Tag Archives: University of Toronto Press

  • My Odd Case of Writer’s Block, Or, How I Spent Six Months Writing One Paragraph

    Sharing the Past is an unprecedentedly detailed account of the intertwining discourses of Canadian history and creative literature. In this post, author of the book J.A. Weingarten discusses his own personal experience with writer's block, and why it took him the best part of six months to complete his book.


    By J.A Weingarten

    By Fall 2016, I had finished nearly all of the writing for my recently released book, Sharing the Past. One thing remained: I had to complete a paragraph that I’d been agonizing over for nearly six months. It was a deceptively simple statement: I needed only to admit to my reader that I didn’t know everything. Let me explain.

    The primary point of Sharing the Past is to show that creative writers – freer and typically more willing than academics to write experimental and deeply personal histories – have found the means to write histories that are (as I say in the book) both “intellectual” (based on factual events and sources) and “felt” (made emotionally powerful by the sharing of intimate, often familial, connections to those events). David Zieroth writes about his grandfather’s experience in Canadian internment camps, Louise Halfe writes about the devastation wrought by residential schools on her family, and Andrew Suknaski writes about the struggle his family faced as it joined the massive waves of Eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. The stories are big and small: focused on large historical events, but seen through the affective lens of a familial experience. Many readers have connected to these “big and small” histories in ways that they have not connected to the scholarship of conventional historians focused on “big picture” stories (e.g. tales of the political elite, memorable policy, large-scale events). I make that distinction with greater care and context in my book, but, for now, let that basic contrast suffice.

    One thing many of the writers in my book have in common is that their personal approach to history compels them to acknowledge, in one way or another, that their histories are, by virtue of their subjectivity, open to corrections and/or expansions. “My family’s story,” these writers often seem to say, “is just one of many possible perspectives on history.” In other words, no one can really claim to know everything about the past. It is brave to write as passionately as creative writers do about history and then to acknowledge, simultaneously, one’s limited ability to write the past fully and accurately. There are, I say throughout the book, so many ways to tell a story, and each author I discuss acknowledges that plurality of approaches.

    So here was my conundrum in Fall 2016. I was writing a scholarly history of history infused with my own feelings and beliefs, and so it became clear that I was trapping myself in a corner: I was praising authors in my study for their candid admissions that their knowledge about history has limits, but I was not sharing with my reader that same humility. The issue became more complicated as I began to write about experiences far removed from my own: I was writing about leading Canadian authors of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier and about Indigenous authors publishing since the 1980s like Louise Halfe and Joan Crate. The broader the reach of my book (eras, cultures, figures, et cetera), the more I felt it was necessary to say something about my own limits as a scholar. I began to feel hypocritical because of my omission. Every one of my authors happily celebrated that they could not know everything about the past … why was it so hard for me to write a paragraph that said something so obviously true of my own historical writing? Of course I don’t know everything! Of course my book is open to correction! Of course more could be said than I say! So why couldn’t I just say that?

    The cover of Peter Steven's Family Feelings & Other Poems makes an implied connection between photography and family.

    It took me six months to find the words. And during those six months, I thought incessantly about my odd case of writer’s block. I gradually found some clarity … partly by rereading the poetry on which my study focuses and partly by reading eye-opening scholarship that unpacks questions about different systems of knowledge in and outside of Canada (I was especially influenced, for instance, by Deanna Reder and Linda Morra’s Learn, Teach, Challenge).

    Here is what I realized by Fall 2016: as a young scholar I felt I needed, at all times, to wear a veil of certainty. Whether I put that pressure on myself or whether it was put on me by others (or both) I do not know. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist (flashback: my first day of kindergarten, trying desperately to cut a perfect circle, and looking angrily, crying and disappointed, at the splintery oval I’d cut out of construction paper). Having the answers – as many of them as possible – seemed important during my time as a student, both before and during grad school. It was my own failing that I came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that having answers was the key to earning respect for my writing. Perhaps that was something deep-seated that had grown unchecked over the years, fed by the uncertainty, stress, and confusion of pursuing a grad degree.

    The end result was, in my early 30s and finishing my first book, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of claiming expertise and then admitting, in the same breath, that I was fully capable of being wrong. That admission became something over which I obsessed. The time I shared with that one paragraph was no longer just about finishing my book; it was about taking a step forward as a writer, professor, friend, son, husband – now a father – and all-around human being.

