By: Connor Mycroft
Connor: Which Department do you work at?
Peter: I’m a full professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science. I started here in July of 2003 and haven’t looked back since.
Connor: Where did your interest in the field begin?
Peter: Oh, I was a political junkie from an early age. What’s interesting is that it didn’t come from my family since my family were, although political, were not outwardly political in the sense that they didn’t wear their allegiances on their sleeves. So in other words there were no signs on the lawn come election time. There really was no parental influence, nor was there any particular influence from my peers. It struck me in a civics course I took at an early age, probably grade 5 or 6, that this was something I would be interested in. I think the whole issue surrounding Quebec separation and independence, particularly the coming to power of the Parti Québécois under René Léveque in 1976, really piqued my interest in politics. Initially I was interested in domestic politics and eventually I gravitated towards International politics.
Connor: So what is it in particular that you specialize in?
Peter: As an area of expertise I focus particularly Latin America and the Western Hemisphere, or the Americas in general. I chose to do my PhD on Canada’s involvement in Latin America, looking at the Organization of American States, and the development of Canada’s policy towards the Americas. That has developed into a specific interest into Canada-Cuba relations. I’ve visited the region a number of times. It’s a very exciting part of the world and also very politicized. And of course US involvement there was always an interest of mine, especially the way that US intervention has played out there as well as in the rest of the Americas, usually in a negative way.
Connor: What do you think you do best in terms of facilitating student learning and engagement in your classroom?
Peter: Well I wouldn’t consider myself a great teacher. It’s something I need to work very hard at, although some people call me a natural. To me it’s a difficult job, it’s a challenging job in how to connect with the students. You can try to emulate other professors you’ve had in your career as a student yourself, but usually that fails miserably. The key is to develop your own personal style and fine tune that. But I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I’m still fine tuning. I think that’s important. One of the things you have to do as a teacher is to constantly reassess your performance, your ability to connect to the students, and to impart knowledge and information about the subject matter. I think you constantly have to reevaluate yourself as a teacher after each class, month, term, and year. That’s the only way you’re going to get better, but you have to want to get better. You have to be committed to it. You have to make sure its an important part of what you are as a scholar.
What I try to do, and what I find is natural in me, is that when I teach it’s not about the statistics, the numbers, or the historical events. It’s about the people. When I teach I make a point of teaching about how these decisions, developments, policy choices, or crises have impacted directly on the people themselves, and I think it’s important to make that connection. I don’t talk about these issues as if they are abstract and not relevant, but that these types of decisions can have very profound implications on individuals. You need to understand that impact so that we can prevent it from happening again and to make better policy moving forward.
So that’s one component, and the other component is that I try and make the material relevant to what’s happening today. Things that students are familiar with. You talk about the current events to try and understand those, but also use the material you’ve already talked about to provide a basis so that you can shed light on a deeper understanding of those issues today. You can’t really understand complex issues by just diving into them. You need to understand the history and the context, the foundation that was there before. Once you are provided with those tools it enables you to have a deeper understanding and learn in a much more deeper way of the subject matter.
So as a teacher you are trying to get students interested, excited, impassioned, and inspired. You can’t do that every day, and you would be a fool to think you can. But you need a few days like that, where you can see it in the eyes of the students. That’s why I’m not a gadget person. I’m not a Power Point person. I need to be able to see how the students are reacting, how their responding, and see if they are making that connection. I prefer that interaction. That’s why I like the seminar style courses. They can be challenging when you don’t get the participation you hope for but when you do it’s really rewarding. I think we can all learn from each other.
Ultimately a good teacher has to be someone who cares. If you don’t care about the material or about the students you’re in the wrong profession.
Connor: Touching on what you said about computers and digital technologies, how do you see the rise in digital technologies affecting student engagement in the classroom
Peter: Well that’s a big question, and I’m not sure I’m the best one to answer it because frankly, I’m old school.
I’d say there’s two things. First is the nuisance factor. That is, the interruption with people using their online and interactive devices. To me that’s a problem, and I try to make my classes non-electronic devices zones because I don’t think it adds anything to the class. I’m not denying there aren’t things there that could be tapped into. There’s obviously things like work, assignments, and reading materials that students can access online, but as someone who is old-school, I’ve been doing this for 25 years after all, I’m more of a book person. I know some of those are available online but I still like the age-old approach of reading the book, taking notes, writing down the notes, then absorbing the material through the notes. Even today when I write my books and journals I write them out longhand first. Good writing is really just good re-writing, and seeing it on the paper enables me to compose a much stronger sentence, and a better paragraph and then a better page and a better book.
I don’t want to sound like I’m a dinosaur when it comes to social media and how it can be implemented into the curriculum, but let me say one other point. I understand that attraction and the immediacy of them, and perhaps if I was starting out as a junior member of a department then I would try to incorporate that a bit more into my courses.
Another thing I’m not a huge fan of is online courses. I think there are very serious issues with them. They are done through a process where you basically have no personal interaction with your professors. I know they those are an attractive item for students, but I’m not sure about the educational value of those course. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are better than others, but I still think that the best learning environment is in the classroom, where you not only can take full advantage from the instructor but also learn from other people’s comments, interjections, and revelations around the table. If you’re a university that’s putting more and more emphasis on international students, then bringing that component into the classroom only enhances the importance of that environment as a learning vehicle. You get to learn how people from other countries, other parts of the world, actually see different issues and challenges and letting you listen and learn from them.
So you know, I see the value of social media and electronic devices. I think there are problems and shortcomings with them, but if you think carefully about it there are probably ways of jazzing up a program, if that’s what your into, to reach a larger audience and engage students a little bit more through social media. But I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak. I still think that tried and true approach of teaching in the classroom is the better approach.
Connor: Is there anything you are currently working on?
Peter: Well I consider myself to be a public intellectual so I do a lot of freelance writing for various newspapers such as The Charlottetown Guardian, the Ottawa Citizen, The Winnipeg Free Press, the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and others. So I’m constantly writing on current events. This week, for example, I wrote about the vice presidential debates in the United States and a piece on the current Liberal government’s apparent neglect of the Atlantic Provinces, which they shouldn’t do considering they got all 32 seats in the region. Similar events happened in 1997 under a Liberal Government, and during the election that year they lost 20 seats, so they ought to be careful.
But that’s from the lower end. From an academic standpoint I am currently working on a new book project. I have a contract with the University of Toronto Press for a book that’s looking at an assessment of Stephen Harper’s foreign Policy. It’s an edited collection, so I’ve contacted a number of experts across the country to contribute chapters on various aspects of Stephen Harper’s approach to foreign policy. For example his approach to Africa, Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, his policies in the Arctic, multilateralism in the United Nations. So there’s a number of things.
This past summer I wrote a chapter about the view from inside the Department of Global Affairs. I spent almost three months interviewing current and former Canadian diplomats and members of the foreign service, asking them about their thoughts on Stephen Harper, his approach to foreign policy, and how his ministers of foreign affairs performed. I incorporated their feedback into the chapter. This particular chapter will be one of the two opening chapters, to set the stage for the rest of the book by getting the view from inside Fort Pearson in Ottawa.
I gotta say it was a very negative view of the Harper Government, so it looked like a number of these people were unburdening themselves. There was a lot of anger there with how they were treated by Stephen Harper, his officials, and officials in John Baird’s office, for instance. And I think there was a lot of interference from a staffing perspective that really rubbed a lot of these diplomats the wrong way. It all made for a very interesting chapter and really opened my eyes to the roles of diplomats, their functions, the roles of public servants, and the roles of staffers in the minister’s office. And so to me it was really eye-opening and really interesting.
I think it has something really important to say.