane Bratt

Duane Bratt, PhD
chair and professor, department of Policy Studies

Areas of expertise

Alberta provincial politics, international relations, Canadian nuclear policy, Canadian foreign policy

Media factoid

Commented for various publications more than 60 times during the four-week 2015 Alberta provincial election

Interesting details

Received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for his work in coaching lacrosse

What was your first introduction to politics? What planted the seed?

In a Grade 6 class, we held a simulation of the 1979 federal election. We divided ourselves into the three parties of the time and held a mock election. That was what really got the bug going in me. It was a defining experience.

What does policy studies or communication studies mean to you?

I use a couple of analogies, and one is the definition of politics that we use in our first-year course. Really the political process is determining who, what segment of society, gets what. Whether it’s a tax break, some sort of benefit, a sanction … that’s a simple definition that has been around for decades.

Another way to answer that is to say, ‘Imagine that I am a zoologist and I am studying orangutans. I want to study everything there is to know about orangutans … how they eat, how they sleep, what their social behaviour is like, what their mating habits are. Everything that is possible to know about orangutans. But, I do not want to become an orangutan.’

I have a lot of respect for politicians, especially in campaign mode. The decisions that they make in government are very difficult. That’s not an aspiration that I have. I would rather study them and analyze them than be one of them.

How do you open up conversations with your students and make politics relevant to them?

A lot of them see politics as distant and not applied to their daily lives, so I try to apply it back to them.

I ask them, ‘Do you like paying an extra 60 cents on a case of beer? Those things matter.’

What is the value of, or what can you do with a policy studies undergrad degree? Why should people take this program?

I think everyone at university should take at least a first-year political science course, just so you have an understanding of things like responsible government and electoral systems.

That one course would give everyone some citizenship value and the ability to understand public discourse, not as a specialist or expert, but broader than, ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that.’

How do you balance your academic work and your work as a pundit/commentator? 

The last provincial election I wrote a blog about debates, and the conclusion was that most debates don’t matter unless people know who the leaders are. I said, ‘Most debates don’t matter, but I think this one will,’ and I gave evidence of that. So I was able to apply both political punditry and the background of political science in that case. 

That’s why you get interviewed, and I think that’s the value that academics bring.

I have opinions on what is right and what is wrong, but I don’t have partisan opinions, even though I get accused of partisanship at various moments.

David Taras

David Taras, PhD
Ralph Klein chair in media studies, professor, department of Communication Studies

Areas of expertise

Alberta provincial politics, Canadian media policy, new media, communications

Media factoid

Regularly appears on Global TV’s Morning News

Interesting details

Received the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005 and was five-time winner of the University of Calgary Students’ Union Award for Teaching Excellence

Is a graduate of the Legislative Internship Program at Queen’s Park

What was your first introduction to politics? What planted the seed?

Living in Quebec during the October Crisis and the rise of separatism, with riots in the streets and bombs in mail boxes, I understood that you couldn’t take the country for granted. You had to care and you had to be involved. I understood that politics was an inescapable part of the world and could be ignored only at our peril.

My great-grandmother used to sell newspapers at the corner of Peel and Sainte-Catherine in Montreal. We used to say that she was in journalism – at the distribution end. The irony is that I’m now teaching in a communication program.

What does policy studies or communication studies mean to you?

I study the rise of the new media, including Facebook, Netflix and Twitter, and how they are transforming traditional media as well as how we work, learn, entertain ourselves and communicate with others. My principle focus is on how media change — what I call ‘media shock’ — has affected democracy and the challenges that it poses for our public policy.

How do you open up conversations with your students and make politics relevant to them?

My job is easy. Students already understand the importance that media plays in their lives and they are desperate to talk about it. Mention privacy, piracy, Netflix, the news, texting, bullying or how they communicate with each other and the conversation just explodes.

What is the value of, or what can you do with a policy studies undergrad degree? Why should people take this program?

We have a complex relationship with these new instruments of communication. You simply cannot have a top job or be in business without understanding how this world works. Communication is not just about how to send messages. It’s about how the world is changing and the very nature of how we live.

What is great and gratifying about being a knowledge expert in a particular field?

It’s always all about the students for me. Hopefully they have ideas and passions, and they pick up tools they can use to create their own job, or to find a place in an industry. The idea is that they have to position themselves for what may be next. They have to find a horizon. And a good course will provide that horizon.

Why pay attention during elections?

I believe in the values of democracy.  Debate is healthy. Exposure to issues is healthy. Engagement is healthy. A society that doesn’t breathe that air, that closes itself off to new ideas, that avoids real debate, can quickly become a narrow, backward and poorer place. While elections can be ugly and cynical, they can also bring out the best in people.  

Not being involved means that we are leaving decisions about our lives to others.

Lori Williams

Lori Williams, MA
associate professor, department of Policy Studies

Areas of expertise

Political philosophy, law (concentration on human rights and constitutional law), women in politics, Canadian and provincial politics and policy

Media factoid

Sat on the CTV News Calgary election night panel for the 2015 Alberta provincial election

Interesting details

Received a Teaching Excellence Award from the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU) in recognition of dedication to education

What was your first introduction to politics? What planted the seed?

I started my university education in science, but took a philosophy course and thought it was really interesting. Then I was drawn by the practical elements of politics and the fact that you can do philosophy and political science in partnership.

I really enjoyed the research and the critical assessment of ideas. I tried to marry the ideas I found so interesting with something I thought would be practical or marketable.

What does policy studies or communication studies mean to you?

The main questions of life for all of us, I think, centre around things like meaning and purpose, and those questions are at the core of politics and communications.

In my philosophy classes, we engage in these kinds of discussions initially by defining terms. What would make a good life? What would make my life meaningful, or a life worth living?

This leads to thinking about what politics is supposed to be about.

How do you open up conversations with your students and make politics relevant to them?

It’s about making that connection between people’s experiences, interests, concerns, passions and what’s happening politically. 

We experience freedom in very concrete and particular ways. Most people aren’t thinking about political issues or voting on a day-to-day basis, but they are thinking about what they want to order at the fast food joint or the coffee shop, or perhaps whether marijuana should be decriminalized. When we discuss issues they’re passionate about, they do make that connection between their ideas about a good life, and how politics can either get in the way or help.

From then on, instead of talking about this abstract dry, technical analysis, politics is now something they can use to understand what’s important to them and how to promote it.

What is the value of, or what can you do with a policy studies undergrad degree? Why should people take this program?

Good policy should help an organization of whatever sort to run effectively and accomplish its mission. In order to do well at whatever you’re trying to accomplish, it helps to have policies that make it possible for participants in the organization to thrive and make meaningful contributions.

How do you balance your academic work and your work as a pundit/commentator?

I try to focus on what’s important. To me, it’s about bigger issues, and trying to put what might seem irrelevant or petty issues into the broader context. It’s a privilege to be able to weigh in.

Why pay attention during elections?

There’s no better time to communicate what it is you want from a government, no better way to convey what you think is important, than to make that known during an election campaign. Because if it’s known, and it catches on, and all the parties are looking at it and responding to it, there’s never a greater incentive to respond to the demands and concerns of citizens.