    Those six months spent writing one paragraph changed my relationship to my book. They changed my relationship to my knowledge and self. I look back at the process of writing Sharing the Past and, as proud as I am of the book, I think of it now as a learning process for me. Not a crowning achievement, but the process through which I learned (with the help of poets, novelists, and scholars) to speak more honestly about my writing and learning. That paragraph entered the text without anyone ever realizing (minus those reading this blog) how much time went into it or how significant it was for me to write it. It surreptitiously snuck in line, joining the row of paragraphs ahead and behind it, the way I used to bud into the movie theatre line as a kid. It blends in unnoticed. Just another example of many things I wrote and will write.

    The paragraph, for those interested, has been reproduced below:

    “When I began this book about ten years ago, it had not occurred to me – at least not with the same force it now does – that every scholar, including myself, has limits to and gaps in their knowledge. I draw attention to this point because Indigenous scholars have often outlined the danger of holding firmly onto knowledge without questioning or recognizing one’s own position. While writing this book, a colleague had advised me to emphasize my expertise over my openness to correction, but I felt then – as I do now – that such an addition would be disingenuous in a study so concerned with the value and limits of individual knowledge. Intelligence, like compassion, is not achieved through assertions, but rather by making a genuine effort to reach a deeper understanding of a time, place, or perspective. While it may be necessary in a scholarly study to assert expertise, it seems equally important to acknowledge that a persistent problem in settler-authored studies is the deployment of uncontested, imperialistic interpretations. It would be irresponsible to pretend that I, as a third-generation Canadian and as a scholar entrenched in settler traditions of language and literature, could fully step back from those personal and academic positions. Hence, my discussion here – informed by years of research, interviews, and thought – will still surely invite expansion and possibly correction. Those outcomes seem to me ideal, because my critical efforts in this chapter, and in this book, are determined encouragements of further conversations, not assertions of rigid conclusions.” (Sharing the Past, page 205)


    J.A. Weingarten is a professor in the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College.

  • Interrogating the Concept of Categories - an Interview with Lochlann Jain

    Stanford University anthropologist and artist, Lochlann Jain, speaks with Anne Brackenbury (former editor at University of Toronto Press who launched the ethnoGRAPHIC Series) to talk about Jain’s new book, Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity.

    This debut work of graphic non-fiction offers an opportunity to interrogate the concept of categories using text and image. Jain, a biracial, non-binary, interdisciplinary academic, is used to transgressing boundaries and this book offers a highly original way in which to understand the limits of categories while making visible the things that often get lost between. With over 50 works of original art, each based on fictional categories, and four interpretative essays, the book doesn’t just tell, it shows, in witty and sometimes profound ways, how we make sense of the world around us.


    AB: Thanks for sitting down to talk with me. I have been excited about your artwork since you first showed it to me a number of years ago. And I’m thrilled that it will now be available in book form for more people to discover.

    One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it is both a conceptual/philosophical exploration, but also seems to have real relevance for the world around us and the times we are currently living through. Who do you think will be drawn (sorry for the pun) to this book and how does it arm them for challenging (or dealing with) the world around them?

    LJ: Speaking of goofy puns, the funny thing about this book is that it started as just a joke, really. I was in a faculty meeting doodling; the doodle became my colleague’s nose, and then a bunch of different kinds of noses emerged from my pen, which I put under a heading, “kinds of noses.” Right away with that first collection (my sister’s nose, the nose of wine, a porcine nose, etc.) an implicit set of questions arose: what noses know what, how do we distinguish and recognize noses, who gets to do the recognizing, and so on. It was nearly accidental that I drew the nose – and yet noses turn out to be so rich with meaning. Who knew noses were so political? At the time, drawing offered some solace during an unhappy period. I continued with that series among my other drawings, and over the years I drew over 100 of the Things That collection.

    Things That Art both locates and creates frictions in the elements of the drawings: word, illustration, and collection. The goal is to undermine some of the expectations set up by the familiar forms that it builds on – that is, primarily the form of flashcard (word and illustration) and then the museum or zoo (curated collection of similar/related things). Many of the drawings use these elements to create little paradoxes and gaps where not everything matches up. The conceit of the project is that these gaps can shine a light on, and thus get an audience to think with me, about how categories work, and our assumptions about what belongs together and why/how. For example, how is money as a form of the representation of value (and state power) similar to lipstick as a form of representation and value (and gendered relations)? What kind of world/imagination makes these similar?

    I found the form of the word/image/collection generative in that it could push a fundamentally poetic project (making connections and leaps among meaning, sound, and the shapes of letters and words) into a visual mode. Things That Art investigates the registers and grammars of naming and abstracting in relation to each other, sometimes in arbitrary ways. The conceptual leaps thus make intuitive before rational sense and can create possibilities for knowing otherwise, disturbing fixed identities, and lateral thinking. At least that’s the aspiration.

    AB: I think this is what I found particularly exciting about this work. It doesn’t really ask: Which of these things don’t belong? Instead, it seems to ask: How are these things similar? That is a shift in the way we think, and therefore act, in the world. It suggests we are not individuals at the centre of life, but relational beings who make sense of the world in the way we relate to other beings/things. And as far as I can tell, that is hugely important for understanding how we might approach contemporary problems from climate change to artificial intelligence.

    LJ: Wow yes, that’s a really great point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. And in truth, I can’t stand those children’s menu games of which doesn’t belong. This game is much more fun: how can we challenge and provoke new kinds of communities?

    AB: So to take an example from the book – you created a collection of images under the label "Sounds like hairspray” which includes things like heresay, heresy, Hemingway, highway, fairway, harpsichord, aerosol, aperol. What prompted you to develop this particular category and how did you come up with these various “things” under this label?

    LJ: I found that sets of categories allowed me to look at things slightly askance, and so I informally cast about between drawings to see if I could access a range of those ways of looking. Sounds like hairspray just popped into my mind one day, as did the populating images and terms as something totally random and yet fully belonging to the collection. (For virtually all the cards I just used the first things that popped to mind, though for a few I asked friends and family for suggestions.) With that category, my curiousity was piqued to think about the reliance of category headings in determining our thinking. Consider for example the ways that gender-crossing has been described in different ways since the 1950s, in part influenced by contemporary and shifting notions of “headings” such as gender, biology, and binaries.

    Thinking through the work of categories, I also played with vectors, such as negatives or playing with the notion, letters, and sound of “thing.” Another line of investigation considers information that is slightly creepy when listed together (things used to test car safety, or historical techniques of treating drowning victims). Another vector ends up presenting pseudo-information, such as, say, things with epi, which plays with linguistic groupings. And so on!

    AB: The drawings in your book are very childlike. They exude a kind of innocence but also that uncensored honesty that children are known for. Was this intended or did it sort of emerge along the way as you started drawing?

    LJ: I have a couple of different ways of thinking about this question. First, there is a way in which abstracted knowledge forms are often presented as “elementary” – zoos and flashcards are for children and animals and illustrations are often presented in this naïve or cartoon style. Graphic charts will often simplify information as if the complexities were just noise. So I mimic this style on purpose. Perhaps an analogy to what I’m trying to do could be seen when “wild” things happen at the zoo that make frenzied parents cover their children’s eyes: the snake eats a live chicken whole, or the giraffe drinks the pee of the other giraffe.

    Second, I drew this over the course of 8-10 years, and so the style of images progressed with it. I redrew most of the early images that I include in the book, but the curious reader will still be able to divine the timeline of the drawings both conceptually and graphically, and I purposely made that part of the project. The idea is definitely, as you say, to present a straight-forward illustrative framing – even misleadingly simplistic. I think that works for what I am aiming toward with the project in terms of using simplified drawings and words to push the conceptual elements of word and image in various representational economies (art, economics, gender, marketing, grammar, charting, etc.). I’m hoping that in this way the reader will be surprised when they experience the darker and more conceptual elements of the project. Still, if I had continued the series I would have been interested in pushing in different ways on the illustrative dimension to see how to challenge that form. This was perhaps a good indication that this project had reached a natural conclusion.

    AB: The use of some more grotesque images and cuss words seems deliberate. Were you wanting to shock the reader or make them laugh or get at something more authentic?

    LJ: I have always been interested in how at base, so many insults are simply meaningless – as a person of half-Indian descent, even though my father disavowed everything Indian except the sweets (which I still love), my sisters and I were occasionally called “Paki.” This could be painful even though (a) not strictly true, and (b) not in fact an insult. When we were kids my best friend used to whisper that “bastard” was the absolute worst thing someone could say. Another virtually meaningless word. And once when a kid named Craig was teasing me about my name, my mother suggested I call him “craggy mountain,” which I did. It infuriated him. These swears and insults indicate how language is both meaningless at one level, and extraordinarily active and effective on another. The collection “Things generally used as insults” aims to open this gap between the innocence of the thing that suddenly finds itself exploited as an insult, the word with its different textures and meanings, and the thing we already know or imagine, which is the person to whom the insult is addressed. The purpose then is not really to shock or to make someone laugh, but to crowbar the gap between word, thing, and meaning in a context where there is already only a tenuous relationship.  These words are so often used as linguistic pellets of exclusion, so I wanted to literally draw the odd-balls back into the equation.

    I was kind of amazed and intrigued to see how this form I’d developed for the initial nose drawing became so useful as an interpretive and experimental device: I sort of loved seeing what would happen as I kept slotting different ideas through the keyhole.

    AB: If you were taking a transatlantic flight, what would you bring with you to read/look at/watch? (Or would you just watch an inflight movie?) 

    LJ: My flights are so boring! Once I get over the initial disappointment of no free upgrade, I use the time to catch up on email, write reviews and reference letters, and catch up on other work. I do like watching in-flight movies though because they tend to be better at altitude. I’ve always thought that and someone recently told me that it’s a real thing.

    AB: Really? What is it about altitude that makes a movie better??

    LJ: Something about being packed in the space with others, the stress, and so on. Maybe the movies aren’t as good in business class because there is more space and fewer people; we’d need to gather some data on that.

    AB: Will you ever write a purely textual book again? Or are you hooked on the image/text relationship for good?

    LJ: I’m currently working on several projects, and I think the projects tell me what genre they are meant to be, in a way. The history of hepatitis B I’m working on would make a great graphic novel. But there are many fascinating details and a complex argument that lends itself to text. I’m also working on a graphic novel (for lack of better word) called My Failed Transition, about the weird and wonderful aspects of a gender non-binary existence. Finally, I’ve been working on a series of drawings related to the history of technology and discovery of air.

    AB: Some people think you can make complex theoretical arguments in the context of a graphic novel but I get that text is sometimes the most appropriate format to work out a theory or argument. Once it is worked out though, a graphic novel of hepatitis B would be wonderful! Don’t rule it out. And a graphic novel on your transition would be more than welcome as well. I assume the graphic novel is a natural fit because of the growing interest in graphic memoir and its ability to capture memory and experience more viscerally?

    LJ: Note the book is on my Failed Transition, that’s a crucial point but I’m not sure why yet. It’s still in process as an idea, but the goal will be to experiment with text and images in new ways and work out the ideas that way. I don’t think graphic memoir is any more visceral than words per se, it’s more about the fit among ideas and author. I will always be a huge proponent and admirer of words and text. In my view it’s tragic that in general people don’t read as much. Many of the social and even academic conversations I used to have about books are now about Netflix.

    AB: So do you think scholarly communication is changing with the growth of the digital humanities, comics, podcasts, games, and other multimodal formats?

    LJ: It’s an exciting time to be an academic in the sense that there are spaces and opportunities to do more innovative and experimental work. When I first started in the academy about 25 years ago, the questions (and answers) were more staid and uninteresting; this wasn’t because  they had to be textual, but because of the self-generated ideas for evaluation which were based less on originality and rigor than on disciplinary canons. Stanford asked me to resign three or four years after I was hired because my colleagues didn’t consider my first book to be anthropological enough, though they had hired me, technically, as an STS scholar and supposedly read the dissertation on which the book was based. Since I was in the middle of cancer treatment and had two small children, I realized in a very deep way how excruciatingly vulnerable scholars are to the judgements and tastes of senior academics and so how beholden we are to try to second-guess what they might want. For those institutional reasons it has been tremendously difficult to open the academy up to new questions and forms of investigation. But I see a change with the current generation of now senior professors more open to seeing and appreciating new kinds of work. Or maybe that’s just the small academic world in which I travel.

    AB:  I think it’s more than just the world in which you travel. I believe the academy is making changes (albeit small changes) as the world around it changes. Things That Art is a book about categories that is not easy to categorize. If you were a bookseller and had to file this away in a particular section, which would you choose?

    LJ: I’d probably file it with art books or graphic novels. I think it would appeal to folks who like to look at, and think with, pictures and I’m super excited to see where the popularity of this genre will go – I think there is so much untapped potential to work with word-concept-image that is just now being explored, and I envision that we will come up with a series of new terms that expand the graphic novel category: graphic biography, philosophy, memoir, etc.

    AB: Yes there are many different genres emerging with forms like graphic medicine, graphic journalism, and of course, graphic memoir, but I like the way Things That Art charts its own space in that growing field as a graphic philosophy of sorts that uses the medium in a highly original way to show and tell how we sort information, thoughts, and concepts.  

    So who do you see as the audience for this book? Scholars? Artists? Students? The general public?

    LJ: Which categories of people will like the book? I sense a new card to be drawn!!

    But seriously, one of the things I appreciate about the project now that it has been put together as a collection, is that I keep finding new ways into it, and it keeps surprising me. I’ve been thinking for example about how the range of representation works across the collection: charts, maps, graphics, dollar bills, diagrams, etc. … how do things that are already representations of things operate as things? I discuss some of that in my essay, but there is more there to mine. So I guess the point is that I can still entertain myself with my little paper mates, and the ability to self-entertain is a crucial part of living a happy life.

    AB: Thanks for speaking with me. I’m excited to see how people respond to Things That Art. And I’m excited to see where your interest in art/visual formats and your scholarly research go in the future.

    LJ: It has been great!! Thank you for all you have done to spearhead new work thinking across genres.


    Lochlann Jain is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University and a professor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London.

    Want to learn more from Things That Art?

    • Purchase your copy of the book.
    • Read an exclusive excerpt from the book.
  • Unpacking the Everyday

    Newly released from UTP, Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition is an innovative text that provides undergraduate students with tools to think sociologically through the lens of everyday life. In this post, the authors explain the book and why they encourage students to turn their social worlds inside out and explore alternatives to the dominant social order.


    By Deborah Brock, Aryn Martin, Rebecca Raby, and Mark P. Thomas.

    Our new book Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition encourages students to explore everyday practices that are familiar and that might, at first glance, seem benign: online shopping, using a credit card, buying a cup of coffee, even taking an online quiz. By “everyday” we mean the practices that are a part of people’s commonplace and taken-for-granted activities. But people’s everyday activities reflect, reproduce, and sometimes challenge a wide range of power relations. In Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition we will encourage you to ask questions about these kinds of practices. We ask how: How are everyday occurrences connected to the social organization of power? How are gender, class, race, citizenship and age shaped and reflected in many such taken-for-granted practices? How are the goods that we are buying produced, and by whom? How do practices such as travelling, shopping, and getting a credit card reflect and reproduce power, even creating our very sense of who we are? We also address the why questions that these examples will no doubt bring to mind: Why are certain patterns of consumption encouraged and facilitated? And who benefits from these patterns?

    For example, even that café latte some cherish as an everyday ritual reflects a geography, history, and economy of power relations. These relations become visible when we begin to study where coffee beans come from, who grows and harvests them, how they come to be ground and sold in drinks, and how they are marketed to the North American consumer. The choice to buy a cup of coffee— including what kind of coffee and where it is bought—is a practice embedded in a global web of power relations. The places we shop, the products we buy, and the websites we visit are all a part of a system of consumption that links us to people, places, and things that seem very distant from our own lives.

    We ask students to explore popular culture and mass media to understand how they are permeated with power relations: selling certain kinds of images, promoting individualized self-improvement, cultivating desires that support a consumer culture, and through these practices, reproducing power relations of race, gender, heterosexuality, ability, and a narrow concept of beauty. How are we pressured to try to shape ourselves to better fit a presumed ideal?

    The chapters in this textbook address the diverse power relations embedded in such everyday objects and practices. They complicate objects and practices that many of us take for granted and offer new, sometimes unsettling ways of thinking about them. They illustrate how a cup of coffee is never just a cup of coffee and why a quiz is never just a quiz. When we begin to examine everyday objects and practices in this way, we also begin a process of “unpacking the centre.”

    Most sociological textbooks do not directly investigate what we will refer to here as the centre. It is much more common for them to analyze social deviance through the lens of the normative social order, or to focus on what happens to people who exist at the margins: the racialized, the colonized, the so-called sexual “minorities,” the poor, and so on. Some scholars have instead focused on studying the centre in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how power relations are organized. They “unpack” the centre—just like taking apart a piece of mechanical equipment—in order to find out how it works. To focus almost exclusively on the deviant or the marginalized without interrogating the centre is to risk reproducing a pattern that defines the margins as the location of the problem.

    For example, we think it imperative to conduct sociological research on same-gender sexuality in order to document the forms of systemic and attitudinal inequality that marginalize people because of their sexual desires and practices. However, when scholars focus on same-gender sexuality while ignoring the social construction of heterosexuality, we continue to name same-gender attraction, including being gay, lesbian or bisexual as, in effect, the problem for sociological inquiry, even though our objective may be to explain why these forms of sexuality should not be considered a problem. Heterosexuality is able to maintain its privileged position as the normal and natural form of sexual expression.  The binary two-gender system is another way in which our relation to ourselves and others is normatively, and narrowly, organized. Yet this system de-legitimates or erases a vast array of possibilities for living one’s life. Why the insistence that there are only two genders, when they limit possibilities for so many of us, and substantial numbers of people refuse to be contained by them?  Whiteness is another social characteristic that occupies the centre. Academic and public accounts of racism commonly focus on the impact of racism on people of colour, and ignore the social construction of whiteness and the relations of power and privilege connected to whiteness. The social organization of whiteness, however, is an important part of practices of racialization and the problems of racism. Racism is also perpetuated when those who occupy the centre fail to acknowledge systematic historic and current racial and cultural ideas and practices that are deeply connected to colonialism and the marginalization of Indigenous peoples.

    This approach to studying the social organization of everyday objects and practices draws attention to what sociologists have long referred to as patterns of social inequality. We are interested in power primarily because of the ways it produces and sustains inequalities between social groups. We do not, however, simply focus on patterns of social inequality as the outcome of power. While themes of inequality are certainly present in the chapters in this book, our approach seeks to understand the social organization of dominant power relations in terms of the ways in which these power relations shape both broad patterns of inequality and everyday experiences. In other words, we do not simply aim to document different levels of socioeconomic status, as stratification theorists often do (Aronowitz 2003); rather, we are interested in the social relations that produce and reproduce the “normal,” the dominant, and the “centre.” This means our analysis focuses on understanding relationships between social processes, social groups, and individuals as they live their daily lives.

    To unpack the centre is to explore the taken for granted features of dominant forms of social organization. It is the most difficult to see that a centre exists when you occupy it— for example, when you are white, heterosexual, a citizen, or someone with an ample secure income. It is not so difficult when you are an Indigenous person, a non-citizen, do not identify as straight, are racialized, or are in some way minoritized. We want you to become particularly aware of the ways in which centuries of colonization have placed the descendants of colonizers in a position of assumed ownership of the homelands of Indigenous peoples, for which they typically never ceded title. Finally, the experiences of migrant workers reveal how citizenship and national belonging are part of the centre, even while they might wish such acceptance for themselves. In Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition we aim to show how these active and ongoing social processes are integral to everyday life.


    Want to learn more from Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition?

    • Purchase your copy of the book.
    • Read an exclusive chapter.
    • Email us at requests@utorontopress.com to request exam or desk copies of this or any other UTP title. Please be sure to include the course name and number, start date, and estimated enrollment.

    Deborah Brock is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at York University.

    Aryn Martin is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at York University.

    Rebecca Raby is a professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University.

    Mark P. Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at York University.

  • Canada at the Polls 2019: A New Mandate?

    With the Canadian federal election coming up in October, our forthcoming political science title is certainly well-timed. Set to publish this August, Absent Mandate develops the crucial concept of policy mandates – distinguished from other interpretations of election outcomes – and addresses the disconnect between election issues and government actions. In this post, the authors discuss the upcoming election: what we can expect to see? Has anything really changed since elections back in 1965? And are Canadian electoral politics now following a new, or even unfamiliar, path?


    By Harold D. Clarke, Jane Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc, and Jon H. Pammett

    The 2019 federal election will soon be upon us. The period leading up to the vote has seen the current government lagging in the polls, but there has also been no clarity as to the public’s preference for the alternatives. Negative campaigning is already well underway, and polls reveal a considerable amount of public discontent with the political process in general. Big issues, like environmental protection, the energy supply, the state of the economy, and national unity are the subjects of media commentary. The party leaders have been unveiling policy announcements keyed to their forthcoming campaigns, and trying to showcase their strengths at dealing with today’s problems.

    Does anything in these patterns suggest that Canadian electoral politics is following a new road or even an unfamiliar path? Not really, as we show in our new book, Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections.

    This book has its roots in several previous books bearing similar titles that we published more than twenty years ago. Those books addressed two key questions that have always engaged students of elections and voting, namely “how do voters decide?” and “what decides elections?” The national election studies since 1965 that have provided the data for our analyses consistently reveal that Canadian voters hold flexible partisan attachments, that election campaigns are often volatile, that the bases of party support are weak and unstable over time, and that public discontent with politics and politicians is high. We documented these patterns since then, as have numerous other scholars.

    The Absent Mandate books, however, introduced a third question that was less common than those associated with voting behaviour and election outcomes. That question – “what do elections decide?” – spoke to the linkages between elections and public policy, thus addressing one of the key issues of democratic governance and its normative foundations. If the electoral process, as it generally unfolds in Canadian federal politics, does not produce a mandate for the subsequent direction of public policy, then what can we reasonably expect elections to accomplish beyond a rearrangement of the actors?

    The third of the Absent Mandate volumes, published in 1996 and subtitled Canadian Electoral Politics in an Era of Restructuring, concluded that despite all of the political and economic changes that had taken place in the federation during the first half of the 1990s, there were substantial continuities with the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, including the absence of policy mandates. Among those continuities was the widespread feeling that parties could not be trusted to offer real choices among policy alternatives in elections. Indeed, by the 1990s, all parties had accepted the broad outlines of a neoliberal policy agenda. They framed policy discussions around issues on which there was substantial agreement, and focused their campaigns on the attributes of the party leaders, promising better performance in government as they shaped their appeals to the electorate.

    Indeed, a two-way process of learning was underway throughout these decades, sustaining what we have labelled the brokerage mould. Parties had learned that their electoral coalitions are fragile creations that require constant renewal, and voters had learned that elections are vehicles for the expression of discontent with few consequences for substantive policy change. The electoral system has also played a role in this process because it limits the choices available to voters to the candidates in a single constituency. Turnout in federal elections began a steep decline in 1993, partly for these reasons but also reflecting generational changes.

    The first two decades of the twenty-first century saw many changes – in the party system, in styles of leadership, in the social and economic issues confronting Canada, and in the technology of election campaigns, to mention only a few. The reunification of the Conservative party under the leadership of Stephen Harper in 2003 ended a period of party fragmentation on the right and positioned the Conservatives to return to power with a minority government in 2006. Harper seemed to be a different type of conservative – coming from the West, more ideologically driven, and (according to some) harbouring a “hidden agenda.” Yet, even under a leader such as Harper, electoral politics continued to operate within a brokerage mould. The Harper years, including a majority government in 2011, failed to deliver the type of sea change in federal politics that many had expected. Following the Conservatives’ defeat in the 2015 federal election by the resurgent Liberals led by Justin Trudeau, an observer could easily conclude that the political landscape looked increasingly familiar. The “two-and-a-half” federal party system, long described as the norm in older Canadian political science textbooks, seemed to have reappeared. Indeed, a simple macro comparison between the year of the first Canadian Election Study and the 2015 outcome documents remarkable similarities.

    Party vote percentages, 2015 and 1965
    2015 1965
    Liberal 39.5% 40.2%
    Conservative 31.9% 32.4%
    NDP 19.7% 17.9%
    Other 9.1% 9.5%

    Of course, some things are different. Election campaigns, building on new technologies and social media, can increasingly channel the negative feelings of voters, as “attack ads” have become a staple of partisan politics. Yet leaders, and their strengths and weaknesses, remain the focus of much political debate, and parties’ issue agendas are limited to performance appeals such as “growing the economy” or “sustaining health care.” Such valence issues are ones on which there is widespread consensus, and political debate focuses on "how to do the job" and who is most capable of doing it. More specific policy commitments are sometimes offered, but these tend to be small programs targeted to specific groups and co-exist well within the framework of a broad neoliberal policy consensus. All of the parties participate in political marketing utilizing the new technologies available. But these strategies appear remarkably similar to those associated with the brokerage mould that had characterized the earlier periods. If there was a “shift to the right” as some had forecast with the rise of Harper, multiple parties appear to have participated in varying degrees in a movement in that direction. For example, it is telling that all of the current parties support the recently negotiated USMCA, the successor agreement to NAFTA. As we began to write Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections, we were more struck by the continuities that existed in the shape and style of Canadian electoral politics than by the many changes that had taken place over the past two decades.

    Now, with a federal election only a few months away, would we venture to make predictions, based on over 50 years of data and four books on this subject? We know enough about the fundamental elements of Canadian politics to realize that election outcomes are inherently unpredictable. Nonetheless, we can readily predict some things. The forthcoming campaign will be a volatile one. This will be because flexible partisan attachments coupled with widespread discontent facilitate, indeed foster, substantial movement by voters between the parties or movement into or out of the electorate. In each of the last two federal elections (2011 and 2015) there was considerable volatility in the polls over the last few weeks of the campaign. We would also expect to see parties concentrating on one or more valence issues such as the government’s economic performance and environmental protection, as well as efforts to highlight the attributes of party leaders and the shortcomings of their opponents. And given these entrenched characteristics of Canadian electoral politics, we can also predict that any meaningful policy mandate emanating from such a campaign will continue to be absent.


    Want to learn more from Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections?

    • Pre-order your copy of the book.
    • Read an exclusive chapter.
    • Email us at requests@utorontopress.com to request exam or desk copies of this or any other UTP title. Please be sure to include the course name and number, start date, and estimated enrollment.

    Harold D. Clarke is the Ashbel Smith Professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

    Jane Jenson is a professor emerita in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal.

    Lawrence LeDuc is a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

    Jon H. Pammett is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

  • What Students Deserve in a Textbook

    With the recent release of Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology, we asked author Laura Tubelle de González to talk about her new textbook, and her hopes for its use in the classroom. Here, González discusses what inspired her, why she includes her own personal experiences, and how her strategic use of language and graphics will allow students to easily place themselves within the book.


    Excerpt from Chapter 8: Gender and Sexuality in Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology.

    When my daughter, Maya, was very little, I made sure to provide her with all kinds of toys, including those “meant” for boys, like cars, excavation kits, robots, and other toys from the blue aisle. I didn’t want to confine her imagination to those things that North American society deemed appropriate only for girls. One day, I came into her room, and she was playing with a set of little Hot Wheels cars. I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back, feeling smug that she had chosen the cars over her dolls for playtime. Wanting to know more, I asked, “I see you’re playing with your cars. What are you playing?” Expecting to hear something typical for car play, like “car chase” or “car crash,” I was flabbergasted when she replied, “well, this is the daddy car, this is the mama car, and these are the baby cars.” I realized then that there are aspects of gender that are unquestionably intrinsic to each individual. Maya was who she was, no matter what toys I offered her.

    My lower division cultural anthropology courses are full of personal examples, like this one about Maya’s Hot Wheels cars and expectations of gender. I can’t resist telling stories about my first night of fieldwork in Oaxaca when I was served fried grasshoppers, or how deliberating whether or not to buy the most popular (pooping!) baby doll as a holiday gift illustrates the market economy. There are so many ways in which life as a teacher, family member, community member, and citizen highlights anthropological ideas. I believe that the classroom community is made richer when we share our own life examples. My new textbook from UTP, Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology, seeks to create the kind of reading environment that connects author and students in the same way we connect in the classroom.

    The textbook is an adaptation of a four-field general anthropology textbook that I co-authored with my Canadian colleague, Bob Muckle, called Through the Lens of Anthropology, Second Edition. As we wrote, we made an effort to create a text that was engaging and geared toward lower-division students. The book has a special focus on food, sustainability, and language throughout, with pop culture references that students will recognize. We also tried to write a true North American text, that felt relevant to students from both the US and Canada. Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology develops the cultural and linguistic sections into a full semester’s course text with 12 chapters and additional chapter topics, retaining an emphasis on those areas mentioned above.

    When writing Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology, I thought of my own students, and what they deserve in a textbook. First, it’s essential that all students see themselves reflected in the book. For this reason, I put special emphasis on the use of gender-neutral pronouns and inclusion of transgender and non-binary issues throughout, not just confined to the gender and sexuality chapter. My research among gender expansive students in community colleges underscores the importance of inclusion of all genders and sexualities in the classroom and in course material.

    Credit: Karen Rubins/Alpa Shah.

    Secondly, the book makes a special effort to include narratives that are not always emphasized, such as the contributions of Black anthropologists, issues of White privilege, the voices of Canadian First Nations peoples, and others. It is important to me as a teacher and textbook author to enable students to connect to course material in not only logical but also emotional ways. I believe that transformative learning comes from compassion, not only intellectual understanding. Therefore, the book attempts to make these kinds of connections. I deeply appreciate the comment made by my friend and fellow UTP author, Tad McIlwraith, when he said the book “reads like a provocative argument in favour of cultural diversity.”

    Finally, following the lead of editor Anne Brackenbury (who has recently left her position at UTP), the textbook uses comics and graphic panels to help tell the story of anthropology in a visual way. The cover has a preview of that focus, with a wonderful set of images of diverse people from the text by artist Charlotte Hollands, who regularly creates graphic panels for the American Anthropological Association. My students enjoy the way that a graphic story can draw them into a set of ideas in ways that text alone often can’t. For instance, reading about praxis may not be as successful as engaging with a graphic panel on praxis in the context of collaborating with the mermaid community (drawn by Karen Rubins, illustrating the article by Alpa Shah).

    When I mention to people that I teach anthropology, I often hear “that was my favorite class in college!” The way cultural anthropology connects students’ lives to others around the world makes it a potentially transformative course, especially for students thinking about ethnocentrism or cultural relativism for the first time. Engaging in the act of deconstructing our own behavior – questioning our beliefs and behaviors – is a way to make course material real, both in the classroom and in our texts.


    If you want to find out more about Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.

    Laura Tubelle de González is a professor of Anthropology at San Diego Miramar College in Southern California.

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